FDU Historical Perspectives: Guest Blog Contribution by Clifford J. Brooks

A recent conversation with Professor Emerita Sister Margherita Marchione, MPF, focused our attention once again on the history of FDU and the accomplishments of its founder, Dr. Peter Sammartino. Sister Margherita was a close friend of Dr. Sammartino and elaborated on some of his endeavors in and outside of the University. Justly proud of his Italian heritage, Dr. Sammartino, after his retirement as FDU chancellor, devoted much of his time to projects involving immigration and the Italian American experience. After a tour of the dilapidated buildings on Ellis Island, Dr. Sammartino formed a committee to resurrect the entire complex as a living monument to the immigrant experience. In spite of political as well as monetary obstacles, his determination made the trip to Ellis Island one of the top tourist attractions of the metro New York area.

Dr. Sammartino never overlooked New Jersey. Working with some of the most famous opera singers and administrators in the area, he was one of the founding forces behind Opera at Florham, a small professional company that took up residence on the Florham campus. While Peter Sammartino focused on opera, his wife Sally became a leader with the Garden State Ballet. Both played a large role in the founding of the William Carlos Williams Arts Center in Rutherford that houses the Sammartino Theater.

The Bicentennial of the United States gave Dr. Sammartino the opportunity to make a valuable scholarly contribution to the history of the founding of our nation. Sister Margherita, a professor of Italian language and literature, enjoys recounting the story of how Dr. Sammartino called her to his office one day and asked her if she knew who Philip Mazzei was. Sister replied that she had no idea. Dr. Sammartino then assigned her to translate and prepare documents for the Bicentennial Commission on a then obscure patriot whose efforts significantly influenced the attainment of American independence. Little did either know that Philip Mazzei, friend of Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other patriots, as well as chief organizer of the Constitutional Society of 1784, would become the rallying point for Italian Americans and their role in the founding of the new nation.

Everything that Peter Sammartino did, he did for students. Free tickets and backstage tours of ballet and opera companies, receptions with visiting dignitaries, telephone calls to personal contacts for professional positions for the newly graduated, the list is endless. He foresaw the development of the two year college as a force in higher education, and served as the President of the Board of Trustees of Walsh Junior College in Morristown on the campus of the Motherhouse of the Pontifical Institute of the Religious Teachers Filippini. It should surprise no one that his collaborator in this venture was Sister Margherita Marchione, a member of the Filippini community since 1935, and the President of Walsh Junior College.

For those interested in learning more about Dr. Sammartino or Sister Margherita, a wealth of information is available in the Sammartino Room on the first floor of the Giovatto Library on the Teaneck campus. Please visit and familiarize yourself with our University’s rich history!

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