A small mountain village in Italy. A long-forgotten son, swarmed by adoring crowds, triumphantly returning to his homeland. It may sound like a scene out of one of "The Godfather" films, but it's what actually happened to Robert Morris University President Gregory G. Dell'Omo, Ph.D., when he had to opportunity to visit his family's hometown of Macchiagodena.
At the time, back in 2009, RMU was working on a partnership with the University of Molise in the city of Campobasso, Italy. The key contact during the process was Angelo Iapaolo, the mayor of Macchiagodena, located high in the Apennines Mountains in the Province of Isernia, Region Molise.
After hearing the president's last name, Mayor Iapaolo tells Dell'Omo that his family is actually from his village. Intrigued, Dell'Omo later does some research and discovers the History of Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1664-1920, Vol. 3, which confirms the mayor's claim. As it turns out, Dell'Omo's great-grandfather, Michael Dell'Omo (1840-1896), was a prominent physician in the town. His grandfather, Louis R. Dell'Omo (1882-1965) came to the United States in 1905 at the age of 23 and worked as secretary to the consul general in the Italian Consulate in New York City.
At the beginning of WWI, Louis was instructed to acquire a contract for Italian Army uniforms to be made in the U.S. He ended up finding a young man who rented a room above a store in Red Bank, N.J. Although he only had two or three sewing machines, at the time, Sigmund Eisner was given the contract and ended up becoming a major military manufacturer, and employed many Italian immigrants in the process. If the last name sounds familiar, Sigmund was the grandfather of Michael Eisner, the former CEO of The Walt Disney Company.
Eventually Eisner ends up hiring Louis out of appreciation and places him in charge of all records of production at Sigmund Eisner Co. factories, where he works for the next 50 years. "So basically, my family was responsible for the Eisner fortune," says a smiling Dell'Omo.
After Dell'Omo confirms with Mayor Iapaolo that his family is indeed from Macchiagodena, the mayor tells him that they'd like to invite him to the town for a "little celebration." "It was like something out of the movies," says Dell'Omo.
As his van reaches the top of a winding mountain road, Dell'Omo, along with his wife, Polly; Provost David L. Jamison and his wife, Sue; and Joseph D'Andrea, a retired Moon teacher originally from a town near Macchiagodena, come into the town's center square. And they can't believe their eyes.
"The entire town is there along with the mayor and the head of the province," says Dell'Omo. "I get out of the van and a bunch of little Italian ladies in their long coats all come up to kiss me. There's TV cameras and radio stations…it was really amazing."
Throughout the day, the townsfolk make proclamations in Dell'Omo's honor. Inside the town hall, which is located inside an old cathedral, the Macchiagodena City Council holds a special session and makes him an honorary citizen. After that, they take Dell'Omo to his grandfather's house, which is still owned by his father's cousin as a summer home. The entire group follows along for the tour of the home, which also used to house his great-grandfather's pharmacy. They then present Dell'Omo with a framed photograph of his grandparents that was hanging on the wall.
Following a three-hour lunch, Dell'Omo is greeted by his relatives from all over Italy, who have come in for the celebration, and they shower him with gifts. Next they go to a local school for an assembly with the entire town and all the students and teachers. The students – approximately 50 kids in all – sing John Lennon's "Imagine" in English. "It was unbelievable," says Dell'Omo. "There wasn't a dry eye in the place."
That evening, after a visit to the local café, Dell'Omo and his group are treated to yet another program featuring Italian bag-pipers and a big cake with "Welcome Home Gregorio" written in icing. The next morning, he and Polly are in their hotel room watching TV and every station has Dell'Omo on it. "Polly was like, 'Are you kidding me?'" he says. "It was actually a little embarrassing, all the attention."
At the end of his visit, the provincial archivist presented Dell'Omo with a family tree, tracing his roots all the way back to 1719.
"The extent to which the village went to organize all the events welcoming me home was absolutely unbelievable," says Dell'Omo. "I never anticipated this kind of welcome. It was especially exciting to visit my grandfather's home and see all the family pictures and mementos."
Dell'Omo says he still communicates with many of the relatives he met that day. Since then, he has been back to Macchiagodena one other time to bring his sister, and he says the visit was equally special. "Polly and I will never forget this visit and all it meant to us. My dream is to bring my children and grandchild there in the near future. No matter what they say…you can go home again."