As an American statesman, Leon Panetta has served in various public service roles—Secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA and White House Chief of Staff to name a few. Here he explains how his Italian immigrant parents, and a few other factors, had an everlasting influence on his life.
I’m the son of Italian immigrants who, like millions of others, made their way to the United States in the early 1930s.
My parents, who came from Calabria, Italy. They spoke little English, had less money and few skills. My father was the 13th child in his family, and two of his older brothers had emigrated before him.
When my parents emigrated they settled in Monterey, CA, where they opened a restaurant in the downtown area—Carmelo’s Cafe. My earliest memories are of standing on a chair in the kitchen, washing glasses (there was no dishwasher.) When it came to their own children, my parents were firm believers in child labor.
Memories of Fort Ord
Then World War II broke out. It was an exciting, if anxious, time. Fort Ord, a major Army training center, was in Monterey. Many of the soldiers were Italian-Americans from the East Coast, and my parents would invite them to our house for the holidays. I can still picture some of those young men, and I wonder which of them made it back from the battlefields.
My father opened his restaurant with a fellow immigrant from Calabria, who ran the bar. We were the last taste of civilization for many of the young soldiers from Fort Ord—and a lot of them headed straight to that bar. My mother handled the cash register, and she had a button under the counter to call the MPs if the guys got out of line.
The American Dream
My parents worked hard. They opened the restaurant for breakfast and often stayed there until one or two the next morning. I used to ask them why they came to America, leaving the security and comfort of their families. My father always answered that he believed he could give his children a better life in this country. It’s become a cliché, but for millions of people like my parents, the American Dream was very real.
On the manifest of the ship my parents took to the United States, my father’s occupation was listed as “peasant.” As soon as he got to California, he started working and saving. Then he got a loan to open the restaurant.
It did well, and he was able to buy some rental property in downtown Monterey. When the war ended, he bought a 12-acre farm in Carmel Valley, sold the restaurant, and planted a walnut orchard, which is still productive today.
I have many childhood memories of moving irrigation pipes and working the land with a hoe. We planted peach trees between the walnut trees and then sold the crop at a roadside stand, which I started to run when I was 11.
Harvesting the walnuts was labor-intensive. My father would go around with a pole and hook and shake the branches. My brother and I would be under the tree collecting the nuts in sacks.
Years later, when I was elected to Congress, my Dad said, “You know, you’ve been well trained to go to Washington because you’ve been dodging nuts all your life.”
There have been four great influences in my life, and they are what inspired me to enter public service.
- My parents, with their hard work, sacrifice, giving back, and love for their adopted homeland. They understood that the American Dream is just that—a dream—unless you are willing to work to make it come true.
- My military experience. After I graduated from law school, I went through ROTC and then served two years in the Army during the Vietnam War. I worked in Washington, D.C., in Army intelligence, alongside Americans of all races and classes, on a common mission, with a shared sense of duty and sacrifice.
- Hearing a young president challenge this nation to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” John F. Kennedy’s words had a profound effect on me and led to my belief that public service is a higher calling.
- My faith. I was raised as a Catholic and went to Catholic grammar schools and to the University of Santa Clara, which is a Jesuit school. My faith taught me to care for those less fortunate and to have compassion for all people. It also taught me to be honest and fair and never to compromise my integrity.
All of these factors played a part in one of the defining decisions of my life.