Monday, March 28, 2011

Bridge Renaming Ceremony Attracts Hundreds

They honored Michael Valente, Long Beach's only Medal of Honor recipient, at City Hall on March 25.


Ralph Madalena wrote one letter last spring and that was all it took.

Madalena requested the renaming of the Nassau County-owned Long Beach Bridge in honor of his grandfather, World War I veteran Michael Valente, and mailed the letter to County Executive Ed Mangano and County Legislator Denise Ford, as well as other government officials and local veterans groups.

On Friday, less than a year later, Long Beach City Hall played host to the official bridge re-naming ceremony, with hundreds of people packed into the sixth-floor chambers, after the County Legislature last July voted unanimously to rename the bridge to Michael Valente Memorial Bridge.

“Many cultures believe that you never die, so long as you are remembered, and people like my grandfather live on,” said Madalena with his wife, Francesca Capitano, a former Long Beach City Council member, and his daughter, Katherine Madalena, by his side.

Private Valente, an infantryman, rescued his regiment from disaster in France on Sept. 29, 1918, and for his heroic acts he became Long Beach's lone recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor — the highest award for valor given to a member of the U.S. Armed Forces for actions against an enemy force. More than 3,440 medals have been awarded since its inception in 1861.

Friday’s ceremony featured several speakers, including former U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato, Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg and Long Beach City Manager Charles Theofan, as well as Joe Sciame, chairman of Conference of Presidents, David Laskin, author of the book The Long Way Home, which features a passage on Valente, and Stella Grillo from the New York State Order Sons of Italy in America. Everyone from local to national veterans groups to Long Beach students to Valente’s family, who travelled from as far as Florida to California, attended the morning event.

The formal ceremony for the renaming was originally planned for Sept. 29, a date the city council designated Michael Valente Day in Long Beach in 2008. It was postponed to March 25, which is designated Medal of Honor Day nationwide. Ford was instrumental in spearheading and organizing the event.

“He put himself in great danger to save so many,” Ford said about Valente in her opening remarks.

The legislator and other speakers, some of who were friends with Valente, remembered and honored a man whose courageous acts came when his regiment, Company D of the 107th Infantry, was suffering heavy casualties during operations against German forces at the Hindenburg line near Ronssoy, France. Alongside a fellow soldier, Valente rushed forward through intense machine gun fire directly on an enemy nest, killing two gunners and capturing five enemy soldiers.

Discovering another machine gun nest nearby that rained heavy fire on American forces, Valente and his companion charged it, killed the gunner, jumped into the enemy trench, killed two more soldiers and captured 21 others. Valente's actions represent the first penetration of the Hindenburg line, Madalena said.

Nearly 11 years later to the day, on Sept. 27, 1929, President Herbert Hoover decorated Valente, then a retired sergeant, with the medal in Washington. "It's the proudest moment of my life," Valente said, according to a New York Times account dated the day after.

On Friday, Sciame, who chairs an Italian organization, said it was not just a proud day for his fellow Americans of Italian heritage, but also for the children of Long Beach.

“Every time they go over that bridge, they’re going to see the name of a man who … came to this country, worked hard, fought in a war, as many of us have done, but he was a hero. And so, I say Michael Valente was a positive role model who we should emulate, refer to and study him, and let’s get his name in the history books.”

From Italy to France to the Long Beach Boardwalk

Valente emigrated from his native Italy to Ogdensburg, N.Y., in 1915, and three years later he entered Company D of the New York National Guard, which was later incorporated into the 27th Division. In May of 1918, he was deployed to France to fight on the front lines.

After the war, Valente married Margareta Marchello and moved to her hometown, Newark, N.J., before the couple settled in Long Beach around 1919, eventually buying a home on West Walnut Street where they raised three children. Valente was a contractor and real estate agent who built houses in Long Beach, but he eventually gave up the business to work as the city marshal at City Hall.

“When I look back at Michael Valente, I remember this giant of a man,” Weisenberg said about the veteran who stood 6 feet tall with blond hair, blue eyes and a barrel chest. “… He was like a John Wayne, only quiet. He was giving. He was loving. He was a model.”

After Valente retired in 1965, he greeted people at La Serenata, a restaurant at the original Long Beach Library, now the site of Sutton Place on West Park Avenue. Among the local veterans groups, Valente was most active in the VFW Post. He was always active, particularly in his garden, and he rode his bike on the boardwalk regularly right up until his final years. Valente died in 1976 at age 80.

The city named one of its senior apartments, on National Boulevard near City Hall, after Valente, as did the Sons of Italy lodge he attended.

City Manager Charles Theofan asked the audience not to lose sight of the symbolism of a bridge.

“A bridge takes us to another place,” he said. “Let us hope that one day mankind will take us to a better place, where peace between nations will rule the day.”