Volpe, John Anthony

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Volpe, John Anthony

(b. 8 December 1908 in Wakefield, Massachusetts; d. 11 November 1994 in Salem, Massachusetts), building contractor and politician who founded a highly successful construction business and was elected governor of Massachusetts three times. He also served as secretary of transportation and became the first American of Italian descent to hold the post of ambassador to Italy.

Volpe was the third of seven children and the eldest of five sons of Vito Volpe, an itinerant plasterer, and Filomena Benedetto, a homemaker, both immigrants from the Abruzzi region of Italy. He grew up in Italian neighborhoods in Wakefield and nearby Maiden, Massachusetts, and attended public schools. A good student who was especially proficient in mathematics, Volpe hoped to attend college. However, the death of his father’s business partner forced him into the plastering trade full-time after graduating from Maiden High School in 1926.

Volpe spent two unhappy years working with his father and others before enrolling at Wentworth Institute, a small engineering school in Boston, to study architectural construction. Upon graduating in 1930, he spurned a job offer from Stone and Webster, a large international engineering concern, and signed on with Frankini Brothers, a local construction firm, where his chances for advancement seemed better. He rose from timekeeper to superintendent before the company succumbed to the Great Depression in 1932. After selling clothing and coal door-to-door for a few months, he cashed in a $300 insurance policy, borrowed another $200 from an uncle, and formed a partnership with Fred Grande, a bricklayer. Grande and Volpe began bidding on small construction jobs in March 1933. Their first success was a $1,287 addition to a heating plant in West Lynn, Massachusetts. On 18 June 1934, Volpe married his cousin Giovaninna (“Jennie”) Benedetto, a psychiatric nurse; they had two children.

Volpe became the driving force of the business, finding the work, doing the estimating, and managing operations from an office in his parents’ house. Propelled by his energy and skill (and low overhead), the fledgling company often underbid larger firms and was able to garner a significant share of the public works jobs available in eastern Massachusetts. By 1935 Grande and Volpe were winning lucrative contracts for larger projects—city and town halls and schools—and branching out into other New England states. They secured their first $1 million project in 1939 and subsequently expanded their operations all along the eastern seaboard with contracts for military projects.

In 1942 Volpe, who had become the sole owner, decided to close his company and join the war effort. As a navy lieutenant (junior grade), he trained African American sailors for construction battalions at Camp Peary, Virginia, and interviewed officer candidates for the Civil Engineer Corps in Washington, D.C. Discharged with the rank of lieutenant commander in 1946, he reopened the John A. Volpe construction Company in time to participate in the post war building boom. Although most of the new construction of the period was housing, “monumental” projects of the kind that Volpe specialized in (college buildings, hospitals, and shopping centers) were also in demand. By 1953 he had offices in Washington, D.C, and Rome and assets of well over $1 million.

Having achieved business success and financial security, Volpe embarked upon a public career. An active Republican since the 1930s, he was named a party vice chairman in Massachusetts in 1951 as part of an effort to bring ethnic diversity to leadership positions traditionally dominated by Yankee Protestants. A year later he sought the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor at the state convention but withdrew in favor of a better-known candidate. Appointed the commissioner of public works by Governor Christian A. Herter in 1953, Volpe took over a department that was under constant attack for waste and corruption. He made its operations more businesslike and supervised $260.5 million worth of highway construction without a hint of scandal. In 1956 the U.S. secretary of commerce Sinclair Weeks asked Volpe to take charge of the newly inaugurated $50 billion federal interstate highway program. He declined, but agreed to serve as the interim Federal Highway Administrator for four and one-half months.

In 1958 Volpe’s name surfaced as a possible candidate for governor after the sudden death of George Fingold, the Republican frontrunner, but he did not receive the nomination. Elected president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce that same year, Volpe used the post to speak out on the important issues of government reorganization and taxation and position himself for the next election.

Capitalizing upon reports of malfeasance in the administration of Democrat Foster Furcolo, Volpe ran for governor on an anticorruption platform in 1960. Winning the Republican nomination, he pledged the “restoration of honor and competence” to state government and campaigned on the nonpartisan slogan “Vote the Man” to gain the support of independents and disaffected Democrats. Volpe defeated Joseph D. Ward by more than 138,000 votes even as Democrat John F. Kennedy was winning his home state by a landslide 510,000 votes in the presidential race. Volpe lost his reelection bid to the reform Democrat Endicott Peabody by 5,400 votes in 1962, but won a second term two years later, outpolling Lieutenant Governor Francis X. Bellotti, who had upset Peabody by 23,000 votes in a bitter Democratic primary. In 1966 Volpe won the state’s first constitutionally mandated four-year term, defeating Edward J. McCormack by over 524,000 votes.

As governor, Volpe confronted overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislature. A moderate, he supported progressive policies in the areas of education, housing, mental health, welfare, and civil rights and had only relatively minor disagreements with the Democrats on budgetary matters. Bitter battles, however, were fought over the issues Volpe had exploited successfully in his election victories in 1960 and 1964. His first term (1961–1963) efforts to reorganize departments plagued by scandal and inefficiency were stymied by his partisan opponents. It was only after more evidence of maladministration came to light that the Democrats acquiesced to a Volpe proposal establishing a citizens’ crime commission to investigate corrupt practices at the state and local levels in 1962. The commission, composed of six nonpoliticians, generated evidence that led to the indictment of a number of prominent officeholders. The anticorruption skirmish proved relatively tame in comparison to the struggle over the sales tax in his second term (1965–1967). Seeking to avert a financial crisis, Volpe proposed a 3 percent retail sales tax on selected goods to bring in needed revenue for state services and to provide property tax relief for cities and towns. Democratic leaders, who opposed the tax as regressive, defeated six versions of Volpe’s bill before the persistent governor prevailed on his seventh try in March 1966. In November of that year his position was affirmed in a referendum vote by a five-to-one margin.

After his impressive reelection victory in 1966, Volpe waged a modest campaign to win a place on the Republican national ticket. At the 1968 Republican National Convention, he was seriously considered as a running mate for presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon, but Nixon and his advisers ultimately chose another ethnic governor, Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland, whose tough, law-and-order image was a better fit for their campaign’s southern strategy. Following his election, Nixon named Volpe secretary of transportation.

With varying degrees of support from the White House, Volpe pursued an ambitious agenda and enjoyed a number of legislative triumphs during his tenure as transportation secretary. Most surprising were the former road builder’s successful effort to increase funding for urban mass transit at the expense of highway construction and the creation of Railpax (later Amtrak), a semipublic corporation, to run the country’s struggling passenger trains. He also secured a much-needed trust fund for the operation of airports and the airway system. The principal blemish on his record came in 1971, when Congress cut off funding for the development of the Supersonic Transport (SST), a costly and environmentally controversial high-speed airplane that Volpe had touted as the salvation of the slumping American aviation industry. Although he won strong White House backing for Railpax and the SST program, Volpe never established a close working relationship with the president and he disliked Nixon aides H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Volpe resigned after the 1972 election and was appointed to fill the vacant post of ambassador to Italy.

At a time when anti-American demonstrations were common and the Italian Communist party was making significant gains in parliamentary elections, Volpe conducted what resembled a political campaign on behalf of his country and the NATO alliance. He traveled widely, made speeches in Italian, met with Catholic Church officials, local prefects, newspaper editors, and other opinion leaders, and received a generally favorable response. When he resigned in January 1977, Volpe could take pride in the fact that the Communists had been unsuccessful in securing a place in the coalitions that governed Italy in his four years as ambassador.

After leaving the ambassadorship, Volpe remained active. He served as president of the National Italian-American Foundation from 1977 to 1980, headed the American fund-raising effort for the relief of victims of a massive earthquake in southern Italy in 1980, and chaired a presidential commission on drunk driving in 1982. His panel’s recommendation that a portion of federal highway funds be withheld from states that failed to raise the drinking age to twenty-one became law in 1984. Volpe died from the effects of a stroke and was buried in Forest Glade Cemetery in his native Wakefield.

A short (five feet, six and one-half inches tall), trim, devoutly Catholic, generous, and gregarious man, John Volpe involved himself in many charitable causes and belonged to numerous professional and fraternal organizations. Following his death, Volpe’s Horatio Alger-like business success was noted and his courage and tenacity in the anticorruption and sales tax fights of the 1960s were lauded. But he was remembered primarily as an ethnic pioneer in Republican party politics. As a former associate put it: “He bridged the gap from the bocce player to the polo player.”

Volpe’s papers are housed in the Archives and Special Collections Department in Snell Library at Northeastern University in Boston; the Massachusetts State Archives in Boston has additional manuscript material. The official record of his governorship is Leslie G. Ainley, Tp. and ed., Addresses and Messages to the General Court, Proclamations, Public Addresses, Official Statements, and Correspondence of General Interest of His Excellency Governor John A. Volpe …, 2 vols. (1962, 1970). Kathleen Kilgore, John Volpe: The Life of an Immigrant’s Son (1987), is a biography written with Volpe’s cooperation. Murray B. Levin (with George Blackwood), The Compleat Politician: Political Strategy in Massachusetts (1962), and Alec Barbrook, God Save the Commonwealth: An Electoral History of Massachusetts (1973), cover Bay State politics in the Volpe era. For Volpe’s experience in the Nixon administration, see Rowland Evans, Jr., and Robert D. Novak, Nixon in the White House: The Frustration of Power (1971); Dan Rather and Gary Paul Gates, The Palace Guard (1974); and Alan L. Dean and James M. Beggs, “The Department of Transportation Comes of Age: The Nixon Years,” Presidential Studies Quarterly (winter 1996). Obituaries are in the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and the New York Times (all 12 Nov. 1994).

Richard H. Gentile

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