Philip J. DiNovo is the president/director of the American Italian Heritage Association, Museum and Cultural Center on Central Avenue. The former 32-year professor at Morrisville College, founded the American Italian Heritage Association in 1979 and the museum in 1985. The association and museum were founded in Utica. The association now has more than 1,000 members in 40 states and Canada. The museum operated in Utica from 1985 to 1998. When DiNovo moved to Albany he brought the artifacts with him. The organization purchased the former Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church complex in 2004 and, after extensive renovations, opened the museum in 2009. Five years after that, the renovated second floor opened as the Cultural Center. The entire complex is run by volunteers.
Q: Why is it important to recognize and honor a heritage?
A: Our Italian heritage is a treasure that has been given to us. It has made my life richer. I thank God that I grew up in a large extended Italian American family. I received a lot of love and support. We were given strong religious and family values. We were taught to work hard for success. We were shown by example how to live well and love the United States. My Italian heritage has played a big role as a husband, educator and in the many things that I have accomplished in my life.
Q: What is your favorite exhibit in the museum and why?
A: I can’t say I have a favorite exhibit. It would be like asking parents to name their favorite child. Since I am the founder of the museum and set up each of the 10 exhibit rooms in the museum I love them all. Many of the exhibits are unique and we have a treasure. So many of the items are one of a kind. Most of our visitors give us very high ratings on our museum. We have had visitors from all 50 states and over 31 foreign countries.
Q: What kinds of activities do you host at the museum and cultural center?
A: The museum hosts many events during the year. Every two months we have a local artist feature an art show in our Special Exhibit Room. We have events for October, which is Italian Heritage Month, Christmas In Italy in December, and special Italian celebrations. On the second floor is our Italian Cultural Center, we have Italian language, cooking, genealogy and other classes there. We have our Italian Christmas Market, our annual St. Joseph Celebration, concerts, our monthly business meetings and cultural presentations. We also hold other Italian and Italian American celebrations, programs and events. We have a library, chapel, art gallery, research library and a meeting space in our Italian Cultural Center.
Q: The Italian government gave you the rank of Cavaliere in the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy. What does that mean and how did it make you feel?
A: It is very difficult to become a Cavaliere, it is awarded for outstanding service. I think I am the only one in the whole Capital District. The Italian government investigates the person and only after careful review awards the Order of Merit. I received the honor in 1992, I had served the community for 20 years, this is my 42nd year. I founded the American Italian Heritage Association, the American Heritage Italian Museum, wrote articles for a number of Italian American newspapers, was the advisor to the Italian Club which I founded at the college I taught at. Have given numerous presentations to clubs, organizations, schools etc. I thank God for this great honor. My parents and grandparents had passed when I was knighted, my grandfather DiNovo, an Italian immigrant, would have been so happy!
Q: Who is your favorite Italian historic figure and if you were to have lunch, what would you talk about?
My favorite is an Italian American, the father of Italian American studies, Richard Gambino. He wrote “Blood of My Blood’ that I read and helped me value my Italian heritage. I met him and had a great conversation with him. I think he is still alive. He is a retired professor who taught at CUNY. One of the chapters in his book is titled: ‘What does it mean to be an Italian American today?’ It is a very important question. In closing, our museum is the largest Italian American museum in the east. It is one of the few Italian American museums in the country. We are doing very important work, and in our 26th year we are still making history. The mission of the association is to record and preserve our Italian heritage. The mission of the museum is to honor the Italian immigrants, tell their story and the contribution of Italian Americans.
If you would like to see someone featured in Five Questions, contact Jim Franco at 518-878-1000 or [email protected]