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Prepared for the September 5, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper.
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Meet Mario Cuomo, Dreamer
It was late afternoon, just before dinner, when Papa
told me that we were moving." So begins this children’s book,
"The Blue Spruce," by Mario Cuomo. That’s right: Mario Cuomo,
the former governor of New York State, has written a children’s book.
Author Cuomo will appear at Barnes & Noble on Thursday, September
14, at 7 p.m.
The book is targeted for children ages 8, 9, or 10, but younger
of 5, 6 or 7 can have it read to them and understand it, Cuomo says
in a phone interview from his New York office.
"The Blue Spruce" (from Sleeping Bear Press) is a physically
beautiful book. Large and slim, its spare text is set upon lavish,
painterly four-color illustrations by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen that
extend to the page edges. Cuomo is donating the book’s proceeds to
two charities — the mentoring program MUSA and to
a program for homeless women and children. The book was released just
before the Christmas and Chanukah season last year and is being
again for this year’s giving season.
The story come from Cuomo’s recollections of his own youth, his own
father. He reminiscence on the episode of the blue spruce was included
in "The Diaries of Mario Cuomo," published in the 1980s. Cuomo
was in a tough political race for Governor when he remembered the
incident, "far behind and discouraged." Its lesson spurred
Cuomo to win that first race for the governorship. It was his father’s
business card that was his "madeleine."
Here’s what an exhausted Cuomo wrote in his diary of Friday, October
22, 1982, at 4:30 a.m. when, rummaging in a drawer for a pencil, he
found one of his father’s business cards — "Andrea Cuomo,
Italian-American Groceries — Fine Imported Products." "I
couldn’t help wondering what Poppa would have said if I had told him
I was tired or — God forbid — discouraged. Then I thought
for a few minutes about how he dealt with hard circumstances.
"One scene in particular came into view, the scene of this
yet small man, maybe 5 feet 6, wrestling a 40 foot high fallen blue
spruce upright and securing it." A violent storm had uprooted
the tree. "We gonna push ‘im up," Papa of the book says.
gonna grow again." So, in the rain, with the help of his sons
and a rope, he righted the tree, dug a hole for the roots and covered
them with soil. (Today, says Cuomo, the tree is about 65 feet tall.)
"I couldn’t wait to get back into the campaign," Cuomo writes.
In that same diary entry, but made later in the day, Cuomo is
and sees things differently. He writes, "Actually, despite my
`down’ feelings, for the last two days, there has been a perceptible
difference in the campaign." His staff, he writes, "had
begun to `push ‘im up!’" focusing the TV and radio ads on his
Republican opponent Lehrman’s ties to Reaganomics and on Cuomo’s
About the diaries’ publication, Cuomo relates, " Reader’s Digest
published the story as an inspirational tale. It generated interest
in Scandinavia and became the subject for a Washington columnist
Cuomo was approached by Sleeping Bear Press. It had never occurred
to him to write a children’s version, but he agreed. Cuomo thought
writing the book was going to be easy; it wasn’t.
"I thought you write for a 25-year-old and then squeeze it down
15 years," he says. "The first draft took no time at all,
but to get it to language that was satisfactory to the publisher,
I had to work."
The book carries a twofold message: hard work can make a dream a
and "the game is lost only when we stop trying." While the
deceptively simple story is about a father’s dream (owning a separate
house with a yard and trees instead of behind his grocery store),
and his hard work to realize his dream, the story centers on his
determination to keep his realized dream whole, unmarred. The
impact is on the boy.
The story is semi-autobiographical. In the original event Cuomo’s
older brother, Frankie, was involved. And while the boy in the book
is about 9 or 10, Cuomo estimates he was closer to 14 or 15 at the
time the tree fell, just a week after the family had moved into their
Is the story relevant to the current presidential
"It’s relevant to all of life," Cuomo says. "The simple
lesson of the episode of the blue spruce, to me, was the importance
of dreams, the importance of aspirations. To my father the blue spruce
represented the fulfillment of a dream, his own house, for the first
time in his life, after many, many years of working hard. He thought
it would never happen. So when the tree was threatened, in a way his
dream was threatened. By persisting and by refusing to be discouraged
by his sons, by insisting on fighting, getting the tree back up, to
live again, he won a second time. What I learned as a child is, you
never give up on dreams. If there’s something you want, you fight
for it, you work for it, and you never, never, never give up."
"You never grow too old for dreams," Cuomo continues in his
resonant voice. "Dreams are not a young person’s business, they’re
everybody’s business. If you run out of dreams, aspirations, then
there’s not much point in living. So no matter how old you get to
be, as long as your mind works, as long as you’re alive, then dreams
should be pursued.
"Just watching your grandchildren grow or your great-grandchildren
grow. Just being there for their commencement. Just watching them
perform on the stage. Just reading one more book, listening to one
more opera. Whatever your dream is, you’re never too old."
Mario Cuomo was born in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression,
in the single room where the family lived behind his father’s grocery
store in the impoverished neighborhood of South Jamaica, Queens. It
was an industrial area with factories, tenements, a junkyard, houses
crumbling, an area to which no politicians came. His parents, Andrea
and Immaculata Cuomo, were recent immigrants from Italy. They had
three children, Frankie, Mario, and Marie. When Cuomo was about seven
or eight, the family, still living in the big room, got bedrooms
Eventually they got a house.
Cuomo barely spoke English when he entered first grade. The first
of his family to go to college, he graduated summa cum laude in 1953
from St. John’s University. In 1956 he tied for top honors at St.
John’s School of Law where he became an adjunct professor for 13
When he first became a lawyer, Cuomo says, for his parents, "I
might just as well have been canonized." He practiced law until
He has been married since 1954 to Matilda Raffa Cuomo and has five
children, including Margaret, a doctor, and Andrew, United States
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Cuomo not only didn’t plan to go into politics, he didn’t like
because they never came to his neighborhood. After the Second Vatican
Council, Cuomo was a member of the Catholic-Jewish Relations
an event that put him "into a different state of mind. And while
not wealthy, he and Matilda had a little room to move around in beyond
earning a living, he says, "so we decided to take a try at public
service. I thought first I’d just go in for a few years, just to kind
of get it off my chest, and wound up doing it for 20," including
three terms as governor of New York.
Asked to comment on the current political season, Cuomo says "The
most unhappy thing about it is the apparent lack of interest by the
public. I’m afraid that perhaps as few as half of the eligible voters
will show up. It’s too many people taking too much for granted. The
best thing about the campaign so far, as far as I can tell, is that
it appears not unduly dirty and seems to be dealing, at least now,
with the issues." The message of "The Blue Spruce" can
be helpful to many.
"It’s written for Al Gore, it’s written for people like me who
were in the middle of a campaign and needed this inspiration,"
says Cuomo. "It’s written for mothers who are discouraged by the
conduct of their children or living with a terrible problem and
feel like quitting. It’s for everybody who has a need, everybody who
has a dream."
Might it then be an inspiration to George W., we ask. Says Cuomo,
"Even Republicans can dream."
— Joan Crespi
The former governor talks about his children’s book, "The Blue
Spruce." Free. Thursday, September 14, 7 p.m.
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