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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

children

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

HELP,

a program for homeless women and children. The book was released just

before the Christmas and Chanukah season last year and is being

promoted

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

determined

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.

"He’s

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

reinvigorated

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

already

begun to `push ‘im up!’" focusing the TV and radio ads on his

Republican opponent Lehrman’s ties to Reaganomics and on Cuomo’s

experience.

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

before

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

reality

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

fierce

determination to keep his realized dream whole, unmarred. The

incident’s

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

new home.

Is the story relevant to the current presidential

election?

"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

upstairs.

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

years.

When he first became a lawyer, Cuomo says, for his parents, "I

might just as well have been canonized." He practiced law until

1975.

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

politicians

because they never came to his neighborhood. After the Second Vatican

Council, Cuomo was a member of the Catholic-Jewish Relations

Committee,

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

sometimes

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

Mario Cuomo, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair,

609-897-9250.

The former governor talks about his children’s book, "The Blue

Spruce." Free. Thursday, September 14, 7 p.m.


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