ella t. grasso
Ella Tambussi Grasso was not only Connecticut’s first female governor. She was also its first Italian American chief executive. Her roots and her strong Italian family undergirded her career. Both of Grasso’s parents moved from Genoa to Windsor Locks, Conn., where her father became a baker and her mother worked in a mill. Neither had much education beyond elementary school, but they believed in lifelong learning. They saved and sacrificed to send their precocious daughter first to private schools and then to Mount Holyoke College, where she graduated magna cumlaude in 1940.
Grasso inherited another Italian American trait: a commitment to her community. As Connecticut’s secretary of state from 1958 to 1970, she transformed her office into a “people’s lobby,” opening her doors for citizens to air grievances or seek advice. During her two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1970s, Grasso championed the minimum wage, Social Security and veterans’ education benefits, and established a toll-free number — nicknamed the “Ellaphone” — to allow constituents to contact her office more easily.
“Bloom where you are planted” was among her favorite sayings, and soon she returned to Connecticut to campaign for the governorship. Once again, she showed a classically Italian American work ethic. Facing a tough fiscal environment, she returned thousands of dollars to the state treasury out of her own salary. During the great blizzard of 1978, she worked around the clock to direct the emergency response and save lives. Later that year, she won reelection in a landslide.
In 1981, Grasso died of ovarian cancer, a vicious disease that I myself faced just a few years later. But she carried on working for the people of Connecticut until just a month before her death.
When I think of what is possible for Italians and for women, I always think of Ella Grasso. She led our state with an Italian American blend of passion, hard work and pragmatism. These are the kinds of traits that allowed Nancy Pelosi to become the first female, and indeed the first Italian American, speaker of the House. Grasso was a trailblazer for all of us.