Fresno State awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters to local educator Antonio “Tony” Petrosino as part of the College of Arts and Humanities commencement on May 20th, along with acclaimed artist Judy Chicago.
“Mr. Petrosino’s commitment to Fresno State has positively impacted the lives of countless students whom he hopes will carry on his wife’s philanthropic spirit while embracing the opportunities of higher education in order to give back to the community,” said Fresno State President Dr. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval before hooding Petrosino.
Months earlier, as the pandemic slowly lifted, I met with Petrosino in the Fresno State library. After ordering from Starbucks, we sat down with our beverages, me with my phone to record the conversation and him with a stack of manila folders and papers.
“I believe in helping kids,” said Petrosino. “I don’t care who they are. If they are outstanding, deserving — whether they’re tall, short, green, blue — it doesn’t matter to me.”
Petrosino, who had just finished telling his own immigration story, began loudly tapping his finger on a stack of papers with the names of students who have received his scholarships.
“Half of those kids, they’re DACA kids,” he said assertively. “In my estimation, those kids came with their parents. They had no choice. They need the help!”
Petrosino said he wants the students he helps to have the tools to build a good life — the kind of life he has had. His story begins at a unique time and place in world history during his formative years.
In 1943, the German Army was retreating from Africa. They crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Sicily and attempted to travel north through Italy to the Brenner Pass, western Austria, and into Germany. In an attempt to cut them off, Allied troops landed forces in several places in Italy, including the area near the port city of Salerno in Southern Italy.
A boy of about 11 years old, Antonio Petrosino, watched as this mix of soldiers from around the world passed through his town of Coperchia, in the mountains just north of Salerno in Southern Italy. He would try to observe the soldiers who spoke different languages and came from diverse cultures.
“I liked to listen to the language. I hung around as much as I could,” said Petrosino. “Language intrigues me because the language expresses and gives you a lot of background and a good feeling of the culture of a people.”
His father was a tax collector who worked for the government in Italy but had never committed to being aligned with Benito Mussolini. Through his father’s connections in government and the U.S. Consulate, their family was able to get a special visa that bypassed the regular immigration routes through Ellis Island. The consulate was also able to place their family in the officer’s quarters of a Liberty Ship, a mass-produced ship designed to move U.S. troops.
“It’s who you know,” Petrosino offered as an explanation for the special treatment.
The small ship was tossed by waves the entire voyage, but there were no checkpoints to go through when they arrived due to the special visa his father had obtained. They stayed with family in Newark, New Jersey, before traveling to meet Petrosino’s grandfather, who had already moved to Clovis.
After moving to Clovis in 1947 at 14, his parents continued to speak Italian around the house, but many students spoke Spanish at school. So, he began taking Spanish classes at Clovis High School.
“Spanish is pretty darn close [to Italian],” said Petrosino. “Spanish is the closest one of the Latin languages.”
As a student at Fresno State, Petrosino was majoring in Political Science while taking upper-division language courses, including Spanish and French, which he had begun learning in Italy. In his junior year, the chair of the foreign language department and the chair of social sciences met with Petrosino to discuss his recent aptitude testing showing his affinity for language. Both chairs felt he would be better off majoring in Romance languages. Petrosino was able to get his degree in 1953 and his teaching and counseling credential at Fresno State a year later. In 1955, he married his wife Louise of 48 years, and they had three children.
While getting his credential at Fresno State, Petrosino was assigned to “practice teaching” at Fresno High School. His master teacher, Joseph Eliceche, suffered an injury while working on his car, and Petrosino was asked to take over his classes. That led to him being hired at Fresno High School through the school district before finishing his credential program. After about ten years of teaching Latin and Spanish at Fresno High School, he moved to Hoover High School.
As chair of the Foreign Language Department at Hoover High School, he worked closely with Fresno State, who sent credential students to gain experience as student teachers at local high schools, some of whom he would hire to teach in his department. After Hoover High School, he moved to Roosevelt High School, implementing a school-wide computer class scheduling system — the first in the Fresno Unified School District.
In all, he worked for Fresno Unified for over 40 years. After his retirement, he returned as a consultant implementing the class scheduling software at Fresno, Hoover, Bullard and Edison high schools. He was instrumental in creating the master numerical course offering list for the Fresno Unified School District through the computer system, which is still used today.
In the mid-1960s, Petrosino started Fresno State’s first Italian language courses, which he taught for seven years. More recently, he was a founding member of the Italian Studies community committee, whose goal is to establish, sustain and grow the Italian Studies program through philanthropic giving.
“To me, it’s my native language,” said Petrosino. “I was born with it and never gave it up!”
After his wife Louise passed away in 2004, Petrosino became more involved with Fresno State. He has established scholarships at the Kremen School of Education, Alumni Association, Athletics, and most recently, the Italian Studies Program in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures. In addition to the scholarships, Petrosino generously supports the Italian Studies program directly and is a supporter of the Dean’s Council Annual Fund. In 2019, he received the Arthur Safstrom Service Award for his distinguished record of service to Fresno State.
Beyond helping the students, giving and being involved at Fresno State give Petrosino a way to get out and enjoy life in memory of his wife, Louise.
“Since my wife passed away, I’ve found it very difficult to live alone,” he said. By being involved and helping others, he continues her work.
During her life, she was very involved in the community, including serving on the board of Valley Children’s Hospital, a trustee of the Los Rancheros Guild and was deeply involved in several local school parent and booster clubs. In 1975, the Clovis Unified School District honored Louise with the Outstanding Community Citizen Award, an honorary Doctorate of Community Service in 1976, and the Golden Apple Award in 1977.
It is his wife Louise’s philanthropic spirit that Petrosino seeks to keep alive through his community involvement and the several scholarships he sponsors at Fresno State.