A note from COPOMIAO President Basil M. Russo: Starting with International Women’s Day on March 8th, we’ll honor women of Italian descent to spotlight their contributions, from culture and industry to philanthropy and activism. The inaugural Donna Distinta (Distinguished Woman) Award goes to an outstanding leader and social innovator, Dr. Gilda Rorro.
Dr. Gilda Rorro was knighted by the President of Italy, conferring the title of Cavaliere (Cav.), an honor that is a capstone to her impressive career and lifetime achievements.
Cav. Dr. Gilda Battaglia Rorro Baldassari’s memoir titled Gilda, Promise Me, transports the reader on a memorable journey through her multifaceted life of dramatic heights and challenging paths undreamed of by most women of her generation.
She traveled the world, spoke several languages, learned the universal connection among all peoples and the beauty and resilience of the human spirit. She overcame tragedies and challenges through deep spirituality. Her vibrant writing about adventures in exotic lands entrances the reader. Her achievements are informed by a genuine desire to help others and by the values and faith of her Italian American upbringing. Her warmth and compassion for others shine through.
Perhaps this beautiful spirit captured the attention of Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli (Pope Pius XII), at Castel Gandolfo, who approached Gilda as a 13-year-old, to make a promise to him. Fulfilling that promise set a path for her future. She became an actress, model, devoted wife, and mother to her children Michael and Mary, a television teacher, an award-winning educator, a statewide civil rights director for School Desegregation, Affirmative Action, and initiator of Multicultural Education at the DOE.
She served as assistant superintendent in an inner-city school district and was an honorary diplomat. She instituted the first Haitian resource center in the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) and served as the Washington D.C.-based President of the New Jersey/Haiti Partners of the Americas organization. She drafted New Jersey legislation ensuring non-discrimination toward Haitian students in New Jersey public schools.
A vibrant and successful career in film connected her to Mexico, where she was selected Queen of Photographers and Radio Announcers’ Queen of the international Acapulco film Festival.
She was also selected to appear in a film in Egypt, and offered a part in a movie in Bombay, India. Her career in film, television, education, civil rights, and as an honorary diplomat, exemplify a Renaissance woman ahead of her time.
As her successful career progressed, so did her commitment to Italian causes. She became Honorary Vice Consul for Italy, in Trenton, and Consular Correspondent; and she was appointed by the governor of New Jersey to the New Jersey Italian Heritage Commission (NJIHC), where she became the Chairperson, and Chairperson of its Education Committee. In keeping with her background in education, she continues to head the development of the Universality of Italian Heritage curriculum project, in consultation with the New Jersey DOE, for statewide school integration.
She spearheads a recent initiative to preserve and promote the Italian language and culture for current and future generations.
With the cooperation of NJIHC Chairperson, Robert DiBiase, and her Education Committee, several of the lessons of the Universality of Italian Heritage curriculum are being converted into video format for educators and the community-at-large — a project that will be disseminated to all Italian American organizations in the United States, via the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations, under the leadership of Basil Russo.
The first is a four-part video series on “Immigration,” titled: An Italian’s Dream: Leads to the Origin of the HispanicPeoples and Beyond,” focusing on Christopher Columbus’ four voyages and the global outcome of his encounter with the New World. As a community activist, she organized a local committee to restore the statue of Christopher Columbus, which had been vandalized in Trenton, New Jersey, and received support for its relocation from the NJIHC, the mayor of Trenton, and the Conference of Presidents.
The theme of the second video is: Italians and the Holocaust.
Her exemplary work has not gone unnoticed. She received three Lifetime Achievement awards for volunteerism, including the Jefferson Award from the United States Senate, and anti-discrimination awards from the New Jersey Office of Holocaust Education. She was inducted into the Italian American National Hall of Fame and was the recipient of the Golden-Disk 50-Year Achievement Award from her alma mater, Arcadia University.
Former Italian Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Hon. Andrea Canepari, asked Gilda to author a chapter for a book he recently co-edited titled The Italian Legacy in Philadelphia: History, Culture, People, and Ideas. Her piece is titled From Southern Italy to Southern New Jersey: Italian Success in the Garden State.
Associate Justice for the United States Supreme Court, Samuel A. Alito, Jr., writes in his Introduction of Gilda, Promise Me: “She has not forgotten her Italian ancestors. Her book tells the story of one remarkable, talented, elegant, determined Italian American woman. And in doing so it makes a lasting contribution to the story of the Italian American people.”
Gilda keeps on keeping her promise to the Pope.