Generoso Papa was born in 1891 in the small village of Pasquarielli, near the town of Arpaise in the province of Benevento, Italy. He was the son of farmer Fortunato Papa and Fortuna Covino.
In 1906, at the age of 15, Generoso left his tiny farming village and arrived in New York City with just $10 in his pocket, no place to stay, and only a few words of English. He landed a job for $3 a week carrying water to the men who were constructing the Pennsylvania Railroads East River tunnel. He worked as a laborer on construction jobs and toiled in the sand pits for five years while going to night school. In 1911, he joined the newly-formed Colonial Sand and Stone Co., becoming its superintendent.
When the company was threatened with bankruptcy in 1916, Generoso audaciously persuaded the owners and creditors to give him a chance to restore solvency and strengthen the business. He took personal responsibility for the company’s debts in return for full management and half ownership of the firm. Working 12 to 16 hours a day out of a tiny shack, the steadfast, stocky immigrant survived on a daily lunch of a half loaf of bread garnished with green peppers.
Through ambition and brains, he found new customers, fought off the competition, paid the company’s debt, and expanded the business. Within two years Generoso had become president of Colonial and by 1926, the company had taken over most of the leading sand dealerships in New York.
Generoso fashioned alliances with politicians who helped him achieve his goal of becoming a key figure in New York politics and the construction industry. At the age of 36, Generoso was the millionaire owner of Colonial, the country’s largest sand and gravel business, providing the concrete for much of New York City’s skyline, including Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, airports and subways.
By 1915, he had changed his given name from Papa to Pope, become a U.S. citizen, married Italian immigrant Catherine Richichi, and fathered three children, Fortune, Anthony, and Generoso Jr.
In 1928, Generoso purchased America’s largest Italian-language daily newspaper, Il Progresso Italo-Americano. By launching a publishing career, he bolstered his influence by becoming the most dominant Italian-born leader in New York. His dominion was so commanding that his blessings were vital to political candidates, civic officials, and religious leaders if they ever hoped to succeed.
Generoso eventually controlled all major Italian papers in New York, including Il Bollettino della Sera and Il Corriere díAmerica, as well as the Philadelphia daily LíOpinione. His newspapers were the chief source of political, social, and cultural information for millions of Italian-American immigrants.
Through his papers, Generoso became an advocate for America’s Italian immigrants. He encouraged his readers to learn English and become citizens and vote, and he extolled ethnic pride and individual achievement. He spent lavishly, sponsoring innumerable banquets, civic and religious charities, and scholarships.
He was prominent in church affairs, and in 1932 Pope Pius XI made him a Knight Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. Francis Cardinal Spellman also appointed him to the Cardinals Committee on the Laity.
Beginning in the mid-1920s Generoso sponsored the celebration of Columbus Day. In 1944, he founded and served as president of the Columbus Citizens Committee, which organized the Columbus Day parades in New York City.
Generoso made a name for himself on the international scene too. In 1929, he returned triumphantly to Arpaise, Italy, with his wife and sons. He paid for a municipal power plant in Arpaise and he personally turned on the switch that electrified the village. Upon returning to the States, he became a member of the New York draft appeals board and the American Committee for Italian Relief. Generoso also was a key member of the American Committee for Italian Democracy, dedicated to preventing the communists from coming to power in Italy. Throughout the 1940s, Generoso often visited the White House, where he acted as an important advisor to the Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
In 1948, Generoso played an important role in stopping Italy from electing a communist government. When reports from abroad indicated that dispirited, war-weary Italians could favor the communists in upcoming elections, Generoso organized a letters-to-Italy campaign among the readers of his newspapers. Because of his efforts, millions of letters and postcards from Italian-Americans were sent to relatives and friends in the homeland, urging them to reject communism and embrace democracy. With the help of Generoso’s campaign, the communists were defeated at the polls.
Generoso died in 1950 at the age of 59 from a heart ailment. Thousands of mourners stood in the rain outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to pay their respects to the man whose newspaper taught a generation of Italian immigrants how to achieve the American dream.