Men in uniform and formal dress in front of a dirigible.

Italian aviator and aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile, center, in uniform, walks with Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini at the 1926 dedication of the Norge, which he was later to fly over the North Pole.

AFP/Getty Images

The past we exalt reflects who we are now

Italian-American groups turn Christopher Columbus into an ongoing slur against themselves.

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Major General Umberto Nobile is not a historical personage whose fame resonates down the ages. Though he did a cool thing — designed the dirigible Norge and piloted it over the North Pole with explorer Roald Admundsen in 1926, making them the first people to reach that distant axis.

Richard E. Byrd claimed to have beaten them by a few days, flying over the pole in an airplane. But that was later disputed. History has a way of changing its mind like that. Byrd was a hero, then; now he’s a fraud, maybe. Times change.

The story of Nobile’s arrival ran in the Chicago Daily News next to an article on Zenith testing short wave radio — that’s where I bumped into him. Much new technology debuted in Chicago: VHS tape was first demonstrated here, cell phones, too. On July 8, 1926, while Nobile was arriving at LaSalle Street station, Zenith engineers in a freight yard in Englewood were showing off a new marvel, short wave radio, to communicate between the engine and the caboose of a New York Central freight train a mile long.

Opinion bug


I was rooting around in the past because the University of Chicago Press asked me to write a book offering 366 historical vignettes, one for each day of the year. But only one. Which demands choices, often hard choices. Reading the Nobile story, I thought maybe I should drop the radio breakthrough and go with the dashing aviator instead. He certainly was a big deal at the time. Hundreds of Chicagoans cheered as he stepped down from the Golden State Limited.

“Mussolini himself could hardly have received a more noisy ... welcome,” noted the Daily News, name checking the Italian dictator who had remade Italy into a totalitarian state and cult of personality.

“Black-shirted fascisti rushed up to him and extended their arms in the fascist salute,” the newspaper noted. “They shouted the fascist cry of Italian loyalty.”

A band played and songs were sung, then Nobile had some remarks.

“All of us are fascists,” he said. “It is a new Italy.”

Fascism didn’t end well for Italy. It never does. Given the rise of totalitarianism going on today, in this country and around the world, maybe a glance at the giddy optimism of that moment, the crisp black shirts, the stiff-arm salutes, the girls bearing flowers, might be cautionary.

No, I decided. Stick with Zenith, started in 1918 by a pair of radio geeks at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. We are in charge of what we highlight from the past, what we discard. Why slur Italians by recalling the enthusiastic welcome they gave some forgotten functionary from Mussolini’s government in 1926?

Especially now when certain vocal Chicago Italian Americans are so busy slurring themselves. Waving some half-century-old agreement with the city and demanding their lost Columbus statue be put back in its place of honor. Times don’t change, they insist.

Wanna bet? Columbus was once a hero. We named things for him. Ohio named its capital “Columbus” in 1812, a year when slavery was legal. But we got rid of slavery and then spent 150 years peeling back the mindset, traditions, rituals and lies of slavery. Now it’s Columbus’ turn. Don’t hate me for telling you.

The city should just give the statue to the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans so they can stick it ... ah, wherever they like. Maybe in a member’s front yard in the suburbs.

They’d do better to put up a statue to Umberto Nobile. Unlike Columbus, at least he was in Chicago for three days in 1926, and also when — and this is why I love history, you can’t make this stuff up — he taught engineering at Lewis University in Romeoville.

Columbus was an American hero 125 years ago. That’s why Italian Americans embraced him, to elevate themselves in the public eye. But now they are up, relative to more recently emboldened groups disgusted by Columbus, who’s been turned — quite fairly — into a loathsome villain and monster.

Demanding the city of Chicago honor Columbus forever because it honored him in the past weighs his advocates down — or rather, outs them, as hidebound haters performing an ongoing master class in tone-deafness, entitlement and indifference to anyone other than themselves.

C’mon guys. Be smarter than that. There’s an Italian proverb addressing this exact situation: Meglio solo che male accompagnato. “Better alone than in bad company.”

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