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Remembering Peter Secchia: The Ambassador With Panache

peter secchia wears a white fedora and speaks
Peter Secchia speaking to the media  in 2017. (Neil Blake/ The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

By Sunday, 25 October 2020 09:36 AM Current | Bio | Archive

"You’re going to have to get Jesse Helms on your side, for starters, and I’ve set up a meeting," veteran conservative activist Ralph Galliano told Peter Secchia, President-elect George Bush’s nominee to be U.S. Ambassador to Italy, in early 1989.

Secchia (who died last week at age 83) jumped at the opportunity and accompanied Galliano to the office of the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Helms and Secchia couldn’t be farther apart in persona.  Helms, the soft-spoken North Carolinian was one of the heroes of the post-war conservative movement and had supported Ronald Reagan’s insurgent campaign for the Republican nomination against then-President Gerald Ford in 1976.

Secchia, a successful Grand Rapids, Michigan businessman, was a close friend of Ford’s and, in fact, their families spent vacations together in Vale, Colorado.  He was a minted "establishment" Republican who backed former Texas Gov. John Connally for president in 1980 and when Connally fizzled, Secchia turned to George H.W. Bush.

And Helms liked him.

"The senator told Pete ‘you’re not one of those careerists from the State Department’ and he was for him," Galliano later recalled, "And he liked the way Pete always speaks his mind."

With Helms’ backing and Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee willing to give the new President his choices for ambassadorships, Secchia sailed through and was then confirmed by the full Senate — albeit not before that propensity to "speak his mind" was brought up to his detriment.

Reports had surfaced about the nominee occasionally saying an occasional unkind or off-color remark.  A defeated female candidate for Congress from Michigan complained the party never backed her, leading Secchia to reply that she should be "committed." A magazine article quoted him as describing two women at a Republican state convention in crude-sounding terms — both of them being, he later said, good friends of his and wife Joan.

Ambassador Secchia did not disappoint Italians or embarrass his country— not by a long shot.  Like socialite-politician Clare Booth Luce under Dwight Eisenhower, he was an ambassador to Italy with panache.

Within a few months of assuming his desk in Rome, Secchia delivered a statement saying the U.S. would not accept an Italian government that included Communists.  It created a stir throughout Europe, but, as the ambassador explained, "it was a restatement of what U.S. policy has been since the first post-war Italian elections."

Much as he showed great respect for politicians of the past such as Ford and former Sen. Bob Griffin, R-Mich., Secchia sought out former Italian leaders for advice and guidance.  Giulio Andreotti, the second-longest serving former prime minister, developed a particularly close relationship with Secchia.

But he also listened to regular folks as well, often inviting strangers he had just met to the embassy for food and conversation.  Once, a barber completed a haircut for the ambassador only to be asked to stay for dinner with the Secchias.

"His verve and energy were contagious," Italian TV reporter Maria Luisa Rossi-Hawkins told Newsmax, "He was able to seal the kind relationship between Italy and the United States that forged the rapport we still enjoy today."

Born in Englewood, New Jersey, the young Secchia played football for Tenafly High School.  When his first attempt at college proved not-so-successful, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and spent four years in uniform.  He moved to Michigan upon his discharge and earned a degree in economics from Michigan State University.

Economics and MSU would shape much of his adult life.  Starting off in mid-level management, he rose to become CEO of Universal Forest Products (a manufacturer of wood that operates plants and distribution centers throughout the U.S., Mexico, and Canada).

Secchia also served as chairman of River City Food Company, which oversaw restaurants throughout three states.

"Peter Secchia was a one of kind, kind of guy--bigger than life," recalled former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, "He was also a model of how to build your community and give back."

To those who said he was unkind to women, one could point to the Secchia Stadium — home to the MSU’s women’s softball team and built with $1 million from Pete Secchia.  He also was a major donor to the MSU College of Human Medicine and one of its buildings bears his name. 

Years after he left Rome, Secchia was heavily involved in the Italian-American community.  He was a member of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), and its "Secchia Award for Heartfelt Commitment" is named for him.  He also inaugurated the Festa Italiana, the largest ethnic festival, and was founding president of the West Michigan Lodge of the Order of the Sons of Italy (OSIA).

"Pete was a man with an enormous heart who believed nothing was impossible from building Universal Forest Products or rising from a Marine private to a decorated U.S. ambassador to Italy," Michigan’s former Republican Gov. John Engler told Newsmax, "His legacy of service will be remembered, cherished and enjoyed by future generations.

"There will never be another Peter Finley Secchia." 

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
 

© 2020 Newsmax. All rights reserved.


   
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"You're going to have to get Jesse Helms on your side, for starters, and I've set up a meeting," veteran conservative activist Ralph Galliano told Peter Secchia, President-elect George Bush's nominee to be U.S. Ambassador to Italy, in early 1989.Secchia (who died last week...
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