New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivered his only commencement speech of the season Friday morning at South Jersey’s Rowan University — an institution he turned into a research institution when he signed a controversial higher education restructuring bill in 2012. It was expected, then, that he would speak about this, one of the most significant accomplishments of his first term.
Instead, Christie told a hushed audience a 16-minute story about the immigration experience of his grandmother, born Sept. 10, 1909, on a ship from Sicily to New York City. It’s worth watching, but here’s a summary.
Anne Grasso’s parents selected her husband — an arranged marriage based on the great-grandparents’ “appreciation for the family he came from.” They had three children, but Anne’s husband cheated on her, and she divorced — an extraordinary thing for a woman in 1942.
“She kicked him out of the house,” Christie said. “She was 33 years old. She had no education at all past middle school. And she had three children to raise on her own because the family that she had been arranged into said it was a disgrace that she had filed for divorce, and there were no laws forcing him to support her and her children.”
So Anne got a job at the IRS facility in Bloomfield, N.J., three buses and two hours from her home in Newark. Her 10-year-old daughter, Christie’s mother, helped to raise her younger siblings. They were poor: “Every year at Christmas they rewrapped the gift they had gotten the year before.”
“They went to bed hungry, but no nights did they go to bed alone,” Christie said.
As a kid, the governor said he was closer to his grandmother than anyone he knew, and once he and his parents moved to the suburb of Livingston, he returned for sleepovers at her house twice a month. They went to the library — three books for her, one for him. They watched TV— but only two options were allowed, college football on Saturday and Meet The Press on Sunday. They went to mass on Sundays, too, and once a month they went to New York City, to museums and the opera.
“Imagine me at the opera,” Christie said. “Even then it seemed incredible.”
The lesson he learned: “Hard work is the key to success in your life.”
She lived to be 92, long enough to see him be named U.S. Attorney.
“She said to me, ‘Can you imagine how I feel that my grandson — I was born on a boat coming over here, no education, nothing but my own hard work that I was able to create for something by the grace of this country — and now you’re appointed to something by the president of the United States?’ She said, ‘My life is full.'”
Grasso would have turned 100 the year he became governor, in 2009. The day after his election, he visited her grave.
“How amazed she would have been to see what was happening, and what might happen,” Christie said.
“I know that my grandmother shakes her head — often at some of the things that come of my mouth — and, at some of the extraordinary opportunities that life has already presented to me.”