Gilda Rorro

Gilda Rorro will be the grand marshal at the Ocean County Columbus Day Parade on Oct. 9.

Gilda Rorro was 13 years old when she had the privilege of a private audience with Pope Pius XII. In that meeting, the pope asked if she spoke Italian.

The Philadelphia native admitted that she did not.

“‘Gilda, promise me when you go back to your marvelous country across the ocean, you will learn to speak Italian, and you will never forget your Italian ancestors,’” she recalls the pope saying. “And I thought, How am I going to learn Italian? They don’t teach it in school. So then I thought, I’ll take Spanish, and then I’ll teach myself Italian, because they’re somewhat similar.”

She kept that part of the promise, and the other as well: remembering her Italian ancestors. She has dedicated a life not only to education, but also to honoring her Italian-American heritage. And now, the honors are flowing in for Rorro as well.

In March, Rorro received the inaugural Donna Distinta Distinguished Woman Award from the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations. The award was created to honor women of Italian descent by spotlighting their contributions from culture and industry to philanthropy and activism.

In April, she was selected to serve as grand marshal of the Ocean County Columbus Day Parade and Italian Festival, to be held Oct. 9 in Seaside Park.

Also in April, she received a certificate of appreciation from her alma mater, Arcadia University, recognizing her for her volunteer activities in 2021-22. The Office of Alumni Relations invited her to be recognized at the Arcadia Reunion Awards Ceremony held on the campus on April 30.

In bestowing the Donna Distinta award upon Rorro, COPOMIAO president Basil Russo wrote: “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 shines through.”

Such honors are not rare or new for Cav. Dr. Gilda Battaglia Rorro Baldassari, who was inducted into the Italian-American National Hall of Fame in 2012. Since those formative days growing up in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, through to earning a doctorate in education from Rutgers University and becoming director of the Department of Education’s civil rights division, she has maintained her commitment to teaching and learning.

Rorro says that her parents, who were naturopathic chiropractic physicians, wanted her to become a doctor, and she briefly studied nursing in college before deciding that it was not for her.

She became a French major at Beaver College (now Arcadia University), and while there she received a scholarship to study Spanish at the University of Mexico. There, her career almost took an unexpected U-turn.

She was hired to go to the Acalpulco Film Festival as an interpreter. “The Acapulco Film Festival was the second biggest in the world, after Cannes,” she says. While she was there, she got noticed by photographers, who named her the Queen of Photographers at the festival. This led to several offers to act in Mexican films, including one with María Félix, “the Elizabeth Taylor of Mexico,” Rorro says.

“I knew that was going to be my so called big break, and I wanted to do it, but my parents were so against it,” she recalls. “My parents said, ‘We don’t want you in movies and modeling and all that. Decent girls don’t do that. You come home and marry Louis Rorro and live in Trenton.’ And that’s how it was. I had to make a decision, do I stay in Mexico and actually try to have a career in movies? But I left and came back, and, here I am!”

She did marry Louis Rorro, a physician, and in 1967 they moved into a house on Edinburg Road in Hamilton, where she still lives today. She raised two children, Michael and Mary, and finished degrees from Beaver College and Trenton State College. For a time, she taught English as a second language in the Hamilton school district. In 1985, she was teacher of the year in Hamilton Township and a finalist for the State Teacher of the Year award.

Then she went to work for the DOE, rising to the position of director of the Office of Equal Educational Opportunity. There she led statewide efforts on desegregation, multicultural education and affirmative action. Later, she served as assistant superintendent for human resources in the Trenton school district.

In 1998, she was named honorary vice consul for Italy in Trenton, and later the consular correspondent for Italy, In 2002, she was named to the New Jersey Italian Heritage Commission, a body that she still works for today. As chair of the NJIHC Curriculum Development Committee, she spearheaded the project today known as The Universality of Italian Heritage. She has also been deeply involved in cross-cultural educational programs linking schools in Hamilton with schools in Italy. (See “Amicizia: Linking Two Worlds, next page.)

The honorific “Cav.” stands for Cavaliere. Rorro was knighted by the president of Italy in 2008, in part for her work on the Italian heritage curriculum.

“Everything we do we start with an Italian-American theme but we universalize it to involve the culture of all the students,” she says of the curriculum. “Every lesson has to be equitable, inclusive and diverse. It isn’t just something for Italians. We don’t do that.”

Everyone has heritage, she says, and the model is really a model for teaching heritage of all students not just one group, she says. “We don’t sugar coat anything. We show the good and the bad and we want the students and the educators to think critically and analytically about all the issues. Even if they may disagree with what we may want them to think, we want them to think,” she says. “These issues are the same today as they were in the 15th century and before that. You can change the names, but human nature doesn’t change that much and we see that playing out in the news every day.”

The lessons are the legacy of the commission, she says. “Education is one of the most important things we can offer anybody. That’s the only thing that’s going to bring about any change. Tearing down statues and removing names, I can understand the genesis, I can understand people’s feelings. But if we just get rid of them and stop teaching about them, it’s not an illuminating thing to do. You have to learn from these experiences. We have to understand each person’s feelings and experiences.”

Rorro has published a memoir, Gilda, Promise Me, which can be purchased online at Amazon and other bookstores.

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