WHEELING - The Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival is about many things - food, family and fireworks certainly among them - but it's also about giving young people a leg up for their future.
Though preparation for the three-day extravaganza set for July 27-29 at Wheeling's Heritage Port is well under way, event organizers paused Monday for a special reception to recognize their annual scholarship winners and the 2014 Italian-American of the Year, former festival chairman Robert Gaudio.
"It's the best block party I've ever been to," Gaudio said of the festival, which is in its 32nd year.
HONORED — Students receiving scholarships as part of the 2014 Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival are, front, from left, Melanie Sich of Jefferson County; Kiana Duncan and Amy Mehlman, both of Belmont County; Cassidy Bland of Brooke County; Collin Stipetich of Marshall County; Emily Hone of Brooke County; and Nancy Ducci, chairwoman of the festival’s scholarship committee: and back, Manda Robey of Belmont County; David Holden, a student in West Virginia Northern Community College’s culinary arts program; Alisandra Welch and Morgan Goff, both of Hancock County; and William Salvatori of Ohio County. Others include Marley Keller of Marshall County; Elizabeth Padden of Ohio County and Nico Treglia of Jefferson County.
The festival's scholarship winners this year are Alisandra Welch and Morgan Goff of Hancock County, Cassidy Bland and Emily Hone of Brooke County, Elizabeth Padden and William Salvatori of Ohio County, Marley Keller and Collin Stipetich of Marshall County, Amy Mehlman and Manda Robey of Belmont County and Melanie Sich and Nico Treglia of Jefferson County. Each received $1,000.
Kiana Duncan of Belmont County received the $1,000 Michael Sinicropi Broadcast Journalism Award, and David Holden won a $500 scholarship given annually to a student in West Virginia Northern Community College's culinary arts program.
Meanwhile, Gaudio is the first second-generation Italian-American of the year, as his father, the late Merle Gaudio, received the award in 2001. He said it is his family, his teachers and all those who shaped him while growing up in his hometown, Follansbee, who deserve the credit.
"Those are the people I think about. Those are the real honorees," Gaudio said. "Whatever I am, they formed that person ... They are the reason I'm here."
Gaudio believes he is unique among his forerunners in receiving the award based largely on his service to the Italian Festival - 12 years as a board member, six of them as chairman. That, he said, speaks to how much the festival has grown through the years.
"What I most enjoy about it is I can project an image of the Italian-American that isn't Tony Soprano, that isn't Don Corleone," Gaudio said. "Let's celebrate the common man, the average Joe who goes to work every day, worships God. ... That's who we are as a community."
Gaudio is a criminal defense attorney who works for the 1st Judicial Circuit Public Defenders' Office. He is a Follansbee native and a graduate of Brooke High School and West Liberty University who served in Yemen in the Peace Corps for three years and spent time in the restaurant business before deciding to attend Duquesne Law School in his late 30s.
He lives near Wheeling with his wife, Clare, and their 14-year-old son, David. He also has two grown children, Nathan and Elizabeth.
For the first time this year, festival-goers will have the chance to help organizers continue providing scholarships to area students. There will be a 50/50 drawing with a minimum prize of $1,500, with proceeds benefiting the scholarship fund. The winner will be determined at the end of the festival on July 27, and does not need to be present.
For tickets, call Festival Coordinator Kim Smith at (304) 233-1090.