20th Anniversary of the Italian program at Italian Workman’s Club in Madison

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Italian Language and Culture program at the Italian Workmen’s Club. Since its inception, several hundreds, perhaps nearing the thousand of adults and children have spent a number of years or months studying and learning to speak Italian in the historical clubhouse on Regent and Park. It all started when a club member, at that time the manager of the Italian Folkdancers, Philana Friede, approached me with a suggestion to apply for a grant to the Wisconsin Humanities Council for a program in Italian culture to offer at the clubhouse. I titled my first syllabus “A Taste of Italy.” More than 40 people, almost all Italian Americans, former residents of the Greenbush, their children and in some cases their grandchildren came to the 10-week session. To some of them it was a surprise for, as they later told me, they were expecting a class on Italian cuisine, but they came to appreciate and enjoy the 10 “tastes” the class offered on different topics, one including Italian cuisine. That class had the effect of an appetizer, it stimulated interest and desire to keep learning more and eventually also “taste” the Italian language. And so, a second grant was submitted to the WHC and was awarded for a second class that would focus on Italian language and culture for adults. Classes for children immediately followed, held on Saturday morning. One beginning level class in the fall continued in the winter-spring, and then, after the Summer pause, would resume in the following fall, and on and on. Every fall and winter, a new class for beginners would start, while other continuing students would move up in their level of proficiency to intermediate, to advanced. The program has attracted all types of learners: from those who had never been exposed to the language, to those who had a little exposure and wanted to refresh, to those who wanted to travel, others who wanted to begin exploring their Italian heritage, others still who plainly wanted to listen to spoken Italian. In addition to the regular weekly classes, participants have enjoyed through these decades the enrichment of special lectures—two or three per term—presented by experts from UW Madison on different aspects of Italian culture, from Italian music and opera, to cinema, to art, to cuisine, to literature, to traditions and festivals, etc. On those evenings, the hall of the old clubhouse—is teaming with students and other people of the Madison community talking, asking questions to the speakers, practicing their Italian, meeting new fellows and italophiles, exchanges notes on their past or futurevtrips to Italy, tasting delicious Italian biscotti and refreshments. In the course of the years, a number of adult students took turns in 5 educational tours of Italy with an average of 30 participants. In a nice and comfortable tour bus, we would go up and down the peninsula for 2 weeks, taking in the splendor of Italian artistic cities, coast lines, breathtaking panoramas, authentic dishes and seasonal produce and fruits, and in several occasions, visiting ancestors’ towns. The parking is lousy and it makes think twice especially in the winter, but the classes are still going on every Monday and Thursday evening and Saturday morning. Often times, some students would enter the hall holding a glass of wine left from a meal they had below at the Greenbush Bar, the other hand holding the Italian textbook and notebook. They’d take their seat around the table exchanging greetings in Italian with their fellow students and toast to everybody’s health and good luck for that night’s class! I have occasionally offered the option to hold the class in another location, with easier parking, maybe better lightening or warmer. The vote has always been unanimously negative: they love the old clubhouse, the all-purpose hall with the 1912 flag of Italy still depicting the coat of arms of the former Italian monarchy, brought here by the first Italian immigrants who built the club brick building.

Twenty years ago, the Italian Workmen’s Club of Madison made space in its one and single hall for the Italian language and culture program and has since proudly welcomed all who wanted to learn and “taste” a little of Italy.

Giovanna Miceli Jeffries, Program Director (1994-2014)