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To celebrate his 80th birthday, family and friends recently raised $35,000 to establish an annual civic engagement lecture series named for him that is being funded for three years through the Eagleton Institute of Politics.

Why did you choose a career in public service?
I’m the son of Italian immigrants, and at a very young age, I developed a passion for government and public service. In 1939, when I was 8, we took a family trip to Washington, D.C., and I was mesmerized. World War II broke out when we were there. We had lived through the Great Depression, and government programs were our lifeline.

What is your definition of civic engagement?
Volunteerism is usually considered by many to be the scope of civic engagement. However, I believe it is a citizen’s full exercise of his or her rights and responsibilities, including critical evaluation of candidates, voting, and jury duty.

Why should every citizen be involved in public service?
Being a good citizen brings rights and obligations. It’s the single most important thing we can do to unlock the impasse that has paralyzed government. The country is healthier when people feel they are contributing and making a difference.

Do you consider civic engagement an integral part of a college education?
Yes. But, it should start in grammar school and continue throughout life. We have to instill a love of country early on. When I was in school, we were taught civics. I believe it should be a required course in all levels of education.

How does the new lecture series at Rutgers reflect your dedication to public service?
I see a compelling urgency today to reinvent citizenship, with real issues needing resolution. The framework for advancing this idea is much like the concept of the three-legged stool—it has to be balanced by politics, government, and civic engagement. Rutgers—and Eagleton, in particular—has a good reputation in all of these areas, thus providing a stable base for developing and furthering this initiative.

As a public servant, what was your greatest accomplishment?
Establishing NJ Transit. It has made a night-and-day difference to the public; it’s still up and running after all these years, and it’s still committed to a high standard of excellence.

Originally published in Rutgers alumni magazine. Illustration by John Cuneo.

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