Editor’s note: This is a piece I wrote this year for and is published here with permission from The Earlhamite.
One of Richmond’s most influential citizens of the past hundred years began his days in the city at Earlham.
But, though Andy Cecere spent only one year at Earlham before serving his country in World War II, the school’s influence has lasted a lifetime.
Hence, at a mid-September (2017) Earlham convocation, President Alan Price ’88 beckoned Cecere to the stage of Goddard Auditorium. Cecere, 95, walked carefully, cane in hand, to Price’s side.
Price praised Cecere, who came to Earlham as a student in 1942 but left to serve as U.S. Marine Corps officer in the South Pacific, for a career in law and service to the city, leading Richmond through a period of change and growth.
It was that lifetime of accomplishment that Price honored as he placed a Presidential Medal of Merit in Cecere’s hands.
“Andy Cecere represents the leadership, courage and forward thinking that helped transform Richmond into a more just and inclusive community,” Price said. “We honor him for a lifetime of commitment, struggle and achievement.”
Cecere’s path to Earlham and Richmond was unlikely. The son of immigrants, he grew up poor in an Italian enclave of Pittsburgh, Pa.
“People in our neighborhood did not go to college. We were different,” said Cecere. “People in other neighborhoods made it clear that we were not welcome. They called us names. I made the decision that I wanted to do something about changing that.”
His family was his rock. His father worked on the railroad. Two older brothers quit high school to work and support the family. But his parents insisted on education for Andy and his younger siblings.
Growing up, he spent time at a neighborhood settlement house, the Kingsley House, where he learned to swim and box, played football and basketball. There he met staff member George Badgley, a Quaker from Poughkeepsie, New York.
“Here I was this Italian kid from the neighborhood, and he was this college-educated man. He was my first mentor. He loaned me books and stressed the importance of learning. That’s where I first learned about college.”
Badgley, who spent one year at Earlham in 1932-33, pointed Cecere to the neighborhood Carnegie Library.
“It was an age when they purposely planted a settlement house and a Carnegie Library in these neighborhoods that had recent immigrants to give the kids something to do and the residents a chance to have books,” Cecere said. “We didn’t have any books in my house.”
He was determined to learn. Through high school he sold the city’s two newspapers on the street and, every day, he read both papers. He became a student of the U.S. Constitution, the document he believed was the source of all citizen rights.
“By the time I was in high school, I had memorized the Constitution and I knew the rights and opportunities it offered all citizens,” he said. “Right then I knew what I wanted to do.”
Cecere would be the first in his family to attend college, but first he had to work. A job in a Pittsburgh steel mill earned him enough money to enroll at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he studied history and political science in the hope of one day entering the foreign service.
That ended after one year when he learned that first-generation immigrants were not allowed in the foreign service.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘I could enlist and go fight and die for my country, but I could not serve as a diplomat.’ I was dumbfounded,” he said.
Fighting and dying were a real possibility. In 1942 the world was in flames as Axis powers surged across Europe, Russia and the South Pacific.
He told Badgley of the incident at George Washington U. and Badgley suggested Earlham.
“He said there were good people there and it was a very good school,” Cecere said. “It was a place, he said, I could continue my studies and ponder my future. He also found me a job there, which was a big thing for me.”
Earlham greeted him with friendship.
“The Earlham experience showed me that I can be accepted despite the fact that I’m an Italian,” Cecere said. “It confirmed that equality was worth fighting for. That carried through the rest of my life.”
His roommate was Bob Heywood, a Quaker from Wellsville, New York, and conscientious objector.
The two men seemed an improbable pair. Cecere entered Earlham in September and enlisted in the Marine Corps in October while remaining in school. But they forged a lasting friendship.
“He never once questioned my decision to join the Marine Corps,” said Cecere. “Nor did I question him. It was just understood. He was a conscientious objector at a time when it was not accepted at all. I respected that conviction. We remained close friends ’til the day he died.”
During Cecere’s lone year at Earlham, he studied history, economics and government and washed dishes in Bundy Hall. Once activated, he spent a year at Dennison University in a delayed enlistment program before joining combat troops on the final push to take the island of Okinawa. At the war’s end he served with the occupation force in China.
Returning to the States, Cecere received an honorary undergraduate degree from Denison, entered law school at the University of Michigan in 1949 and studied under Paul Kauper, a Richmond native and a nationally recognized authority on constitutional law.
Kauper convinced Cecere to return to Richmond where he built a law practice that lasted 50 years.
During that time, he served 12 years as city attorney under two mayors and wrote local legislation and lobbied to establish public housing in Richmond. But, instead of placing it in one neighborhood, he fashioned the law to create housing in all four sections of the city.
In doing so he helped desegregate Richmond schools.
“Most people thought we should just build it in the north end, mainly the African American section. But I wanted to have public housing throughout the city,” he said. “I believed that would open up the city for all citizens, especially black citizens.
“When we did that we integrated all those schools without busing,” he said.
“Andy was the engine, the initial force that got funding for public housing,” said Derek White, executive director of the Richmond Housing Authority. “He went to Washington and made the case for affordable housing because there was a need. He was a catalyst and key player in this important part of our history.”
As head of the city’s Board of Public Works, Cecere hired the first black man on the Richmond Fire Department and helped rebuild downtown Richmond after a 1968 explosion killed 40 citizens and destroyed a huge section of the district.
“Andy Cecere was never given the credit he deserves for the rebuilding of the downtown,” said Wayne Stidham during a 2013 cable television interview. In 1968, Stidham was president of Second National Bank and of the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
“Andy did all the legal work and did a remarkable job,” Stidham said. “It was really a great team effort by a lot of people, but Andy was at the forefront of that. I will always be grateful to him.”
Cecere also joined civic leaders who raised money and bought land to keep one of the city’s largest employers, and its 1,200 jobs, in Richmond. He also was part of the effort that raised money to bring Ivy Tech Community College and Indiana University East to Richmond.
Politically, he helped rebuild the city’s Democratic party, registering voters and finding candidates for local and state office.
“There wasn’t a two-party system here. You have to have a two-party system,” Cecere said. “I recruited volunteers, including from Earlham, and we went into the neighborhoods. Within five years we had a Democratic majority on city council and elected a Democratic mayor, city judge and city clerk.
“However, I would propose that my greatest achievement was bringing the people of the north end into the community as a whole, especially African Americans,” Cecere said. “They could go out in the community and get homes, get jobs.”
Cecere was born into a Catholic family but left the church at age 16. He and his wife Betty, to whom he was married for 50 years, attended Presbyterian church in Richmond. When Betty died in 2007 he became a Quaker and has been an active member for the last 10 years.
“I never became a Quaker while at Earlham but I loved their ideals,” he said. “I never knew people like that; people dedicated to helping others; people who would stand up for those who were denied rights. That’s what I dedicated my life to.
“In the end, I suppose some of that George Badgley Quakerism rubbed off on me. Similarly, some of that Earlham Quakerism also rubbed off on me,” he said.