by Kelly Tolbert, Recreation Coordinator, City of Prescott
The longtime controversial mayor of New York City, Fiorello H. LaGuardia spent his formative years as a Prescott resident. After moving around several cities, the LaGuardia family came to Prescott after leaving Fort Huachuca because young Fiorello’s (“The Little Flower” in Italian) father was stationed at the Fort Whipple barracks as the Bandmaster of Company C in the 11th United States Infantry.
Life in Prescott was memorable for young LaGuardia. The family inhabited the little A-frame house situated on the campus of Yavapai College. From there, he walked to school over a mile away on a rough dirt path. At the time, there were approximately 2,000 inhabitants consisting mostly of miners, cowboys, prospectors and cattlemen. Popular among the soldiers, little Fiorello went camping with them and learned to hunt at such a young age that an adult had to hold his rifle because he was so small in size.
Immigrants from Foggia, Italy, Fiorello’s parents (Achille Luigi Carlo and Irene LaGuardia) came to the United States in 1879, where Achille enlisted in the 11th Regiment of Infantry. Fiorello was born in a tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in December 1882. Having moved around so much, Fiorello found Prescott to be “home” as a 10-year-old.
The family is said to have had ambiguous social status, inhabiting one type as a military family and an entirely different one in town. Achille LaGuardia was known as Prescott’s music teacher, Professor LaGuardia. This afforded unique opportunities to the LaGuardias such as entertaining cultured guests in their modest home.
Professor LaGuardia was said to have been handsome, well-dressed like “an Italian duke” and would travel around town to various social events to play the piano, with children Fiorello and Gemma accompanying on the violin and cornet.
Local history allows that Fiorello graduated grammar school in January of 1898 with a speech titled “The Office Seeker’s Platform.” A persuasive leader from a young age, the family left Prescott just a few short months later when Professor LaGuardia’s infantry relocated to Mobile, Alabama to assist in the Spanish American War. Never actually graduating from high school, Fiorello was turned away by the Army because he was “underage, undersized, underweight but joined them through successful show of teenaged bravado and LaGuardia fluency,” a biographer wrote. The Little Flower was only 5 feet 2 inches in adulthood.
At the age of 20, Fiorello entered government service as clerk to the consul-general at Budapest. Two years later, he was made consular agent at Fiume, Italy but was asked to leave after offending some high-ranking officials by insisting on medical examinations for immigrants heading to the U.S. He decided to leave consular service and became an interpreter at Ellis Island while working his way through New York University Law School. After a short stint in Congress, Fiorello left Washington to join the Aviation Corps. He later became president of the Board of Aldermen of New York (which eventually became the New York City Council).
Effectively defeating Tammany Hall, a historically corrupt political regime, LaGuardia ran as a Republican for the mayoral office and won on a fusion ticket with the support of then-Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt. LaGuardia served as mayor of New York from 1934-1945, during which time he was known to behave controversially at best. For example, he would never accept invites to the White House, famously handing them out to children in the community, except once, and when he got to the door he said he “came to his senses and hid in a nearby movie parlor.”
During an interview with the Bronx Home News, he was quoted as saying, “Some of the lessons I learned about self-reliance in taking care of myself as a boy in Arizona are coming in handy now.”
Shortly after he was sworn in as mayor, LaGuardia returned to Prescott for the first time in 37 years in April 1935. Landing at Love Field, he was greeted by his childhood friend Mayor Charles F. Robb. Two years later he visited the area once again, this time for a special ceremony honoring his late father, (Professor) Achilles LaGuardia. On Sept. 15, 1938 a group gathered in the Granite Dells, near the highest point (modern-day Point of Rocks), naming it Point LaGuardia in honor of Prescott’s beloved music teacher.
In addition, Fiorello was reunited with a 2-foot model ship hand-carved for him by a soldier some years back, a prized boyhood possession returned to its owner. He also led the Prescott High School Band while his classmates sang along and spoke to the students saying that these were “the happiest days of my life.” Honoring his father had become a mission after he died from eating tainted Army beef during the Spanish-American War, propelling Fiorello’s rage against profiteering, careless government and exploitation.
Fiorello LaGuardia was known as a skilled spaghetti maker, prankster and lover of beer and wine. He once manufactured his own beer during Prohibition as an attempt to get himself arrested, but he was unsuccessful as the authorities said his beer tasted too bad to arrest him. He passed away on Sept. 20, 1947 after battling pancreatic cancer just two years after his last Sunday Radio Broadcast as mayor, leaving behind his wife Marie and two adopted children, Jean, 18, and Eric, 15.
He is said to have been New York City’s best mayor, accomplishing major improvements such as a new City prison, 67 schools built, along with 262 playgrounds, 14 vast housing projects, two hospitals, Triborough Bridge Network, Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, Queens Midtown Tunnel as well as many others.
Prior to what would have been Fiorello’s 100th birthday, local Prescott residents began proposing efforts to honor the great leader who loved our city so much. Several years later, Charles Link and Budge Ruffner began making recommendations to the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors for a plaque to be installed on the Courthouse Plaza bandstand where young Fiorello and his father had performed years back.
The board rejected the proposal for the memorial on the bandstand so Mr. Ruffner approached the City of Prescott about placing the plaque on a new 300-foot bridge connecting Granite Creek Park to the north, a major connectivity route.
Finally, on March 16, 1991, locals gathered on site at the Whipple/3rd Street Improvement Project to dedicate the bridge with the plaque they helped pay for. The Mesa Territorial Band performed for the dedication while adorned in Prescott and Bisbee Band uniforms. Prescott’s LaGuardia Bridge was born; a proper memorial with strong symbolism in joining people, overcoming barriers and offering safe passage while honoring a great leader, as Budge Ruffner stated in his 1990s Prescott Courier column.
Special thanks to Sharlot Hall Archives and staff.
Photo: LaGuardia Bridge viewed from Granite Creek Park by Kelly Tolbert.