Fred Rotondaro had a knack for friendship across DC divides

Fred Rotondaro in 2013 (RNS/David Gibson)

Washington's Catholic community lost one of its great personalities this week when Fred Rotondaro died at his home after a battle with brain cancer. He was 78. Fred is survived by his wife, Kathy; his children, Cara and Vinnie (Vinnie wrote for NCR for a time); three grandchildren; his sister Mary; and several nieces and nephews. He also left behind more friends than any of us could count.

Washington is a city with many Catholics, but most of them in "official Washington" only happen to be Catholic. Even those who take their faith very seriously do not want to be known as "the Catholic congressman" for a variety of reasons, and many of those reasons are good. In the business world, it is all too easy to go through life without ever being asked about your religion. Contemporary D.C. is like young Charles Ryder on one of his first visits to Brideshead, when he is surprised at the number of times religion pops up in conversation.

With Fred, he couldn't have hid the fact he was Catholic if he tried. He was born in Pittston, an enclave between Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the heart of Catholic coal country. He grew up learning about social justice in his home and in his church, and he recounted his early experiences with government and the help it afforded his coal-mining father and their family in this essay at Patriotic Millionaires. He never forgot his roots and those roots were Catholic roots, and they reached up into a tree of social justice activism.

When he first came to Washington, Fred worked with the legendary Msgr. Geno Baroni at the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs, an organization that also gave Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Rep. Marcy Kaptur their starts. This center is due for some extensive historical analysis: The reports it issued almost 50 years ago still seem fresh and incisive. Baroni would also serve as founding president of the National Italian American Foundation, where Fred spent most of his professional life as executive director.

Fred's Catholicism was different from my own. I am half-Irish and half-Polish, a child of two highly clericalized churches. For the churches of Latin cultures — the Italians, French, Spanish and Portuguese — faith starts in the family and mostly subsists there throughout a person's life.

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Fred's devotion to his family was one of the first things you learned about him and it was that devotion that defined, or better shaped, his faith. Of course, he was the first to admit that he married up like my Polish dad had done: to an Irish Catholic woman! He was as proud of her accomplishments as he was of his children in their pursuits.

Fred also had that variety of anti-clericalism that is unique to some Italians. He would sweepingly condemn "the bishops" and I would remind him that some of my dearest friends were among that collective noun and they were not party to whatever act by other bishops he found objectionable. He would say, "Bah! They all stick together."

I would tease him that his anti-clericalism struck me as irrationally exuberant, like the market as described by Alan Greenspan, and that it was surely rooted in the fact that some ancient ancestor had a gripe with the government of the Papal States, that his great-great-great-grandpapa couldn't get the marsh that kept flooding his pasture cleared.

Where our Catholicism converged was where our faith met politics and society. He was an unreconstructed '60s leftie in both religion and politics and I am a man of the left, more in politics than religion, to be sure, but a man of the left nonetheless.

I can remember the first time I met Fred: The conversation quickly turned to our shared distress that the once vibrant relationship between the Catholic Church and organized labor had atrophied in recent years. From that day, until I last spoke with him, bringing new life to that relationship was our most frequent topic of conversation and I am happy to say that much has changed for the better on that score in the intervening years.

As director of the Italian American Foundation, Fred could be found at lunch with Justice Antonin Scalia ("Nino" to Fred) or with Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, two people who probably had nothing in common except their friendship with Fred. He liked Scalia, even though they didn't agree about hardly anything, except that the justice had also married up to an Irish Catholic woman. Unlike so many people in Washington, Fred relished a good argument and saw it as a necessary part of being a stellar conversationalist, which both he and Scalia were.

You could not enter any fine Italian restaurant in D.C. without the entire staff coming to greet Fred within the first few minutes after arrival. Some of those meals were especially memorable. I recall one where the civil rights scholar David Chappell of the University of Oklahoma was invited to speak about his latest book, Waking From the Dream. Fred had gathered a group of a dozen or so very plugged-in people, all of whom received a free copy of the book along with the delicious meal. Fred knew exactly who to invite to start a word-of-mouth campaign about the necessity of reading this important book.

Fred devoured books. Washington is filled with people who read book reviews and make their arguments on such flimsy foundations. Fred had an earned doctorate from New York University and a nose for intellectual charlatans. It was always fun to watch him destroy a bad argument and it was a constant concern to make sure that I was never on the receiving end of his argumentative skill. We disagreed profoundly at times, but he was never superficial or shallow in his opinions.

There are very few Catholic activists or scholars or writers who have not been treated to lunch by Fred. His generosity was legendary. Years ago, I helped him edit the articles he recruited for the website of the group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which he led as board chair. All these years later, a few weeks before Christmas I would get a call from Fred: My case of Christmas wine was ready for me to pick up. And I can assure you, the wines Fred chose were better than the ones I could usually afford, so I rushed to retrieve them. He wrote checks for good causes at the drop of a hat. More than the money, Fred's enthusiasm for the principles of Catholic social teaching and his commitment to social justice were contagious. His patronage of many worthy efforts and causes will be greatly missed.

I said at the beginning that Fred was a great personality. Washington is a city of large egos but very constricted personalities. People have highly defined professional roles that they let define their personal and social lives as well. It is rare to find someone with a big appetite for life, or with a large "small c" catholic sense of humor, or a knack for cultivating friendships across the lines that usually divide D.C., or an easily worn devotion to his family that is sincere and not performed for the cameras. He liked to laugh as much as he liked his wine. He relished a good argument as much as a good book. That was Fred: a big personality you wanted to be around.

I shall miss him greatly. I am confident he is already sitting at a corner table in heaven, treating the angels to better Italian wines than they have ever had before, arguing with some and agreeing with others, and making everyone laugh.

[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]

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