My name is Leonardo Varrasso. I'm better known as Len Varrasso and I'm a retired educator. I worked for the Hamilton Wentworth Catholic School Board for 34 years. I'm 80 years old. My wife and I have been married 57 years. We have four children Michael, Paul, Brian and Teresa and they all have families and instead of three of them the boys are established in Hamilton our daughter is in Bowmanville and my hometown is the town I was born in. It is called Castiglione a Casauria that's a small town in the Abruzzo region of Italy near the foothills of the Apennines not quite in the Apennines but in the foothills. We had a farm there and I grew up and I was born on the farm and I grew up to the age of seven on the farm.
The trip over was very very memorable. I remember very well because we, my uncle came with us, we packed, we're all ready to go and we took the train to Naples. We got off in Naples and they said no no you're in the wrong port, you have to go to Genoa. Now if you know the geography of Italy you have to. So overnight they put us on a train and we went all the way to Genoa, got on the ship in Genoa and then proceeded to come across. The trip across I could spend an hour telling you all the things that happened but the main thing I remember is the rocking, the storms that we were hitting. Now looking back the first week of December is really ? and you're in the North Atlantic. I think now they are repositioning cruises with bigger ships. The ship was only maybe 22,000 tons, so large for those days but really small nowadays. And I can remember everybody being seasick. Everybody in the family that was there was seasick, people on board and often it would be myself and an older cousin that was with me we would be the only ones eating at the table.
As soon as my mother realized that I could speak and read in English she thought we should start getting The Spectator the paper. So we started getting the paper on a regular basis and my job was to was to translate things that she that would be pictures and translate whatever was going on. I always turned to the sports pages because by then I was already hooked on sports, but they wanted to know other things. And the other thing that happened was that any major decision that my parents made regarding purchasing something or they needed to go to some authority I was with them as the translator. And I'm not sure what kind of job I did, but that was expected. I spoke the best English so I had to go and translate and I wasn't the only one doing that. I've talked to all sorts of people my age who came over around the same time not just Italians, Polish kids and so forth and and they all had to do the same thing.
I got into teaching and and I felt that I was able to deal with a lot of students who were children of immigrants or even immigrants themselves. And when I started teaching in 1965 I really wasn't that far removed from my experience and and so I went out of my way to try and encourage kids. By that time a lot of Portuguese kids were coming to Canada and and I was trying to encourage them and and tell them that I was an immigrant as well and to give them encouragement and to do well and so forth. Parents’ night some of the parents would come and couldn't speak English very well but they were there and I would try and encourage them and to go on further and so forth. And every now and then I run into one of those students and they tell me that and it really makes me feel very very proud of that particular one. Also as my career in education I started off as a teacher, I became a principal and then a superintendent and I retired as Director of Education for the Catholic Board and I was the first Italian Canadian to have that title.
Well, Hamilton means quite a bit to me. It’s the place where I made my living, it's the place where I grew up. That’s why I say it's my hometown. It’s the place where three of my four children live and make a living in Hamilton. It’s a place, it's a city that it's a big city but yet has a small city feel especially for my generation. And it provided a home for my father-in-law who came as a teenager before the 20s. He worked on the CNR Railway out of Hamilton. It provided a home for all sorts of relatives, my relatives, for my family so I'm very very very very proud of that and very thankful that first of all very thankful that my dad and my mother chose Canada to come to and and very very thankful that we ended up in Hamilton.
Hamilton to me is my hometown.
Leonardo Varrasso, better known as “Len” is an Italian immigrant, long-time educator, and dedicated family man who immigrated to Hamilton in 1949 at the age of seven. Originally from Abruzzi (a region in southern Italy), Len, his siblings and his mother were one of many families leaving Europe for better opportunities abroad following World War II.
Arrival in Canada brought his first encounter with Canadian winter, a reunion with his father and enrolling in a new school system where he had to learn a new language and culture. Among many childhood memories, Len remembers translating the Hamilton Spectator for his non-English speaking family members and connecting with both Canadian-born and immigrant children through sports.
As an adult, Len dedicated his life to education, working as a teacher in several schools in Hamilton, eventually becoming a high school principal. His experience as a newcomer child helped him to relate to and support his diverse student body, many of whom experienced similar challenges decades later. Most recently, Len received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the City of Hamilton’s Senior of the Year awards for his outstanding service.
Having lived in Canada now for more than 70 years, Len is a proud Hamiltonian - it is the place he grew up, started his career and raised his family
Postwar immigration from continental Europe had a profound effect on Hamilton’s population, economy and diversity. With the end of World War II, the local economy began to grow quickly and required new sources of labour. Hamilton’s booming manufacturing sector, particularly the steel industry, provided opportunities for workers who could learn skills and English on the job. These job opportunities and attracted many workers and their families from abroad.
The lifting of restrictions on Italian immigration in 1947 spurred a large wave of Italian migration to Hamilton, bolstered by a bilateral agreement with Italy allowed for sponsorship of family members. Many took advantage, leaving a war-torn Europe for Canada and in 1958-59 for the first time more Italians came to Canada than did people from Great Britain. Hamilton’s Italian population grew from 6,000 in 1951 to 17,500 by 1961. The vast majority of this immigration was permanent, family migration.
During the 1960s, more southern and central Europeans arrived, including from Portugal, Greece, Poland, and the Balkans. Throughout this period, driven by the affordability, proximity to employment, and existing ethnic populations, immigrants settled in Barton Street East neighbourhoods of Hamilton. Italians and Portuguese also populated the James Street North area.
Italian immigrants often faced discrimination in education and employment but have nonetheless excelled in areas of education, business, and politics leaving an indelible mark on our city.