Senior Stories

Fiorello LaGuardia (The Compassion of New York’s Famous Mayor)

Fiorello LaGuardia Stamp, Mayor LaGuardia

The Little Flower: Fiorello LaGuardia

Here’s a story about Fiorello LaGuardia who was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII. Many New Yorkers adored him.  They took to calling him the “Little Flower”. All because he was so short and always wore a carnation in his lapel. Mayor LaGuardia was a colorful character.

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He rode the New York City fire trucks, raided city “speakeasies” with the police department, and took entire orphanages to baseball games. When the New York newspapers went on strike, he got on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids.

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A Fine Must Be Payed

One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court. The court served the poorest ward of the city. Mayor LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself.

Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told Mayor LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her. Her daughter was sick and her two grandchildren were starving.

But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a really bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail.”

Even as he pronounced the sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous hat.

He proclaimed, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”

Famous Compassion: Mayor LaGuardia

The following day, New York City newspapers reported the incident. A bewildered woman who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren received $47.50. The grocery store owner himself contributed fifty cents of that amount.

Furthermore, some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen participated. Each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

Someone beautifully said, “Sympathy sees and says, ‘I’m sorry.’ Compassion sees and says, ‘I’ll help.’ When we learn the difference, we can make a difference.”

Just like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia…

A Timeline of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia Before He Became Mayor

  • Fiorello LaGuardia was born in New York City on December 11, 1882.
    • Italian Catholic father and an observant Jewish mother
  • Fiorello’s first job was with the U.S. Embassy in Budapest in 1900.
  • He later worked for the U.S. Immigration Service in New York City while he studied law at New York University.
  • LaGuardia was admitted to the bar in 1910.
  • In 1916, he became the first Italian-American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

A Vocal Opponent Of The Nazis

Fiorello LaGuardia belonged to the progressive wing of the Republican Party. He opposed prohibition, supported women’s suffrage, and passionately campaigned against child labor. In 1932, he co-sponsored the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which restricted the power of courts to ban strikes. LaGuardia also became known as an early and vocal opponent of the Nazis.

Also in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s landslide victory swept away many Republican members of Congress, including LaGuardia. LaGuardia felt undeterred by this and finally won the mayoral election of New York City in 1933. He became affectionately known as ‘The Little Flower’ due to his 5 foot 2 stature. His compassionate attitude towards the people of New York is undeniable.

Over the next twelve years, he developed a reputation as an efficient and honest administrator. A supporter of the New Deal, LaGuardia expanded the city’s social welfare services. Furthermore, he initiated a program of low-cost housing. One of his best-known remarks was, “There is no Democratic or Republican way to clean the streets.”

The First man Elected Mayor Of New York For Three Consecutive Terms

Fiorello H. LaGuardia was the first man to win the election of Mayor of New York for three consecutive terms. Many people agreed that he was like New York’s most colorful Mayor since Peter Stuyvesant.

Dynamite and aggressive, he was a fighter by nature and constantly flew all over the country by airplane. He would take on anybody, no matter their size, including Hitler. He even went as far as to make brave public remarks that caused a stir.

When he took office as Mayor on January 1, 1934, Fiorello LaGuardia had climbed higher on the political ladder than any other American of Italian descent.

LaGuardia came to office in January 1934 with five main goals:

  • Restore the financial health and break free from the bankers’ control.
  • Expand the federally-funded work relief program for the unemployed.
  • Ending corruption in government and racketeering in key sectors of the economy
  • Replace patronage with a merit-based civil service, with high prestige
  • Modernize the infrastructure, especially transportation and parks

He achieved the majority of the first four goals in his first hundred days. FDR gave him 20% of the entire national CWA budget for work relief. LaGuardia then collaborated closely with Robert Moses, with support from the governor Democrat Herbert Lehman, to upgrade the decaying infrastructure.

Fiorello LaGuardia’s Childhood And Start in Politics

Fiorello LaGuardia’s parents came to the United States from Foggia, Italy. Although he was born on the East Side of Manhattan on Dec. 11, 1882, Fiorello LaGuardia was by no means a product of the city streets.

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