More than 90 years after its founding, the Sons of Italy club in Omaha has elected as president its first “daughter.”
Sarita L. “Sarah” Ruma, a mental health therapist at Children's Hospital & Medical Center, will be sworn in Dec. 14 as the first woman to lead the local Cristoforo Colombo Lodge.
No, the name of the fraternal organization won't be changed to Sons and Daughters of Italy. It's part of a national “Order Sons of Italy in America” founded in New York City in 1905.
In any case, said Ruma, “I'm kind of a traditionalist. My mother and father were involved in Sons of Italy, and my brother was the state lodge president.”
So why did it take so long before a woman was elected the local president?
“I have no clue,” Sarah said with a smile. “We have a lot of strong women besides me.”
Dr. Tom Pruse, state lodge president for the Sons, said no women previously ran for the office.
“We had to kind of talk Sarah into it,” he said. “We said, 'Think how proud your parents would be.' I think that's what turned her.”
A longtime trustee of the local and state lodges, Sarah said she was a little nervous the night of the Nov. 12 election at the Sons of Italy hall in the neighborhood long known as — what else? – Little Italy.
After the votes were counted, Pruse announced: “We have a president.”
Ruma quips that there was “no puff of white smoke,” as happens in Rome upon the election of a pope.
Pruse continued: “And for the first time in history ...”
Everyone knew what that meant. A cheer went up. Sarah was touched that a nephew in the back of the hall was the first to stand and applaud.
Many in Omaha associate Sons of Italy with the popular Thursday pasta luncheons at the club's hall. Men and women attend from all ethnic backgrounds and parts of the metro area.
On a recent Thursday, I sat at the club on 10th Street — a former carriage house dating to 1905 — with several people who work west of 200th Street.
“From Seventh Street to 202nd Street, anybody can come,” Ruma said. “It's a place where everyone can join and have a good time.”
Besides the Thursday spaghetti, mostaccioli, meatball and sausage feeds run by the state lodge, the local lodge sponsors a Friday evening dinner. At both, volunteers cook and dish out the food, and proceeds go to charity.
The Sons of Italy has social members, which can include anyone, and regular (voting) members, who have an Italian connection. That means Italian heritage or marriage into an Italian family.
I mentioned to Dr. Pruse, the state president, that although his name ends in a vowel, it doesn't sound Italian.
“I'm full-blooded Croatian,” he said. “My wife was a Carlini.”
The Sons of Italy was originated in America partly to teach immigrants English and to help them become U.S. citizens.
In Omaha, many came beginning in the 1890s, some from the Sicilian towns of Carlentini and Lentini. They brought traditions that include the Santa Lucia Festival, which still features a parade, the crowning of a queen and a Mass at St. Frances Cabrini Church, across the street from the Sons' hall.
Sarah Ruma's grandparents were immigrants, and her grandmother worked a hard job in the South Omaha Stockyards, at the Swift packinghouse. She is proud of the impact that descendants of the city's early Italians have made in professions — law, medicine, education and others, including many restaurateurs.
Her own family ran a grocery store at 18th and Vinton Streets, and Sarah worked from an early age “bagging pasta.”
Her late parents spoke fluent Italian, and Sarah says she can understand the language. She has made five trips to Italy and plans to return.
Ruma's profession as a therapist has included counseling those with eating disorders, among other problems, and she appreciates getting to help people.
“It is stressful, but I work with great people and have a great support system,” she said. “It's good to help people understand what they need to do to make a change and give them the skills to help follow through with it.”
Ruma, 58, is a 1973 graduate of Mercy High School and of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she also earned a master's degree in counseling. She is the longtime president of the Freedom Choir at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 22nd and Binney Streets.
As for her Sons of Italy election, she hopes to run meetings effectively and increase membership, with more men as well as more women.
And she is pleased that the members of many families stay active from one generation to the next. “The cool thing is that a lot of history repeats itself.”
But now Ruma has made a bit of “new history” with her election.
“It was pretty cool,” she said. “There were lots of female members cheering loud — younger than my mom, but they knew my mom. One said, 'She must be screaming in heaven.' ”
|FROM THE NOTEBOOK|
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.|