Politics may be in student’s blood
Stephen Torquato is a natural politician – the kind who can’t walk from one end of Pitt-Johnstown’s campus to the other without stopping to greet half of the people he encounters.
To some, he is their resident director, others are fellow student senators; a third possibility is that they are part of one of the many student organizations in which he is involved.
But there is more to Stephen than most students know, and, that is, he may carry out his Housing and Senate duties with such ease because of genetics: Stephen’s grandfather’s cousin, John Torquato, was a Cambria County political icon and Democratic Party machine boss for more than three decades.
“Back then, when you were in charge of a party (it was called) a ‘machine,’” Stephen said.
John’s career began in Johnstown, when he was elected a Democratic precinct captain in 1928. From there, he became secretary of the Workmen’s Compensation Board in Harrisburg before returning to Johnstown in 1940 to run unsuccessfully for a U.S. House seat.
Undaunted by defeat, however, John ascended to the Cambria County Democratic Committee chairmanship in 1942, a position he held for 36 years until accusations of extortion and conspiracy related to contractor kickbacks forced him to resign.
While John was eventually convicted and served a five-year prison term, Stephen said he knows his third-cousin’s legacy outlived his political career and scandal.
“The (area’s) first Italian American district attorney, county treasurer, legislator and county commissioner…these elections were attributed to his work at getting them elected,” Stephen said.
According to Stefano Luconi’s 1999 journal article “The Machine Boss as a Symbolic Leader,” Italian Americans were largely marginalized in local politics until John came to power.
“It was only during Torquato’s tenure as the chairperson…that Italian Americans began to push their way up the political ladder in Cambria,” Luconi wrote.
“As soon as Torquato became the county’s Democratic leader, he started to accommodate his fellow ethnics within the local hierarchy of the party.”
Despite the rise and fall of his third cousin, Stephen said he thinks politics is in his blood and that he will always strive to serve the community.
“I hope I’m never indicted or anything,” Stephen said, “but I’m looking on the up and up. I enjoy giving back.”
Stephen said he even considered a triple major in secondary education-social studies, history and political science.
“That was a little ambitious,” he said, “so I knocked it down to two. I’m hoping to still get a minor in political science.”
Although his main academic efforts are not political, there may be political campaigns in Stephen’s future – and not just a potential bid for Student Senate president next year, which he said he is also considering for his fifth undergraduate year.
“You never know. When I was little, I wanted to be President of the United States.”
Stephen also said that as a child he could be found in the library checking out children’s version textbooks about the presidents.
“My friends got books of Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente, or football players…I was reading about Rutherford B. Hayes.”
While Johnstown residents may be well aware of the Torquato name, it is doubtful that students know just how deep Stephen’s roots go on campus.
Despite the fact that Stephen is a Pittsburgh native, and was not aware of how important his family was to Johnstown, he was quick to discover his connection to the campus’ Owen Library.
The library is named after John’s sister-in-law Sara Jane Turquato – sister of his wife, Sara Jane. Sara Jane’s sister was Elvina Jane Owen. On the second-floor there is a room dedicated, in part, to John and his political memorabilia that has been visited by fewer than 35 people.
“It’s an awesome room,” Stephen said.
Artwork created by Sara and Elvina occupies one end of the room, but beams of light from a window draw attention instead to a glass case filled with John’s possessions.
Among the artifacts is a photograph of President Jimmy Carter, a pennant from Harry Truman’s inauguration and a collection of pins and buttons from years of campaigns. Other photographs and sketches of John’s likeness hang on the wall above the room’s sign-in sheet.
“My mom says that Torquato men all have the same cheeks,” Stephen said as he motioned to one of the portraits.
“But our eyebrows have gotten thinner over the years.”
Stephen’s cousin’s collection of photographs is a collage of who’s who of mid-twentieth century Democrats.
In one, John is seen standing side-by-side with John F. Kennedy. In another, he is shaking Lyndon B. Johnson’s hand.
When Stephen stands beneath John’s photo, the slight resemblance between the two men is apparent.
Despite the similarities, Stephen maintains an independence marked by views that are more conservative than the rest of his family.
So, while he may never try to capitalize on John’s name recognition, the desire to get involved may be in his blood.
“It upsets me that people consider politics to be run in the shadows…and people don’t trust government,” he said.
“But there is hope that someday it might be brought out of the shadows and back into the light of day.”