One of my father’s favorite sayings was “guarda Avanti” – look forward. But today, it is only fitting to pause, and look back at Ruggero Lancia’s life. He had a grandiose life, filled with joy, drama, success, failure, and most of all, adventure.
Born in a large farm house in Colfelice Italy in 1933, Ruggero grew up in the midst of the Second World War, in an area that was one of the most heavily bombed and highly contested in all of Italy. He remembered a bomb exploding in a place where just seconds before he stooped over to tie his shoelaces. Instead of learning to fear death, he became a master at skirting it. He was caught in gunfire between warring Afars. He survived car, boat, and motorcycle accidents almost unscathed. He missed boarding a plane that crashed killing everyone on board. He fell from a horse, tore open his shoulder, and contracted hepatitis from the blood transfusion to patch him together. Of course, sometimes he put us in harm’s way, too.
I’ll never forget when my brothers and I were riding around Langano with my dad in this little red speedboat and saw a hippo. Instead of going away from it, my dad drove right towards it, and switched off the engine. The hippo sunk, not wanting to be disturbed. But my dad, instead of starting the engine and going away, honked the horn. You can imagine what we all felt when we saw a giant hippo open its mouth and charge at us. And then, you can imagine the panic when my dad’s efforts to start the boat did not work, because the engine always stalled on that boat. As the hippo drew closer, finally, on the third turn of the ignition, the boat started and we sped away.
It was certainly not an example of responsibly parenting, but we got a great story out of it. And in the end, we all survived.
Ruggero moved to Eritrea at thirteen years old in 1946, after the Second World War ended. He was raised there, living a life full of the privileges bestowed to Italians in that era. He explored many activities. He took up fencing, boxing, rally car driving, and competitive swimming. He was a difficult child, strong-willed and independent. To explain this, my grandmother would always tell the story of going to see the great rally car race that went from Massawa to Asmara. She was at the finish line looking on as the first rally car driver neared, thinking to herself, “who is this crazy person” and then seeing her own son emerge victorious. Of course he had never told her, knowing that his mother would not approve. But that was my dad – reckless, adventurous, daring, and lucky.
Ruggero was a big man in every sense of the word. He was not an easy person to get along with. He was quick to anger and judgment, he made many enemies, he was not a very good friend, and he was a hard-nosed business man. We all suffered when his pride interfered with his business, and when we had to adjust to a new, and harsher reality.
But Ruggero was also a generous man, who had the capacity to feel deeply, who filled up a room when he walked in it, and whose eyes would sparkle when he laughed. He was a curious man who could hold a conversation about any subject. He could be funny, especially when he laughed in the middle of his own stories, and he loved to tell stories.
He was not a religious man, but his family to him was holy. He would have jumped through hoops of fire to protect us. Although it was complicated, his strength was not a façade, his love for us was not questionable. He lived life on his own terms, he set the rules as he went, and his actions, unpredictable and wild, were those of a man who would not be contained or confined.
That is the essence of his spirit. Whatever the next step in his journey, I have no doubt he will live on, in all of us gathered here today, in the thunderstorms and Langano sunsets, and every time we see a hippo.
Ti vogliamo tutti tantissimo benissimo.