Consul's future linked to slow decline of port

September 19, 1995|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Francesco Legaluppi fits well into his Italian-designed, American-made suit. He glances at posters of Columbus in his sixth-floor Light Street offices. And he says he's sure the Italian government won't shut him down. At least not soon.

"Consulates were started to handle all the shipping that came through ports, and keep seamen out of trouble," says Mr. Legaluppi, the Italian consul serving Baltimore and most of Maryland. "Now Baltimore has declined as a port city . . . and the consular budgets are tighter every year. I don't know how long we'll be able to stay."

Mr. Legaluppi, who has Italian and American citizenship, is a living link to Italy's history of exploration and a relic of an earlier era in the once-great port of Baltimore. Even though his position is honorary, the Italian consul continues to run a full-time, full-service consulate at a time when most countries no longer have consulates in Baltimore. In addition to Italy, 13 nations have honorary consuls here.

"There was no longer a strong enough need to justify the expense," says Francisco Coves, a diplomat for Venezuela, which closed down its Baltimore office in 1993. Consular functions were folded into the embassy headquarters in Washington. "We did it for consolidation of functions and to cut costs."

Italy established a consulate in Baltimore in 1924 to inspect shipping and spread the word about political changes sweeping that country. A story in The Sun reported that Italy's first consul in Baltimore, Count Carlo Tornielli, stepped off a ship and quickly "praised the Mussolini government and described the benefits to the Italian people of dictatorship."

The consulate was shut down during World War II, but re-opened in June 1948. Mr. Legaluppi's father, Marcello, became head of the office in 1981.

A teacher in Italy, Marcello worked in Baltimore as a sculptor and craftsman. In 1987, after the Italian government restored the office to a full consulate, he died of a heart attack while leading a tour of Baltimore County students through his home country.

"My father was . . . artistic, the opposite of the average bureaucrat," Francesco Legaluppi says. "He did not like paper-pushing and did not come from that background," he says.

But "with Francesco, he reads everything before he signs it, and he doesn't always trust me," says Raffaele Mazzone, who runs an office in the consulate for U.S. residents who are paid retirement benefits from the Italian government.

At age 7, Francesco, who even then had a regal bearing, began attending cultural events and parties with his father, friends say. often spoke in place of his father, and could go on and on about places in Italy he had never seen. "I don't believe I ever saw him without a necktie," says Carl Julio, a family friend.

As a 7-year veteran at age 28, he is likely the youngest-ever head of an Italian consulate, according to the Italian Embassy. Mr. Legaluppi's boss, Philadelphia-based consul general Valentino Simonetti, says his charge is also one of the few honorary consuls who toils full time and is paid for his work.

"He works so much, we don't have to worry about Maryland," he says.

Mr. Legaluppi, a heavyset man who makes a tasty risotto, has a full plate of duties. He processes visas and passports, assists tourists in emergencies, registers local Italians for birth, death, marriage or the military, meets Italian ships and serves as his government liaison to Italian companies in Maryland.

He can also perform marriages, but he hasn't had to in seven years on the job; interested couples, he says, are turned off by Italy's required waiting period -- a sort of nuptial Brady bill.

Much of the consul's time is spent assisting the aging Italian-American immigrant population in securing any retirement benefits they're owed from the Italian government. In Maryland, there are about 1,000 people receiving as much as $600 a month in such benefits, says Mr. Mazzone.

But in times of tight finances and easier telecommunications, most countries have decided that having a full-service diplomatic outpost in Baltimore isn't worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to operate.

Thirteen honorary consuls representing 14 countries remain, but many are American citizens with only slight ties to "their" countries. Others have little time for the job, which generally are not paid.

Timothy C. McNamara, a 49-year-old management consultant who has been Denmark's consul since 1981, has no Danish ancestry and got the job after "doing a lot of work for Danish companies during the 1970s."

Dr. Conrado Ferrero, a gynecologist and Spain's representative to Baltimore, took the post on the condition that he not have any bureaucratic duties.

Lee Connor, the Belgian consul who is president of a steamship agency, says, "I succeeded my uncle who succeeded his brother who succeeded his uncle."

Some consuls say their jobs allow them to make valuable business contacts. Claude Edeline, the French consul and a Realtor, owns a travel agency and a long-distance telephone service. And Mr. Legaluppi is vice president in Renaissance Travel, an agency that does trips to Italy and has a small office inside the consulate.

Mr. Legaluppi could some day need the extra income. Mr. Simonetti, the consul general in Philadelphia, says the Baltimore consulate is "safe, for a while," but it's not hard to notice the decline of a shipping-era institution.

"I don't really think Baltimore is declining as an international city -- in fact, it's growing . . . but in a different way than before," Mr. Legaluppi says, mustering hope. But "I am concerned -- we've got a good thing going here."

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