Ithaca, N.Y. — Naturalization ceremonies were once drab affairs in the Tompkins County Courthouse.

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The immigrants set to become U.S. citizens would shuffle in for a proceeding that was more administrative than ceremonial, listen to the judge say the requisite words, and walk out.

That’s the emotionless way things used to run. Then Aurora Valenti, who is retiring at the end of this year after 24 years as Tompkins County Clerk, took over in 1990.

“It was very judicial — you come in, you sit down. It was very quiet; the judge comes in, and you stand up,” Valenti says. “We wanted to have some fun.”

So Valenti put a new spark in the ceremonies. The Ithaca Talent Education School had students play “America the Beautiful” on strings. Valenti bought red carnations with U.S. flags for each immigrant. (The local bar association agreed to pay for the flowers.)

Valenti printed brochures for the new citizens to take home. Refreshments were offered to immigrants and their families. Court officials began calling each immigrant to the front of the room to receive his or her certificate.

Carl Sagan, the famous Cornell professor and astronomer, was brought in to speak about the virtues and responsibilities of citizenship. Former Cornell President Frank Rhodes spoke at another ceremony. (They’re held three times a year.) Other occasions featured Ithaca College presidents as speakers. Newly naturalized citizens who had made a name for themselves in Ithaca returned to talk about their experiences.

“We’ve gotten a reputation: If you really want to have a nice naturalization ceremony, go to Tompkins County,” Valenti said in an interview this week. “I love them.”

Valentini in her office
A photo adjourning the wall of the basement of the courthouse.

‘A nice little Italian girl from North Plain Street’

Part of Valenti’s attention to the naturalization ceremonies, she says, stems from her upbringing.

“I’m a nice little Italian girl from North Plain Street,” says Valenti, 78, with a grin.

Valenti’s parents both came from a part of Italy between Rome and Naples. As a first-generation immigrant, she says she “always felt and really did feel my parents’ respect for this country.”

Growing up in that time in a part of Ithaca within walking distance from the Immaculate Conception School and a block from the church gave her an additional sense of worldliness. “It was a wonderful neighborhood — a league of nations,” she says.

After graduating from Ithaca high at 16, Valenti eventually moved to Rochester where she began working for a law firm. She later returned to Ithaca under the direction of the legendary Ithaca attorney Walter Wiggins, who remains in practice into his 8th decade.

Valenti at a naturalization ceremony in November

Under Wiggins’ direction, according to Valenti, she would come to learn the intricacies of the legal profession — sometimes better than the rookie lawyers starting in Wiggins’ office.

“Mr. Wiggins would take a young attorney and say, ‘I’d like you to prepare a land contract,’” Valenti says. “And then they’d come to me and ask, ‘What’s a land contract?’”

Reforming the DMV

In addition to handling administrative lawsuits related to lawsuits and the naturalization ceremonies, a big part of Valenti’s responsibility as clerk is running the local Department of Motor Vehicles office.

For that, she won mention in The New York Times. Cornell professor Robert H. Frank wrote in a column of Valenti’s “quiet revolution:”

….Things were a mess when (Valenti) first took office, she told me. Employee morale was low, and customers complained bitterly and often. One big annoyance was that they had to wait in one line to have their forms processed, then start all over again in another line to pay their fees.

She discovered that the reason for the separate line was technological: terminals used to process licenses and other forms couldn’t handle transactions involving money. So she negotiated with state officials in Albany to get what was needed to allow each clerk to do both tasks. Now customers wait in only one line. That may not seem like a big deal in itself, but the intelligent use of technology — which also sometimes allows customers to complete their forms online, and not even visit the D.M.V. — has contributed to a quiet revolution.

Valenti said she’s particularly proud of her work with the DMV because it, unlike her legal work, was new to her.

“I always felt comfortable with the orders and the judges and the summonses and complaints, and the DMV was a whole ‘nother world to me,” she said.

Running for clerk

In 1990, Valenti ran for Tompkins County Clerk on the Republican platform against a Democratic candidate and won.

“I’m a townie — I’m born and raised here: anyone whose last name ends in a vowel I think is related to me,” she jokes.

After her first four years, Valenti was approached by the head of the Democratic party. They had been happy with the work she had done and wouldn’t be running a candidate against her. She’s gone unopposed for six straight elections ever since.

Earlier this month, amid the year’s first snowstorm, a going away party for Valenti was held in the basement of the courthouse. Over 100 people showed up, including some of the most prominent bankers, lawyers and real estate workers from the downtown area.

Another person who braved the storm came all the way from the homeland security office in Buffalo. He went, according to Valenti, to say how sorry he was that the clerk wouldn’t be running the naturalization ceremonies anymore.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.