Joseph LaPalombara (AB, '47, AM, 50, political science) is the quintessential American success story. The son of Italian immigrants, he grew up on Chicago's west side in a neighborhood of row houses and patronage politics known for 150 years as Little Italy. His family dreamed of sending him to college, making him the first in their family to attend. When he dropped out of high school to work in factories, they were devastated. LaPalombara got a second chance, though, when a teacher encouraged him to apply to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which had a provisional wartime program that accepted promising students on probation—if they could pass the university's entrance exam. LaPalombara did, and to his surprise, "loved the place, devouring its courses in political science."
That was 1943. By 1947, the young man who had matriculated "on probation" graduated Phi Eta Sigma, Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Pi, and Bronze Tablet. After completing his master's degree, also at Illinois, he entered Princeton University's PhD program and was the first student to attain grades of all "excellents" in all his courses, including his doctoral examinations.
LaPalombara's illustrious academic career never slowed. Moving to Michigan State University after completing his PhD, he became that school's youngest department chair at age 32. He then went to Yale, where he served two terms as the chair of one of the most distinguished political science departments in the country.
Perhaps it is fitting that one of LaPalombara's earliest areas of study, and one in which he is still considered the country's eminent scholar, was Italian politics. An interest in labor movements led him to Italy in the 1950s. He later wrote the book, literally, on Italian national elections, which remains the most trusted reference on Italy's electoral processes. As a result of his efforts, the Italian Social Science Research Council was born and evolved into one of the most highly respected international associations of social scientists. The medals of honor awarded him by the President of the Italian Republic and by the Constitutional Court testify to the esteem in which he was held in Italy. In 1980 he served as the First Secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Rome.
The area of scholarship to which LaPalombara has devoted most of his career, and where he has made his most profound accomplishments, is comparative politics. He has made an art of analyzing the relationships between politics and economics, particularly the role of multinational corporations in economic development. For this work he has also received countless honors as well as prestigious fellowships from such foundations as Ford, Rockefeller, and Guggenheim, to name a few. He has been a consultant to at least a dozen major American corporations and as many in Europe. Robert Putnam, professor at Harvard University and former student, calls him an "innovator in the study of interest groups" who helped change the way comparative politics is studied.
LaPalombara has always been proud of his alma mater, which friends say he speaks of in "almost reverential" terms. He can rest assured the respect is mutual. The College of LAS is proud to claim this kid from the West Side.