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John A. Volpe papers

Identifier: M067

Scope and Content Note

The papers of John A. Volpe document his tenure as a public servant, extending from his state service in Massachusetts, including a term as Commissioner of Public Works in 1953-1956 and three terms as Governor of Massachusetts in 1960-1962 and 1964-1968, through his term as national Secretary of Transportation in 1968-1972, and ending with his posting as Ambassador to Italy in 1972-1976. The collection spans 1952-1976, with the bulk of the materials falling between 1961-1968.

Records in the collection were generated by Volpe and his staff during the day-to-day business of government and present a complete picture of the details of public service. In particular, the material covering JAV's three gubernatorial terms is extensive, demonstrating the nature of the working relationships between Volpe and his staff, legislative colleagues, and constituents.

Notable elements of the collection include a nearly complete collection of speeches given by Volpe, documentation of the enactment of Massachusetts' first state sales tax, and 12 boxes of photographs documenting his three terms as governor. Correspondence and memoranda make up the majority of the collection. Volpe often composed his official correspondence himself, and regularly issued memoranda; as a result, despite the official nature of the documentation, a clear picture of his personality and the nature of his personal relationships emerge in his writings.

As governor, Volpe inherited Massachusetts' extensive system of patronage. The records demonstrate that he was regularly importuned for jobs or intercessions on behalf of fellow Republicans and friends. Although Volpe campaigned against corruption, he did make a distinction between legitimate and corrupt patronage. Legitimate patronage appointed officials supportive of the governor's policies and filled unskilled positions. Jobs were granted through connections, but hard and honest work was expected. Non-legitimate patronage, in contrast, granted no-work or no-show jobs. The quantity of job-related material in the collection reflects the enormous amount of time and attention devoted to patronage. Researchers should note that Volpe's filing system intermixes requests for employment with subject files pertaining to the same departments. Thus, it may be necessary to consult both the Subject Files and the Patronage Files for a particular department in order to study all the information present.

For the most part, the original organizational scheme of Volpe's records has been retained. However, he employed many different secretaries in his public career, and the filing systems from appointment to appointment sometimes varied considerably. Moreover, the filing systems were developed on an ad-hoc basis. Hence, when necessary, materials have been grouped by like subject matter, and folders have been labeled to reflect their contents more accurately. Researchers should note that Volpe's staff alphabetized correspondence by, variously, the name of the individual, the name of the organization to which they belonged, or the person for whom they were a secretary.

The collection is organized into seven series: Early State Service, 1950-1959; Governor, 1960-1962; Governor, 1964-1966; Governor, 1966-1968; Secretary of Transportation, 1969-1972; Ambassador to Italy, 1973-1976; Audio-Visual Materials, 1954-1968. There are no noticeable gaps in the records, with the exception of approximately 5.5 cubic feet of records that were lost to water damage in the Volpe warehouse. These records were from Volpe's second and third terms as governor, and included sections of the press office correspondence, appointment files, state service, and photographs.


  • Creation: 1943-1983


Conditions Governing Access:

The collection is unrestricted.

Conditions Governing Reproduction and Use:

Requests for permission to publish material from this collection should be discussed with the University Archivist.

Biographical Note

John Anthony Volpe was born in Wakefield, Massachusetts on Dec 8, 1908. Born to Italian immigrant parents, he grew up in a hard-working, close-knit family, internalizing the values of persistence and faith that would carry him through his public career.

During the Depression, Volpe followed his father Vito into the construction business, carrying a plastering hod during the day and attending Wentworth Technological Institute at night as a student in architectural engineering. Volpe started his own construction firm, the Grande-Volpe Company in 1933, then left and started the Volpe Construction Company in 1939.

After the United States entered the Second World War, Volpe decided to volunteer for the Navy in 1942. Rather than leave his business operations to others, he closed Volpe Construction and created a military unit from its workers. He worked stateside during the war as an administrative officer in the Sea-Bees, bringing his management skills to bear as a training officer.

After the war, Volpe returned to the construction business. But while watching the Kefauver corruption hearings in the early 1950's, he decided that men of principle were needed in public service. He contemplated a run for governor, but was instead appointed to be Commissioner of Public Works under Gov. Christian Herter, an old friend and fellow Republican, in 1953.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the Department of Public Works was one of the most famously corrupt and patronage-ridden sinecures in the Massachusetts government. Volpe came in with stringent reorganization plans and succeeded in improving the efficiency and honesty of the department. His work on the roadways around Boston was so forward-looking that it attracted the attention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who asked Volpe to come to Washington to head the fledgling Federal Highway Administration. Volpe accepted a four-month interim appointment in Oct 1956 and worked to implement Eisenhower's interstate highway program.

Returning from Washington in Jan of 1957, Volpe decided to run for governor of Massachusetts. Running as an outsider under the slogan "Vote the Man. Vote Volpe," he defeated the Democratic incumbent, Vincent Furculo. But the victory was only the beginning. Dubbed "The Lonely Man of Beacon Hill," the Republican governor was faced with an overwhelmingly Democratic House and Senate, and had to struggle to push through his agenda. He persevered, pushing through a Code of Ethics and striving to clean up a government known for its bureaucratic intrigue.

Volpe was not reelected for the next term. Running against Endicott Peabody, the Democratic challenger, the gubernatorial election was the closest in Massachusetts history. Once in office, however, Peabody was not able to establish himself as a strong alternative to Volpe. He substantially reworked his public persona and swept Peabody out of office in the 1964 election, returning to the governor's office with a mandate.

The signal accomplishments of Volpe's second term as governor were the passage of a 3% sales tax and the amendment of the state constitution to make the governor's term four years long instead of two years. Riding the success of his tax program, with its new jobs and new revenues, Volpe was easily re-elected in 1966, to become Massachusetts' first four-year governor.

In 1968, Spiro Agnew was selected over Volpe as Richard Nixon's running mate. After the election, he was offered the position of Secretary of Transportation. Volpe took the position in 1969, and went on to champion highway safety and the continuing expansion of the federal interstate system he had begun under Eisenhower.

Upon Nixon's re-election, Volpe was offered the post of Ambassador to Italy in 1972, a position that drew on his natural affability, his boyhood language skills, and the strong ties to the Italian-American community that he had maintained throughout his entire adult life. Posted to Italy during a time of political and social upheaval there, he did much to strengthen American ties with Italy, while also weathering the international fallout from Watergate and the change of administration.

After Jimmy Carter's election, Volpe resigned his Italian post in 1977 and returned to private life. During his retirement, he continued to be involved in charitable organizations and the state GOP, particularly in the area of highway and driver safety. Volpe chaired a commission on drunk driving under President Ronald Reagan in 1982; it was his last official government role.

Volpe was a successful businessman and an accomplished public servant. Recognized by many for his sharp intellect, honesty, and loyalty, he received over 30 honorary degrees and was a member of many honorable associations, among them the Knights of Malta, the Society of American Military Engineers, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, and the Sons of Italy. Volpe died on 11 Nov, 1994, survived by his wife, Jennie, and two children.


Dec 8, 1908
Born in Wakefield, Massachusetts
Jun 18, 1934
Married Jennie Benedetto
Volpe Construction Co. created
Volunteered for Seabees, United States Navy
Feb 1946
Released from active duty as Lieutenant Commander; reopened Volpe Construction Co.
Appointed deputy state chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Committee
Feb 1953
Appointed Commissioner of Department of the Public Works by Gov. Christian Herter
Oct 1956
Commerce Secretary Sinclair Weeks asked Volpe to serve as first Federal Highway Administrator; he declined, then accepted interim appointment until 1957
Volpe elected governor of Mass., defeating Joseph Ward
Volpe lost gubernatorial election to Endicott Peabody
Retired as president of Volpe Construction Co.
Volpe elected governor; 3% sales tax passed
Volpe reelected governor
Volpe considered as Vice Presidential running mate with Richard Nixon
Nixon nominated Volpe as Secretary of Transportation
Volpe resigned as Governor to become Secretary of Transportation
Nixon reelected; Volpe offered ambassadorship to Italy
Jan 7, 1977
Volpe sent resignation to President Ford after Jimmy Carter won election
Nov 11, 1994


82.50 cubic feet (83 containers, 1 reel)




John Anthony Volpe, born the son of Italian immigrants in 1908, was a successful Massachusetts businessman and accomplished public servant. He served as Commissioner of Public Works in Massachusetts in 1953, was appointed Federal Highway Commissioner under Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957, was elected Governor of Massachusetts three times (in 1960, 1964, and 1966), was appointed Secretary of Transportation under Richard Nixon in 1969, and was appointed Ambassador to Italy in 1972. While Governor of Massachusetts, he established Massachusetts' first sales tax and helped pass legislation that extended the governor's term from two years to four. As Federal Highway Commissioner and then as Secretary of Transportation, he championed traffic safety and the Federal Interstate Highway System, and was instrumental in the creation of AMTRAK. Volpe died in 1994, survived by his wife and two children.


The papers of John A. Volpe document his tenure as a public servant, extending from his state service in Massachusetts, including a term as Commissioner of Public Works in 1953-1956 and three terms as Governor of Massachusetts in 1960-1962 and 1964-1968, through his term as national Secretary of Transportation in 1968-1972, and ending with his posting as Ambassador to Italy in 1972-1976. The collection spans 1952-1976, with the bulk of the materials falling between 1961 and 1968.

System of Arrangement:

Organized into 7 series: 1. Early State Service 1943-1959; 2. Governor, 1960-1962; 3. Governor, 1964-1966; 4. Governor, 1966-1968; 5. Secretary of Transportation, 1969-1972; 6. Ambassador to Italy, 1973-1977; and 7. Audio-Visual Materials, 1954-1968.

Physical Location

64/1-2, 65/4, 71/3-4

Related Materials:

John A. Volpe material also resides at the Massachusetts State Archives and at Wakefield High School. The entirety of the Massachusetts State Archives holdings relate to his terms as governor and include: Revolutionary Bicentennial materials, speeches, legislative review files, appointment files, correspondence, subject files, and transition files. Materials in the Massachusetts State Archives collection are similar to Northeastern University's collection, but the overlap of subjects and persons is small. Wakefield High School houses the Governor John A. Volpe Archives and includes memorabilia and all of Volpe's campaign material.


  • Kilgore, Kathleen. John Volpe: The Life of an Immigrant's Son. Dublin, N.H.: Yankee Books, 1987. E840.8.V64 K54 1987
Finding aid for the John A. Volpe Papers
Finding aid prepared by Molly Overholt
April 2002
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections Repository

Snell Library
360 Huntington Avenue
Boston MA 02115 US