Caprio: Leave the ladder down, so others may follow

Every so often, Providence Municipal Court Judge Frank Caprio opens a desk drawer in his office on Federal Hill to look at a journal filled with signatures from loved ones from his past. His father wrote in it many years ago, “The street is wide and the road is long and bumpy.”

Caprio reads that and is reminded of where he came from and the things he has accomplished along the way.

This weekend, Caprio of Narragansett will receive his third honorary doctorate degree, this one from the University of Rhode Island.

“I’m not an alumnus of URI so [the honorary degree] has special significance,” Caprio said in an interview at The Caprio Law Firm on Federal Hill. “I’m extraordinarily pleased and excited by this recognition and appreciative.”

Caprio, whose court proceedings are televised on a popular show, “Caught in Providence,” is senior partner in the law firm and is a co-owner of The Coast Guard House in Narragansett. He served as chairman of the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education for 10 years and on that board for an additional six years. He has previously received honorary degrees from Suffolk University in 1991, where he earned his law degree, and Providence College in 2008, where he earned his bachelor’s degree.

“I really treasure them all,” Caprio said from his office, which has a panoramic view of the capital city’s downtown. “My focus, while I was on the [Board of Governors for Higher Education] was to try and make education affordable and accessible for everyone, particularly those of low-income families.”

He came from such humble beginnings. Caprio grew up on the west side of Providence – from his office, he can see the parcel where his family’s house stood in the 1940s. His father emigrated from Teano, Italy, and worked as a fruit peddler around the city.

“Not one of my 18 aunts and uncles went to high school,” Caprio said, adding he was fortunate to be the first of more than 40 cousins to graduate from college. “I knew that the path to success and accomplishment was through hard work and getting an education.”

Caprio remembered being a young man finishing at Suffolk University and being inspired by the ascent of an articulate, dynamic man, John F. Kennedy, who later inspired him to run for office in his early 20s, he said.

Throughout his years on the Board of Governors, Caprio felt it was his duty to help people have an equal opportunity to get the kind of education he had. A thriving economy boils down to educating the youth, he said. He cited a study that found in Rhode Island, helping 1,000 students who would otherwise not make it to college has an economic impact of $700 million in raw dollars on the state during their lifetimes.

“That was only 1,000 students – think about the impact,” he said. “That was always my focus, and I hope this honorary degree is the university recognizing the efforts to advance that agenda.”

During Sunday’s undergraduate commencement, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor will give the keynote address. She is the definition of a classic American story, Caprio said.

“She came from humble beginnings and has climbed that ladder to the pinnacle accomplishment in a judiciary,” he said. “She’s going to be inspiring by just being there.”

Over the years, Caprio has given commencement speeches at URI and although the speeches have differed, one message was the same.

“When you climb that ladder to success, your obligation is to leave that ladder down so others can follow,” he said, adding, “If this Sunday, someone were to ask me what my one wish would be, it would be that my father were here to see this accomplishment.”

Honorary doctorate degrees also will be conferred upon Richard Tapia, a mathematician and professor in the Rice University Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics; Christopher M. DiMaio of Aptos, California; and Melanie Will-Cole of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Graduate school commencement will be held Saturday at 1 p.m., at the Ryan Center. The undergraduate commencement will begin Sunday at 12:30 p.m., on the Quad, or at the Ryan Center in the case of inclement weather.

Tickets for the undergraduate commencement are not required if it is held on the Quad. Graduates are limited to two rain tickets per family if the ceremony is moved indoors. The undergraduate colleges hold separate ceremonies in various areas across campus following the commencement ceremony.

More than 3,000 students will receive their degrees over the weekend. For more information, visit uri.edu/commencement.

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