Many influential New Yorkers come from far away to realize their dreams. While Nicholas Scoppetta didn't have to travel a long distance geographically, it's still been quite a journey. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
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He's worked in public service for many of the last 50 years, serving under four different mayors. But the most important period in Nicholas Scoppetta's life might arguably be the eight years he spent as a child in foster care, primarily at a facility in the Bronx called Woody Crest.
"Even when I was in my 50s, all of those years took place after Woody Crest, but I thought of my life as before Woody Crest and after Woody Crest," recalls Scoppetta.
Even in a city with hundreds of distinguished civil servants, Nicholas Scoppetta's career stands out. Among his many esteemed positions: prosecutor on the Knapp Commission investigating corrupt police officers, commissioner of the Administration for Children's Services, and then commissioner of the New York City Fire Department.
"It is always been important to me to be...to be doing something respected, valued," says Scoppetta. "I suppose it was all a craving for self-esteem that I may not have had when I was a kid in foster care."
One year after leaving the fire department, he's practicing law again and is still active in New Yorkers for Children, the non profit he established in the mid 90s that supports individuals and programs in foster care. He enjoyed his time in public service, but there is one part of his old life that he does not miss.
"People weren't calling me in the middle of the night until something terrible had happened to a kid. So I don't miss those middle of the night phone calls," says Scoppetta.
Scoppetta is proud of his eight years running the fire department. One of the most tragic episodes of Scoppetta's eight years with the Fire Department was the 2007 Deutsche Bank fire that killed two firefighters. There was no water to fight the fire and the empty building had not been properly inspected. There were some calls for Scoppetta to resign.
"I never thought of resigning," says Scoppetta. "One of the things you can't do, especially if you think that you are doing a good job, and apparently the mayor thought so; he didn't ask me to resign. You can't resign under fire."
His relationship with some union leaders wasn't always warm, as witnessed by the Daily News cartoon on his wall that reads, "No rush, the fire's at Commissioner Scoppetta's."
As he related to a colleague before one press conference, when the fire department issues were contentious but not tragic, Scoppetta's experience gave him some perspective.
"You know what's tough? When you stand up before 12 cameras and try and explain why a child died of malnutrition and the case worker claims he was visiting the home the week before and didn't notice that this child was malnourished. That's a tough press conference," says Scoppetta.
The story of a former foster care kid running the administration for Children's Services under Mayor Rudy Giuliani was compelling, and Scoppetta and his co workers earned much praise from child welfare experts. But he also understood that it was an agency judged publicly by its failures.
"Forty-three thousand children in foster care, something happened to one of those children, that is the story," says Scoppetta. "Nobody's writing about the 43,000 kids who are going to school and getting a better life and having somebody take care of them."
Scoppetta adopted some policies based on his own foster care lessons, like keeping siblings together whenever possible. Perhaps most importantly, his own experience gave Scoppetta the credibility to talk to kids sitting where he'd sat 60 years earlier.
"You're not who you are, despite your background. You are who you are because of your background. It's all of a piece. And the fact that you've overcome difficulties that other people didn't have is enormously important to your development. It took me a very long time to learn that lesson," recalls Scoppetta.
Nicholas Scoppetta grew up in a Lower East Side tenement. He was sent off to foster care at age five. It was years later before he learned the reason why: his mother had been arrested and jailed.
"She had stolen a welfare check. A $21 welfare check and it almost all went to the grocer. She cashed it at a grocery store and she bought food," says Scoppetta.
Scoppetta says about a year after he was sent away, there was a surprise reunion with one of his siblings at a dentist's office.
"I didn't know who he was. And he said, 'Tony, Tony! This is your brother Tony!'" recalls Scoppetta.
Scoppetta was eventually moved to a facility in the Bronx called Woody Crest, where he met up with another brother.
"I see what looks like a silhouette figure back there...figure stepped forward, and it's my brother Vince. I ran, jumped in his arms, I remember crying," says Scoppetta.
Woody Crest was home until he was 13. He was then sent back to live with his family on the Lower East Side, and Scoppetta was not thrilled.
"We went from very comfortable surroundings, albeit a dorm, to a walkup tenement. There was no heat in the apartment," says Scoppetta.
Fortunately for him, he had an escape.
"School was a refuge for me, I think, from my family, from the chaos in my house," says Scoppetta.
He graduated from Seward Park High School and entered the service in 1953, expecting to be sent off to war in Korea. Instead, his unit was assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia. What could have been a hellish experience turned into an enlightening one, as Scoppetta ended up teaching officers in an army communications class.
"It absolutely changed many aspects of my life, gave me so much confidence. And really increased my self esteem enormously that I could do this," says Scoppetta.
He eventually became an assistant district attorney under then Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan, where he had a brief connection to that office's obscenity case against comedian Lenny Bruce.
"I was asked, 'What'd you think? I understand you just saw him.' I said, 'He's spectacular. If the test is redeeming social value, that's all he's about. Yeah, there were four-letter words in there, but every one there, there's a lesson, there's a message,'" recalls Scoppetta.
But his involvement in another investigation in the early 1970s was much more significant.
Scoppetta was part of the Knapp Commission investigating police corruption. He developed a close relationship with the detective who wore a wire and testified against police officers and various officials, Robert Leuci.
"There was a connection between us, too. I know people like Bob. I grew up with people like Bob on the Lower East Side," says Scoppetta.
The story became the basis for the 1981 film "Prince of the City." And though Scoppetta admires the director Sidney Lumet, there were aspects of "Prince of the City" that troubled him.
"Very often, the cops are treated much more sympathetically in that movie than the prosecutors rooting out corruption," says Scoppetta.
Scoppetta's wife Susan is a psychotherapist and they have two grown children. He says he feels blessed. It is, even by New York standards, a remarkable story filled with so many compelling chapters.
"Very little of it was planned," says Scoppetta. "It looks like it was planned: do this, do this, do this. And it's just simply not the case. A whole lot of serendipity attached to my life."