David Luzzi’s maternal grandfather emigrated with his widowed mother and five younger sisters from Ireland to New York in 1914, and at age 14 he worked long days. He attended high school and college classes in the evening. Eventually, he became the treasurer of the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company.
Luzzi’s paternal grandfather, the son of Italian immigrants, similarly pursued his education in night school. He later rose as an engineer in Admiral Company to design the refrigeration system for the Rockefeller Ice Skating Rink and the first air-conditioning system for the Empire State Building, as well as for other notable buildings.
The up-from-nothing successes of these patriarchs were enormous points of pride for generations to come. Fueled by this family history, Luzzi has taken this passion and work ethic to heart in his own professional endeavors, and this spring, the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations awarded him the prestigious Ellis Island Medal of Honor. The prize recognizes distinguished Americans who have made a significant impact in their field and is named for the place where millions of immigrants — including Luzzi’s grandparents — first arrived in America.
“Communicated down from my grandparents through my parents was this deep appreciation of the ideals of this country, what it stands for and what it meant in their minds,” said Luzzi, executive director of Northeastern’s Strategic Security Initiative. In this role, he is responsible for building and enhancing the university’s impact, reputation and scale in homeland security research and innovation.
“The idea of this country as the land of opportunity was a major theme in my family — and that in turn has made me a very patriotic person,” Luzzi said.
The Ellis Island Medal of Honor is presented annually to a group of distinguished living Americans who meet criteria such as the exemplification of a life dedicated to the American ideal of hard work, self-improvement and community service; and the preservation and celebration of the history, traditions and values of their ancestry.
Luzzi previously served as dean of Northeastern’s College of Engineering until late last year. He said his grandparents’ immigrant background has shaped his approach to his work and helped him develop a kindred relationship with George J. Kostas, E’43, H’07, who gave Northeastern $12 million to build the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security, a secure, state-of-the-art homeland security facility that opened last year at the university’s Burlington, Mass., campus.
“George is passionate about this country and the opportunity it provides for its people to succeed based on their talents and efforts,” Luzzi said.
Before coming to Northeastern, Luzzi was a leader of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, spun out two companies from his research laboratory and built a 12-university institute that created and translated a broad portfolio of new technologies.
During Luzzi’s tenure as dean, the College of Engineering achieved new levels of excellence in education and research. He led the recruitment of 37 out standing new tenured and tenure-track faculty, developed new centers and scholarly directions, oversaw a significant investment in research and teaching infra structure, strengthened the college’s alumni engagement and philanthropy, and was a forceful spokesman for the power of cooperative education.