It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.

—J.K. Rowling


Mario Capecchi’s parents were American-born poet Lucy Ramberg and Luciano Capecchi, an officer in the Italian Airforce. They were living in the Italian Alps near the German border when World War II broke out. Mario’s father was reported missing in action while manning an anti-aircraft gun in the Western Desert campaign. His mother was ordered to one of the notoriously dehumanizing concentration camps established at Hitler’s direction. She became a political prisoner punished for belonging to an anti-Fascist group. Knowing she was in danger, Mario’s mother sold her belongings and made plans with a peasant family near Bolzano, Italy, to take care of her son.

After a single year, the money was exhausted and the family was unable to care for him. Mario recalls: “They didn’t have the resources to keep me and maintain their own family. So I went on the streets.” At four-and-a-half years old, he was left to fend for himself on the streets of northern Italy for the next four years, living in various orphanages and roving through towns with gangs of other homeless children, stealing food from carts while others distracted the vendors. It was a nearly feral lifestyle. He almost died of malnutrition. He recalls: “Just surviving from day to day pretty much occupies your mind.”

Eventually, his ...

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