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Video: WWII refugee’s ‘Nobel’ quest

  1. Transcript of: WWII refugee’s ‘Nobel’ quest

    ANN CURRY, co-host: This morning on TODAY'S AMERICAN STORY WITH BOB DOTSON , a Nobel Prize winner from the University of Utah whose childhood struggle skills -- survivor skills, rather, may someday help cure cancer.

    Dr. MARIO CAPECCHI: Let me see if I can find it.

    BOB DOTSON reporting: Think losing your keys is a big deal?

    Dr. CAPECCHI: No.

    DOTSON: Mario Capecchi has misplaced his Nobel Prize .

    Dr. CAPECCHI: Oh, there it is.

    DOTSON: You keep them under your pants? Well, fame is not the most important thing on Mario 's mind. His wife, Laurie , has some bigger news.

    LAURIE: He got a Nobel Prize , and then two years later I was diagnosed with cancer.

    Dr. CAPECCHI: It's OK.

    DOTSON: Ironically, Mario won his Nobel for giving science a blueprint to control the spread of that dreaded disease.

    Dr. CAPECCHI: So this is a model, essentially, for cancer.

    DOTSON: Now Capecchi 's quest to find a cure is personal.

    Dr. CAPECCHI: You know, sometimes you have to be forced to do something. I mean, you know, you're put into a situation and then you have to make do. You know, I think that's not a bad lesson in life.

    DOTSON: A lesson Mario learned early. He was the son of a single mom, a poet who thought she could defeat the Nazis with her pen. During World War II , Lucy Ramberg was snatched from their home in the Italian Alps and sent to a concentration camp. Mario ended up on the streets, wandering from village to village. How would a four-year-old survive on the street during a war?

    Dr. CAPECCHI: Shelter is no problem, there's lots of bombed out houses, but what you're really concerned with is just food.

    DOTSON: Which he patiently tracked with a hunter's eye.

    Dr. CAPECCHI: You have to see who's guarding the food and then see what their patterns and, you know, that develops a lot of patience.

    DOTSON: How did Oliver Twist become Albert Einstein ?

    Dr. CAPECCHI: Well, I wish. That would be terrific.

    DOTSON: At war's end, he was sick and starving.

    Dr. CAPECCHI: You know, I'm sure that if I'd stayed in Italy , you know, I'd be in jail somewhere or else I'd be dead.

    DOTSON: But Mario 's mother found him in a hospital. She had searched nearly a year for her lost son.

    Dr. CAPECCHI: Frankly, I didn't recognize her. She had aged enormously.

    DOTSON: But she, too, had survived. Lucy bought him new clothes.

    Dr. CAPECCHI: We went to Rome , had my first bath in, you know, six years.

    DOTSON: Mario and his mom ended up in a Quaker commune in Philadelphia . He was nine years old, couldn't speak English and had never been to school. An ordeal like that could scar a kid for life. But one of his teachers gave him paint and let him communicate with a mural; the first of many who found a way to help him dream.

    Dr. CAPECCHI: Giving a child an opportunity to have dreams and then to be able to go after those dreams, and that's what the United States gave.

    DOTSON: Capecchi would pay back America 's kindness. He became a grad student working with Dr. James Watson , one of the scientists who discovered DNA . Now Watson believes Capecchi 's breakthrough studies may help us conquer cancer in the next decade. If so...

    Dr. JAMES WATSON: Mario 's work will be one of the key points which enabled us. We couldn't have really had the courage to try and conquer cancer if you hadn't had that.

    DOTSON: He may have already helped save Laurie 's life.

    LAURIE: I've just had some blood tests and the results were good.

    Dr. CAPECCHI: She's still in the process of recovery but, you know, everything looks terrific.

    DOTSON: It intrigues me whether you think he succeeded despite his ordeal or because of it.

    LAURIE: I think that he has succeeded because of it. I think it's definitely part of him. It's part of who he is.

    DOTSON: Like many immigrants, Mario Capecchi thought America 's streets would be paved with gold.

    Dr. CAPECCHI: And what I saw was actually much more than that, and that is opportunity.

    DOTSON: An opportunity, despite his ordeal, to save a lot of lives. For TODAY , Bob Dotson , NBC News , with an American story in Salt Lake City , Utah .

    NATALIE MORALES, anchor: Oh.

    CURRY: And a wonderful American, too. Thanks so much, Bob .

updated 10/25/2010 7:09:19 AM ET 2010-10-25T11:09:19

Unless they start handing out Nobel Prizes for negotiating an end to sibling rivalry or turning tweets into literature, the chances of me getting my hands on one seem slim to none. Nonetheless, Bob Dotson asked me to produce his American Story about Dr. Mario Capecchi, a Nobel-winning scientist whose worked has paved the way for all cancer research.

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Capecchi's story is amazing: As a toddler in Italy during World War II he survived on his own, traipsing around the country for years as a street urchin until the war ended and his mother was freed from prison and found him naked, dirty and hungry in a Rome hospital.

American Story with Bob Dotson: From streets of Italy to Nobel Prize in America

Yeah, that's a run-on sentence. Imagine living it.

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Of course, there's much more to our story. But, even if you saw our entire spot, there are lots of colorful tidbits that we couldn’t fit in; that Capecchi's mom found him on his 9th birthday and brought him a little Tyrolean outfit; that his grandmother was an Impressionist painter (the paintings in the background of our story are by her); that he's a mean tailgater at football games.

Sweden on the line
We also didn't have room to tell you about how Capecchi learned he'd won the Nobel. The phone call he’s spent two decades hoping for finally came at 4:30 in the morning. Capecchi's wife, Laurie, answered and thought it was a practical joke when thickly accented voice said “Hi, this is Sweden calling.”

Apparently when you win a Nobel, an entire Scandinavian country calls to “clear the line.” It’s actually just the call to tell you they'll be calling: That way when they really call, you are fully awake and don't pass out and drop the phone or think it's an unwanted telemarketer. Like you might confuse a Nobel Prize with getting your air vents cleaned?

We also didn't have time to tell you that the University of Utah has honored their laureate with a road named Mario Capecchi Way. Capecchi never drives on it.

But if you are really paying attention to the story, you will notice something that will encourage young readers around the world: Capecchi moves his lips when he reads. Take heart, my second grade nephew: You are in good company!

Lovett connection
Speaking of good company, while working on the segment I had an award-winning hotel elevator encounter. A tall guy in a black outfit and very high hair followed me in. It was musician Lyle Lovett.

I love Lyle Lovett! Breathlessly, I blurted out  "I love your music!" Starstruck and nervous, I started babbling, telling him I was a TODAY show producer, why I was there, assuring him I wasn't a stalker. Then I couldn't think of a single song of his.

My new buddy Lyle asked me to send regards to Matt and Al. Still stunned, I asked the day's dingbat question: "What are you doing here?"

Of course, he was giving a concert the next day. "Would you like to come? I can get you some tickets." he graciously offered.

Tongue-tied, I went into a 15-floor explanation about going to my mother's for her 70th birthday. Damn, her, did she have to turn 70 on July 17th!? Then when we got to the 23rd floor, I thanked him as I backed out, tripping over my feet.

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But I was certain I had done the right thing — until I told the crew about my exciting offer form Lyle Lovett and how I had selflessly put family first. They looked at me incredulously. In a split second I realized I should have accepted the tickets on their behalf. Do they give out Nobels for being an unconsciously inconsiderate jerk?

By the way, I did get to hold Dr. Capecchi's Nobel Prize after he fished it out of his pants drawer. It's about the size of my palm and weighs just over 6 ounces. It's like picking up a container of yogurt — regular, not whipped.

It was lighter than I thought. But given what it represents for its winner and for everyone who has had cancer touch their lives, it's the weight of the world. Thanks for letting me hold it, Dr. Capecchi.


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