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Farewell to Professor Salvatore Rotella, the Pragmatic Intellectual

Chancellor, innovator of public colleges in the US, a Sicilian who arrived in New York from Eritrea in 1951, and a great friend of our newspaper, passes away

Salvatore Rotella, Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto (Messina, Italy), 24 July 1934 – New York, 11 August 2020

 

In Italiano 

It is with immense sadness that we announce the passing of Professor Salvatore Rotella, on the night between August 11th  and 12th in New York.  Born in Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto (Messina, Italy) in 1934 and raised in Asmara, Eritrea, Rotella arrived  in the USA from Italy in December 1951. After graduating from CUNY, and receiving his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, he returned to Italy to complete his Italian doctorate from the University of Pavia. Dr. Rotella began his university career in which, besides teaching political science, he rose to the role of Chancellor of the entire system of the City Colleges of Chicago. From 1983 to 1988, Rotella oversaw  the eight city colleges that prepared young adults for a variety of careers, including public service and also educated United States military members stationed overseas. Rotella created the Public Service Institute and the education television channel WYCC, that at that time were very innovative initiatives.

He left Chicago in 1989 and transferred to Long Island’s Nassau Community College, serving as a Vice President. In 1992, he became Chancellor of the Riverside Community Colleges in California. Even within California’s extensive public university system, his initiatives were very innovative, and the “Digital Library” in Riverside bears his name. Following his retirement, Rotella returned to New York, where he continued his academic research and organized conferences among political science scholars with his colleague and friend, Mario Mignone at the Center for Italian Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. In his studies in recent years, he was particularly attached to an article he wrote about the Jewish community in Sicily. Among his most recent initiatives, he was proud to have brought Carlo Levi’s “rediscovered” sketches made during his period of blindness to be exhibited in New York.

 Salvatore Rotella was a member of the Board of Advisors of La Voce di New York. Here below is the memory of Prof. Rotella written by La Voce’s director, and his friend, Stefano Vaccara.

Prof. Salvatore Rotella, seen here last October as he receives the Sicilian “Solunto Award” at  Rockefeller Center in New York City

I met Prof. Salvatore Rotella at one of the conferences organized at SUNY Stony Brook by a mutual friend of ours, the magnificent Prof. Mario Mignone. It must have been in 2006 or 2007.  Mignone called him Sal, but for me, he’ll always be Salvatore, because it reminded me more of Sicily, while Sal was too American and Totò was an inappropriate diminutive for a professor of his caliber. I remember that following my talk at the conference, he came up to me and said, “Stefano, let’s discuss the topic of the conference later, but for now, tell me: From what part of Sicily are you from? I’m from Barcellona…”

Salvatore Rotella’s Italian ID card at 15 years old

Each time that Mignone invited me to one of his conferences or lectures with students from his institute, I wound up spending much of my time with Prof. Rotella, talking about Italy, Sicily and…. Africa! Ah, yes, in actuality Salvatore not only felt he was American, Italian and Sicilian, but also African! He was raised from a very young age in Asmara, in Eritrea, which was part of Mussolini’s “empire”, and which was one of the first Italian colonies prior to the Fascist conquests. Rotella’s was  one of the many families, most of them Sicilian, that emigrated into nearby Libya or the distant Eritrea, for the favorable conditions that Italy promised to those who made the leap into the colonies. His father, Sebastiano, a carpenter, took his family to Eritrea in 1938. Colonialists? Having arrived at just 4 years old, he didn’t feel like an occupier, but rather an African.  I’m sure Salvatore certainly had a certain inherited sense of guilt for the sins committed by Italy in Africa. However, Salvatore, during our dinners with Mignone at SUNY (his brother, Vittorio, a CUNY professor of Italian was often with us), would talk about how in Eritrea, Italians had not comported themselves as they did in Libya or Ethiopia. In Asmara, he would tell me, Italians had left a less violent memory, and instead more one of “construction”. Salvatore remembered Asmara, with respect to many other African cities, as being of unique beauty, with avenues and homes which were reminiscent of Italian architecture intertwined with the harmony of the local environment. Prof. Rotella retained that bond with that African city and above all with the Eritrean people for his entire life.

Looking north across Asmara, Eritrea, from the tower of the Catholic Cathedral. The dome of Kidane Mihret Church rises beyond the market area (Photo Flickr/David Stanley)

It was thanks to Eritrea, in fact, that we went from being simple acquaintances that would meet at conferences, to becoming real friends that would start frequently spending time together. In fact, knowing that I was working out of the UN, ten years ago, Salvatore called me to tell me that he was following the situation with Eritrea and the sanctions that the Obama administration wanted to reinforce towards the African nation through the then-ambassador Susan Rice – yes, precisely the one that up until a few days ago was competing to be Biden’s running mate against Kamala Harris. I told him that I was following the situation, but just like all others: if he wanted, I could give him some more news about what was occurring. He then told me that he was in contact with the Eritrean Mission at the UN to try and limit the damage being done by the Obama-Rice offensive against the Isaias Afwerki regime, which was becoming all the more oppressive. Salvatore was using all of the diplomatic weapons at his disposal to support his feelings of affection for the Eritrean people and for that which until the end of his days he would feel to also be his country. Rotella detested those generals that are elected presidents to then transform themselves into dictators, but he knew that with his work he could alleviate the suffering that in the end fell on the shoulders of the Eritrean population. So, at those lunches in the beautiful restaurant on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of which he was a member, as we shared our ideas on US foreign politics, on Africa or on Europe, we became friends. And from there, we’d spend hours and hours discussing the state of Italy and of our Sicily.

Salvatore Rotella when he was Chancellor of the City College of Chicago

I owe to Prof. Rotella, to his advice and encouragement, my decision in those months to reconstruct in a book some ideas that I had regarding the Mafia and President Kennedy’s assassination. At the time, I had just begun teaching a course on the origins of the Mafia in America at Lehman College – in that same college that he attended upon his arrival to New York, and that at the time was called Hunter in the Bronx. During those lunches at the Metropolitan Museum and upon reading the first few chapters, he encouraged me to continue on that which then became my book, Carlos Marcello: The Man Behind the JFK Assassination. Perhaps his spark of interest for my research came about when I told him that that son of Sicilians who became head of the Mafia family of New Orleans and also the most powerful Mafia boss in the United States, was born in Africa, in Tunisia, and from there arrived as a child in the US. Who knows, if instead of going to study at Hunter in the Bronx right away, if Salvatore had gone to work in some seedy bar in Brooklyn, how different America would have seemed to him.

Salvatore with his future wife, Pilar

I also owe the birth of La Voce di New York to Salvatore Rotella. In fact, in those months when he would invite me to lunch at the Met, he would always ask me about my work at America Oggi, which he respected as a newspaper, asking me why we weren’t doing more of this or more of that. I confided in him my worries regarding the newspaper, seeing as they continued to cut journalists’ salaries, warning us that the paper’s financial situation continued to deteriorate. Money continued to arrive from the Italian government in support of Italian journalists overseas, however, besides the media crisis in general, America Oggi had unfortunately invested in property, with a new office in New Jersey that proved to be too big and too costly. When in the end, the situation became unsustainable and my departure from the paper became inevitable –  in 18 years of work, I had learned a lot from the founder and editor in chief, Andrea Mantineo, especially regarding how a journalist’s credibility was based on being independent – Salvatore more than anyone else encouraged me to go ahead with the idea of “La Voce di New York” and create an online Italian newspaper protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

 

Salvatore Rotella with his family in Chicago: from left to right, Sebastian, Carlo, Salvatore Jr, his wife Pilar

I consider Salvatore Rotella an intellectual of pragmatism because the ideas that he came up with regarding political science weren’t just aired in academic journals; he also tried to literally roll up his sleeves to give his ideas real life in a concrete way. For this reason, he continued to travel often, even after he retired and returned to New York with his beloved wife, Pilar, a Catalan and professor of Spanish Literature. Laughing, Salvatore would tell me about when they met 60 years ago, when they were both graduate students in Chicago, and it went like this: “Hi, I’m Salvatore, what’s your name and where do you come from?” “I’m Pilar and I come from Barcelona”. “Me, too!” he replied.

Prof. Salvatore Rotella in Eritrea

Rotella also returned to Eritrea, to try and devise a plan for a public university campus project, seeing as he was one of the main American experts on how a country might ensure higher education also to those people who for generations had never attended school beyond what was compulsory, just as he had done in Chicago and then in California. How did it go in Eritrea? “In the beginning, Afwerki showed interest, but then he probably sensed that widespread education would not be a good thing if he wanted to hold on to power, and so he scrapped the entire project” he told me.

Still an intellectual in the service of practical ideas, his last years would bring Professor Rotella to his beloved Sicily, to the University of Palermo, for a project that was as ambitious as it was consistent with his life: to create a new department dedicated to Mediterranean and immigration studies. Indeed, Africa was always in his heart, and he thought of this project while thousands of women and children from Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and many other African countries, began to disappear in the Strait of Sicily, chasing the dream of a more dignified life for their children.

The Digital Library of Riverside Community Colleges in California that bears his name

The project for which Salvatore was elaborating the details, and to which he dedicated so much effort and numerous trips, also included visits to the little city of Mazara del Vallo, so dear to his Sicilian friend that he met in New York. He told me that the bishop, Domenico Mogavero, was very sensitive to the issue of immigration, but in the end, he was unable to complete the project, at least the way he would have liked. Grimacing,  (although he normally had a smile on his face), he led me to understand that due to the many changes of government, both at the universities and at the Ministry, everything had slowed down, and he began lacking the energy to continue.

One of his final tasks as an intellectual of concrete reality — a smaller one compared to those undertaken throughout his long life, but that he approached with the same passion — had to do with La Voce di New York. As perhaps some readers may remember, last year the paper went through a serious corporate “vision” crisis . A profound split occurred  among the shareholders of the paper that I founded on how to save the newspaper from its financial crisis – not at all due to readership and content – while protecting its independence and the value of “Liberty meets Beauty”.  Professor Rotella, along with other colleagues of his and valiant members of the paper’s Board of Advisors, such as Anthony Tamburri, Donna Chirico, Grace Russo Bullaro, Stefano Albertini and Massimo Jaus, did his utmost so that certain disagreements could be patched up in order to ensure a future for La Voce, instead of it becoming the umpteenth story of failure within the Italian community.

During the months of lockdown due to the Coronavirus, for him prolonged as a result of the lung disease that prevented him from going outside even when the situation in New York got better in May, Salvatore industriously put his intellectual gift of practicality at the service of the paper from his Manhattan apartment. So, in March he called me, and with a voice  that now betrayed fatigue, but was never silenced, he said to me: “Stefano, you all continue to do an immense job with La Voce. I think that ProPublica is publishing excellent articles regarding the pandemic. Since we can use them, what do you think if I were to translate them from English to Italian?” I told him that it was a really great idea, but that I didn’t want him to tire himself too much. He answered, “No, look, my lungs are what they are, but this way I can keep my brain going, since it’s turning to mush being shut up at home…”.

Thanks to Prof. Rotella, La Voce di New York was able to regularly publish articles about the pandemic in Italian, those excellent investigative ProPublica articles, an online newspaper that for the past 10 years has been ahead of its time on the future of journalism and of which Salvatore was very proud, because his son, Sebastian, already known as an investigative journalist for the Los Angeles Times, for years now has been one of its most respected bylines.

Salvatore with Pilar in a recent photograph

When Sebastian called to tell me that his father had embarked on his final journey, I was just about to call Salvatore precisely because he was due to send me one of those translations. All of a sudden, I realized that I would never again hear that happy voice exclaim, “Stefano! How are you? Don’t ever quit – La Voce is dynamite”, as he did each week. Once I got off the phone with Sebastiano (with an “o” at the end, that’s what his father called him), I felt a deep grief that I had not felt in 10 years. I realized that my friend Salvatore had passed away during the same hours on August 12, 2010, when my father had passed away. It was precisely at the end of that summer in which I had just lost the rock of my life that Professor Rotella had begun inviting me frequently to lunch and we became friends. In these ten years, Salvatore Rotella had become for me not only a dear friend, but much more than that. The way in which he did his best to give me advice and above all for the courage that he instilled in me, it seemed as though this professor who had arrived in America from Eritrea, by way of Sicily, all of a sudden had taken on the role of “messenger” from that lost father. Besides, they had a lot in common: Luigi Vaccara, my father, had  also “gotten the bug” for Africa, as a young man working for a number of years  in Sierra Leone and other African countries, places that he continued to return throughout his life.

At La Voce we will always be grateful to Prof. Salvatore Rotella for the role he played as intellectual guide in the practicality of his ideas. If La Voce continues to have a future, a good part of that will be also thanks to the push and the exhortation to not give up that the Professor always gave me in the most difficult moments.

To his Pilar, to his children Sebastian, Carlo and Salvatore Jr., to his daughters-in-law, grandchildren, to his brother Vittorio, La Voce di New York offers our deepest and most sincere condolences for the loss of a most beloved husband, father and grandfather.

Translated by Emmelina De Feo

 

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