[This Commentary originally appeared in the September 7, 1989 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
I sat in Woolsey Hall with 1,300 other Freshmen nearly 11 years ago to the day. At the podium stood the newly ordained University President, who’s very pompous pontification my Gates-Chili classmates had earlier warned me to be wary of. “Remember, Chris,” they advised me prior to my departure in early September, “don’t let their fancy words and snobby accents intimidate you. After all, they’re only human – flesh and blood – just like you.”
Barely an adult, I was intimidated, but not impressed. I had thought the orator, whose Latin surname had given me hope, might have used a softer intonation. Instead, he bellowed, strong and confident, and with the subtle New England accent one often associates with the Ivy League. Like any other good institutional leader, he crafted his words precisely and with seeming sincerity.
“I’m the only one of your class who made it from the waiting list,” he quipped. The audience chuckled briefly in return. Yet the powerful voice gave import to even the most familiar portion of his address. His crisp calculated delivery came across as well practiced and meaningful.
But, was he being honest with us? At the time, I thought not. From my earliest years, I’ve found it hard to respect someone who turns against his own heritage – his own principles – just to gain acceptance into a more prestigious club. On the stage before me stood a man who had forsaken his own ethnic given name – Angelo – and insisted people call him by the more Anglo-Saxon “Bart.” In addition, his finely articulated tongue offered no hint of his Italian ancestry.
In fact, I surmised then, though a professor of the Italian language, he probably would not be able to understand the dialects of my grandparents (let alone those of other parts of the boot shaped nation). I actually thought this! Ironically, I failed to consider that neither could I understand those dialects.
Did I know Bart Giamatti? Like many others, I could say with certainty that I knew him. On the other hand, and to answer the true intent of the question, I can say with equal certainty he did not know me. I did not know him in the sense that we regularly shared Red Cups from the tables down at Mory’s (wherever that may be). More appropriately, while I can view the University as my Alma Mater, in the end I look upon Giamatti as my Alma Pater.
Bart Giamatti forever fought for the institutions he served. He stood against any force which would tarnish the integrity of those hallowed halls he was called upon to protect. Most importantly, he did not fear the scorn his position would inevitably attract. Chastised by liberals as part of the establishment, ridiculed by conservatives for his thoughtful open-mindedness, A. Bartlett Giamatti was, above all else, true to the strictest of moral and ethical codes.
With this as his foundation, he provided an active example to all of us who questioned the pertinence of our liberal education in a world of four megabyte hard drives and multi-function VCRs.
Nevertheless, my nature dissuades me from deifying mere mortal men. When he visited the locker room to congratulate the 1981 Ivy League Hockey Champions, no aura overcame me. Giamatti was, after all, made of flesh and blood like anybody else.
Yes, I met him on several occasions, though only one really stands out. It was his actions, however, which influenced me the most. His many valiant moves caused me to stop to reconsider countless things (not the least of which dealt with the old notion about first impressions being lasting impressions).
Giamatti was significant. Here existed a rare man of broad learning, strong will and extreme eloquence. He possessed the nearly vanished trait of altruistic and consistent fairness.
Nothing bears this out like the events surrounding the 1985 strike of the newly unionized clerical and technical workers at the University. Giamatti could have retired amid accolades the year prior to the strike, but resolved to finish this one last piece of work. The strike, however, physically aged Giamatti in a manner similar to the way the Civil War aged Lincoln. Being the University President, he found himself the focus of the union’s demonstrations, to the point where they hung him in effigy.
I, with hundreds of other alumni, attended a University panel that Fall where Giamatti replied to queries from the audience. Most of us expected a few polite questions concerning the strike. One man, however, proceeded to list the grievances of the union. The mob shouted him down. A lesser person might have seized the opportunity to lambast the union. Instead, an incensed Giamatti scolded the obviously biased crowd and lectured them on the importance of preserving our constitutional freedoms (particularly the one about freedom of speech). The humbled crowd permitted the questioner to finish.
That’s not the end of the story. When Giamatti’s answer swayed from the man’s desired response, the man loudly interrupted the President. As before, a less resolute person would have simply ignored this man’s arrogance. Giamatti did not and harshly repeated to this man the very same lecture he had given the partisan assembly only moments before. The man fell silent and Bart received a standing ovation. With this one selfless, steady act, no one could doubt the inner strength and purposefulness of A. Bartlett Giamatti.
My own conversion occurred much earlier. At the President’s reception for the graduating class in May of 1982, I introduced my grandparents – both native Italians – to Giamatti. To my surprise, his eyes lit up, as though I had given him an opportunity he had long sought. He began talking Italian with my grandparents. He spoke primarily with my grandmother, who as a child dreamed of visiting Yale.
The length of the conversation awed me. He could have merely said a polite “How do you do?” and went on to next family in line as he did with the countless families before us. Instead, he chose to engage a good long conversation with my grandparents as if they were a couple of long lost piasans (don’t forget, he didn’t know me).
Afterwards, I approached my grandmother. I just had to satisfy my curiosity. “So, what did you two talk about?” I inquired. “Chris,” she began, her joyful smile still on her face, “you’re not going to believe this, but the President of Yale University just spoke to me not just in Italian, but in my native dialect!”
I was, and will always be, forever impressed.
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]