Temple Times Online Edition
    MAY 25, 2006
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Globetrotting Italian professor Vitiello to retire

(Photo by Joseph V. Labolito/University Photography)

Italian professor Justin Vitiello has shared his passion for languages and literature with students and colleagues for more than three decades.

Now, after a 33-year career at Temple, the acclaimed teacher, prolific poet and lifelong peace activist will retire from the University in June.

However, his life won't change dramatically when he leaves behind his Anderson Hall office. Vitiello will continue doing what he enjoys most: writing, traveling and teaching.

He already has plans to write a novel, and he will continue to organize a poetry series in Philadelphia and volunteer with Amnesty International.

Ultimately, he wants to resume teaching at Temple's Rome Campus, where he has already spent a total of seven years immersing study-abroad students in Italian language, culture and history.

But before he returns to Rome, he plans to explore Thailand, Morocco and South America, among other places. Arguably one of the best-traveled professors on campus, Vitiello has spent nearly every summer of the past 30 years abroad.

"I've always enjoyed changing my environment," he said. "I like to travel not as a tourist but as someone who lives and works at a place."

Vitiello, who has published books in Spanish, Italian and English, discovered his affinity for languages as a child. He became fascinated with the different Italian dialects he heard at his aunts' resort in the Catskills Mountains of New York, where Italian Americans came to vacation.

Because Italian was not offered at his high school, he studied Spanish. After graduating from Brown University in 1963, Vitiello spent a year at the University of Madrid as a Fulbright Scholar. He began learning Italian while in graduate school at the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature (English, Italian and Spanish).

Vitiello has written more than 20 books since then, mostly compilations of essays and poetry. His two most recent books, Labyrinths and Volcanoes: Windings through Sicily and Poppies and Thistles, reflect his thoughts and observations during his travels in Italy and Spain, respectively.

Throughout his life, local and global social activism has also been important to Vitiello. In the United States, he was active in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. During the Cold War, he protested the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Internationally, he was a nonviolent reformer against the Mafia in Sicily and he spent almost a year in India conducting research for the Ghandi Peace Foundation.

Locally, he helped bring together Italian Americans, Asian Americans and African Americans for cultural activities in South Philadelphia in a grassroots effort to ease tension between the communities.

At Temple, students and colleagues have appreciated Vitiello's desire to use the world around him as a powerful teaching tool.

"Justin is one who thinks academia is not only about books but about South Philly, and Palermo, and Ellis Island," said Ruth Ost, director of the Honors Program. "He found time to take students to places from the Italian Market in Philadelphia to Greek Temples in Agrigento."

Lisa Weiss, a former student, said that learning from Vitiello was the highlight of her undergraduate education.

"[He] taught me how to open my mind, push the envelope and think more deeply," she said. "[His] teaching has made a difference not only in my life, but also in the life of many of my family members, my partner and now, the students whom I teach."

Vitiello, who has enjoyed teaching a wide array of courses -- from Italian composition to American studies and international cinema, said he has remained at Temple largely for the students.

"I wanted to make available quality education to people who are not rich," he said.

Among Vitiello's honors at the University are several distinguished teacher awards, namely the ATTIC award in 1990, the Honors program Teacher of the Year in 2000 and the Temple Honor Society Teacher of the Year in 2001.

In addition to being a well-respected poet and Italian studies scholar, Stephanie Fiore, a fellow Italian professor, said Vitiello is a brilliant lecturer in both Italian and Honors courses.

"He is especially well known by the students for his passion and rigor as a professor," Fiore said. "Students are already telling me they'll miss him in the classroom."

- By Patti Truant