After 66 years, Professor Victor Vari is retiring. He’s imparted to generations of Santa Clara students an understanding of Italian language and culture—and how to live a beautiful life.
Harry S. Truman was president. The Nuremberg trials were in process. Bikinis had just gone on sale in Paris. The Lakers played basketball in Minneapolis; the Giants and Dodgers played baseball in New York; the San Francisco 49ers were just being formed. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini became the first American saint. Stateside, Albert Camus published The Stranger, Evelyn Waugh Brideshead Revisited, and Robert Penn Warren All the King’s Men. The movie It’s a Wonderful Life had not yet been released. And Victor Vari, a 26-year-old graduate student at Stanford University, was hired at a salary of $1,600 to join a faculty of 85 at Santa Clara University in order to acquaint some of the 952 undergraduate men with elementary French.
That was in 1946. And now, after 66 years in the classroom at Santa Clara, Professor Victor Vari is retiring.
|Gaining the Measure: Rapier wit, and handy with a foil, Victor Vari is second from right.
Vari was born in San Francisco in 1920; his mother was a homemaker and his father was a waiter who also proved savvy in the stock market. When young Victor was age 9, his relatively affluent family moved to Italy, stayed on through the financial reversals of the Depression, and returned to California in 1936. Starting at age 17, he taught the elementary-school-age children of Italian immigrants; later, when the Italian schools were closed during the war, he hosted a radio show in Berkeley, broadcasting news, big band music, and opera. He graduated from Galileo High School and San Francisco State University and enlisted in the Army, serving as a linguist and military intelligence agent in England and France during World War II before pursuing graduate studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and Lausanne University in Switzerland.
Even while earning a master’s degree in comparative literature from Stanford in 1952, and a Ph.D. from the University of Madrid in 1961, he taught a full-time load of courses in Romance languages, married his wife, Julia, chaperoned at dances, and served as Santa Clara’s fencing coach—guiding the team to victory in the Pacific Coast Championship for novices. After leading multiple European tours for students and alumni, he originated the international immersion programs in Florence and Assisi, and some 50 years later helped found the Casa Italiana residence hall. He has published major scholarship on the poet and critic Giosuè Carducci and co-authored a four-volume work on the history and culture of Italy, for which he was named a Knight Commander by the Italian government.
THE GREATEST SATISFACTION
Were that all, it would be a fine career, but for 20 years he also chaired the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, in 1981 he was named the Harold and Edythe Toso Professor there, and he and his wife have recently established the Dr. Victor and Julia Botto Vari Italian Studies Initiative, a foundation for recognizing the historical and international contributions of Italians.
Plus, six decades on, you still found him teaching elementary Italian, alongside courses including 19th-century Italian literature. “I think this is one of the advantages of Santa Clara, that you have full professors who teach elementary courses, even to freshmen,” he said not long ago.
A former student remembered him as “the very best teacher I had during my four years at Santa Clara. It was completely obvious at all times that he truly loved what he was doing. He was fully engaged as a teacher, friend, mentor, and advisor.”
While Victor and Julia Vari never had children of their own, Victor avers that his legions of students and alumni are his extended family. His relationship with them and their families, he says, “gives me the greatest satisfaction.” He keeps multiple scrapbooks of letters, mementos, and important correspondence from and to students. Typical letters express boundless gratitude for how Vari introduced a student to the abundance and richness of Italian culture and language. One young man wrote how Vari “influenced some of my life’s greatest moments,” adding, “you have become like a member of the family to me, and the thought of ever letting you down stings, with the same bitterness as does the thought of failing the rest of my family.”
He loves to tell stories about his students, even better if the story involves a student poking a bit of fun at him—like the young woman who looked at her watch one too many times during Vari’s reading of Italian poetry. “I asked her, ‘Lauren, am I boring you?’” The student replied, “No, Professor Vari, you are scintillating, and I just want to know how many more minutes of enjoyment I have left.”
TEACHING HIS STUDENTS’ CHILDREN—AND GRANDCHILDREN
For years, even students who never set foot in his classroom have seen Vari leading the commencement parade of faculty in their academic robes. Resplendent in his pale blue gown and cap, Vari has carried the University mace—a duty and honor he has borne since 1969 as the longest-serving member of Santa Clara’s faculty.
Professors who teach for several decades sometimes have the pleasure of teaching the children of students they once had in class. Vari has taught their grandchildren as well. “There is this warmth, this respect,” Vari says of Santa Clara, which is “something unique.”
Francisco Jiménez ’66 was Vari’s student in the early ’60s and recalls that: “We studied to learn but also to please him. We tried to live up to his high expectations and not disappoint him because he gave so much of himself.” Now Jiménez is his colleague and is the Fay Boyle Professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures; Vari has translated some of his books into Italian.
Vari’s former provost, Stephen Privett, S.J., who now serves as president of the University of San Francisco, praises Vari as “the paradigmatic professor for Jesuit universities.”
When William Rewak, S.J., was inaugurated President of Santa Clara University in 1977, Vari led the academic procession. Now Fr. Rewak serves as University Chancellor. At Vari’s retirement dinner at San Jose’s Fairmont Hotel in March, Fr. Rewak spoke of the culture of a university and said one of the questions an institution of higher learning has to face is: “Does it value the intellect, the sound of words, the intricacy of language, the heft of debate, the sly genius that creates all kinds of beauty throughout all of our disciplines—in other words, the sophistication of culture that produces maturity? That is one of the great gifts you have given us, Victor—how you have facilitated for us the sophistication of culture, the maturity of mind that discerns well the good, the true, and the beautiful.”