Bella vita

Bella vita
Leading the procession: For academic ceremonies, Victor Vari has held that honor since 1962. Photo by Charles Barry
by Ron Hansen M.A. '95 |
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.”


A 66-year legacy:
Photos of Dr. Vari through the years. Share your memories in the comments box at the bottom of the page.

  • Victor Vari
  • Dr. Vari Teaching
  • The music of words
  • Gaining the measure
  • Victor Vari and the fencing team
  • Vari and the fencing team: 1951
  • Victor Vari in Italy
  • Assisi Group
  • Park place
  • Leading the procession
Brian Lagrotteria '99 said on Jun 18, 2012

Tony Bennett once said that the song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" gave him the keys to the world. Well, I found my keys to the world in Dr. Vari's class.

Since I first met him in the fall of 1995, many of the things I've done that I am most proud of can be attributed in great part to the lessons and inspiration he gave me. Most important, I've learned that life isn't worth living if you can't live it with passion and curiosity.

That's a great tribute to you, Dr. Vari. Un abbraccio forte.

Michele Clerou McEvoy '66 said on Jun 18, 2012

Dr. Vari was the very best teacher that I had during my 4 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.

He instilled in me a lifelong love of all things Italian and Spanish, and I truly don't think I would have had the same passion for these languages without the benefit of his teaching expertise.

R. Terry Handley '65 said on Jun 18, 2012

The first time I saw Dr. Vari was my freshman year, 1961, when he drove into the parking area between Nobili and O'Connor Hall. Out stepped this very dapper gentleman in a European suit and Italian shoes, a striking figure of elegance. I can't remember if he had an ascot or not but I thought as he parked his Jaguar XKE, "There is a man with flair, a confident man with a terrific self-image."

He was probably 44 at the time while I was 20. Little did I think that I would retire from teaching seven years before he did. Dr. Vari changed my life. He gave me an appreciation for language and the cultures they reflected. His Spanish classes were inspiring, small, and personal. He was instrumental in encouraging my studies with NYU in Madrid my junior year and my master's program there after graduating from SCU in 1965. My whole life of Spanish and ESL/bilingual teaching was a direct result of his influence.

Jenny Kranz Allen '78 said on Jun 18, 2012

A minor in Vari (oh, I guess some people call it "Italian") was a beautiful contribution to my life. Thank you, Dr. Vari! Your energy, enthusiasm, and zest for life will always inspire me.

Loredana Harrison '83 said on Jun 18, 2012

As a student, Dr. Vari helped me to navigate the complicated waters of academic life on campus, but he also knew when to take a step back in order to allow me to make my own decisions. It was evident that he was born to teach, to encourage and to challenge all who crossed the threshold into his classroom, and because of him, we all went out into the world as better people.

Dr. Vari's intellect and integrity, along with his dedication and compassion, have inspired generations of students at Santa Clara University. While I am bit saddened by the thought of his retirement, I am so pleased to hear of the Italian Studies Initiative because it means that his influence will be felt for generations come.

Jane Cappai-Brunello said on Jun 18, 2012

Congratulations to Dr. Vari, on a well-deserved retirement after 68 years of dedicated service to your students and Santa Clara University.

Dr. Vari has enriched three generations of the Cappai family: Ronald Cappai '63, Angela Cappai Loewel '87, Carrie Cappai Bauccio '89, Craig Cappai '94, and Sara Loewel '15.

Marisol Escalera '02 said on Jun 18, 2012

Naturalmente, un uomo appassionato della cultura, Dr. Vari, mille grazie! Thank you to Dr. Vari for showing us the passion of the Italian culture. He took us from the sweet sounds and landscapes of Italy—from the streets of Venice to the sights in Tuscany while we studied the Italian language ... exposed us to the beautiful places our eyes had not yet seen.

Diana (Marchetti) Barrett '01 said on Jun 18, 2012

From that very first day of classes in Assisi, Dr. Vari emphasized the little things that make the Italian culture unique. He taught us to appreciate and notice the passion with which the Italians live and work. From his perspective and with his guidance, I found the hidden treasures of Italy (and particularly Assisi) that stole my heart: the flowers that adorned the scaffolds after the earthquake, the little kids playing soccer in piazza Santa Chiara, the way that women wear jeans and still look elegant, the manner in which a simple salad can look gourmet, the brilliant colors of the fruit and vegetables, and the sound of the church bells every hour. I even grew to appreciate espresso breaks and city-wide shutdowns between 12 and 3 p.m. He was less concerned about verb conjugations and pronunciation (although if I threw in a Genovese word, I heard a stern "DIANA!"). To him, the learning was not about textbooks, it was about sitting in the piazza with the locals, bonding with our host families, and tasting everything, even if we were not sure how to say it or what it was!

And let's not forget the best advice he ever gave: "Girls, many men will tell you they love you in Italy and they will mean it ... for that moment."

Lisa Norris '85 said on Jun 18, 2012

Best lessons Dr. Vari taught me:

All the great accomplishments by Italians and to be proud of my Italian heritage.

To do and be your best every day!

To "live life to the fullest" every day!

To be thankful for every moment I spend with my Mom & Dad and those closest to me!

And my fondest memories of Dr. Vari:

Looking forward to class every day to experience his passion for teaching all things Italian and his demand for excellence.

Having the ultimate Italian experience by attending the inaugural Assisi Summer Program with him in '83.

Grazie mille per tutto!!

Marie (McCarty) Bryant '72 said on Jul 3, 2012

I was an Irish FRENCH major in an Italian class with a large group of Italians! Just slightly intimidating ... but grazie mille to Dr. Vari, because he made me fall in love with the language. He even praised me once and told me I had the best Italian accent in his class (after many hours spent in the language lab)! I absolutely loved Italian class—and the language—largely because of him and his passion for it.

A few years later when I travelled to Rome, Venice and Florence, I was able to put his teaching to good use. I still love the language, the culture, the country, the food. Grazie mille and I wish you a Bella Vita!

Monica Crosetti Lalanne '83 said on Jul 8, 2012
Dr. Vari greatly influenced my four years at SCU as an Italian Studies major. I remember him fondly. In those years he served as mentor, teacher, councilor, and guide. Dr. Vari would personally phone you if you missed class (how could he not notice?) and supported me during the time of my father's death in my senior year. He had a profound impact on my life and for that I am grateful.
Michele (Terzian) Munda '71 said on Jul 9, 2012

Dr. Vari introduced me [a French major] to the language, culture, poerty, spirit and literature of Italy. I fell in love con tutte le cose italiane and decided to do my year abroad in Rome—not Paris. Rome will forever be in my soul! Thank you Dr. Vari!

My sons know to bury me w/ my worn-out copy of I Promesi Sposi, of which I read 50 pages each/every night during my senior year. I see the book in my bookcase and marvel that I actually read every page [900+ pages] in Italian. Dr. Vari may not remember me out of all his students but he is the one professor I will never forget!

Nancy Peverini '83 said on Jul 10, 2012
I would like to thank Professor Vari for such fantastic memories and for sharing his love of the Italian language and culture. Of all of the wonderful professors at Santa Clara, he was a stand out and I will always remember and be greatful to him. Thank you, Professor Vari.
EZIO RANALDI said on Jul 18, 2012
un amico intelligente e competente che con la sua umanità e sensibilità ha contribuitova portare nel mondo il nome di Assisi che dovrebbe esprimergli collettivamente gratitudine e affetto
ANNAMARIA MICHELI said on Jul 18, 2012
Caro professore e amico Victor, il tuo esempio di affrontare la vita con entusiasmo e gioia è stato per me e credo per tutti quelli che hanno avuto la fortuna di conoscerti, una strada da seguire! Un saluto affettuoso ANNA MICHELI
Carroll Kearley '52 said on Jul 18, 2012

Ron Hansen's article "Bella Vita," which lauds the long career of Professor Victor Vari, initiated trains of memory. In the fall of 1948 I became a freshman at Santa Clara University. I was brought to the campus by a man I did not know. I had hitched a ride with him from southern Idaho to Santa Clara. I was a farm boy who was amazed to be where I was. In those days Victor Vari was the sole Spanish teacher at this "university." Professor Umberto Olivieri taught the classes in Italian. All students were obliged to take four semesters of a foreign language, and most of them did so with little interest. I took five semesters of Spanish with Victor Vari. My love of Spanish culture took off in his classes.

Summer 2012

Table of contents


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