My cousin Anna Abbruzzese delighted us recently with a memoir piece about my father, who arrived in America in 1939 as the war was starting, to avoid being drafted by the Italian navy. My father lived with her family in Cohasset, Massachusetts for several years after he arrived. She writes:
…Luigi, at 19, had to attend elementary school until he could learn the English language, which he did quickly and advanced to the high school. Upon graduation he went to Northeastern University and majored in mathematics. My sister Nancy was attending school at the same time in Boston and would take a commuter train to school. Luigi wouild ‘thumb’ a ride to Boston. He always arrived well before the train as he gathered a whole cohort of drivers that looked out for him along the way. He had a wonderful smile and a hearty laugh; he was so bright that he got the name of ‘slide rule.’
What Anna doesn’t mention is that he was blind from retinitis pigmentosa, a likely result of his parents having been first cousins, as was the tradition in his town. I often think of what it must have been like for him with that additional burden, navigating a new country, a new language, a new culture, a new everything. (Among many other things, he found it odd that Americans spent all their time isolated in their houses and cars.)
Within a decade of being placed in that elementary classroom, he was a math professor in the Massachusetts state university system, teaching from memory and with the help of his students, who would warn him when he was about to write on top of other writing on the blackboard, or walk into a desk. His students were mostly first generation, the children of Portugese immigrants; many of the other professors found this difficult, but he had a special empathy for them. (At first, he thought all those Silvias and Mellos and Ferreiras were Italian.) When he retired after 37 years, he was given an honorary degree, where it was noted that many generations of students called him the best teacher they’d ever had.
Here’s hoping that today’s Slide Rules, coming to America from places as farflung as Vietnam and Ghana and Mexico, have the same chance to fulfill their promise.