Memorial Minute: Vinio Rossi, Emeritus McCandless Professor of French

I met Vinio Rossi at the Cleveland airport in January 1965 on a wintry, snow-covered evening. Vinio was at the airport to fetch a candidate for a position in the Department of Romance Languages. I was that candidate.

I was hardly out of the airport and into his car when Vinio began to question and challenge me. I thought to myself that if this was a sample of what awaited me at Oberlin College should I be offered a position, my dreams of what an academic life could hold would be fulfilled. After a copious dinner at the Oberlin Inn, I was walking on air. To find a New Yorker with such wit and passion in this Midwestern village was totally unexpected.

My interviews the next day with my future colleagues, the entire membership of the Faculty Council, deans, and others did not live up to that first evening with Vinio. More than anything else, the prospect of working with Vinio was what made me decide to accept Oberlin’s offer.

Vinio was on sabbatical during my first year at Oberlin. When the time came to order books for an Introduction to Literature course (of which there were many in those years), I prevailed in ordering texts that were different from the ones used previously. Little did I anticipate the consequences of my actions.
Vinio, as I was to learn, always arrived in Oberlin at the last possible moment—a day before classes began—and left for New York as soon as the semester was over. I had no opportunity that year to have any sort of communication with him as the academic year began. We had offices opposite each other in Rice Hall and always kept our doors open. One late afternoon a booming voice came out of Vinio’s office:

“Who’s the idiot who ordered this novel?” (Balzac’s Le Pére Goriot.) The French used by Vinio was a bit more colorful. I quickly acknowledged my guilt and proceeded to defend my choice. That day, to quote the movie Casablanca, was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

We took delight in arguing about literature, the future of our department, of Oberlin College, about life and death, and doubtlessly about the nature of the universe. These were years when we mentored each other. We would leave Rice Hall and call each other at home to pursue a never-ending dialogue. We would drop into each other’s homes and talk some more. Ah! The silly linguistic games we invented. Vinio would berate me about being “too French,” and I would mock torture him by distorting Italian and claiming it to be its most genuine form. Vinio was a man with a gargantuan appetite for life. In the course of an evening he could consume quite easily an eight-pack of beer and a 2-pound bag of unsalted peanuts.

Vinio had a rigorous mind and the indomitable character to sustain it. Raised in a family of Anarchists, with strong ties to Sacco and Vanzetti, he learned to defend his ideas. During the era of educational reforms he was happy to teach “irrelevant” courses on Dante, Montaigne, or Proust. One winter term, he offered a class on “male and female” writers where he showed that it was stylistically impossible to distinguish between “feminine and masculine writings.” He was steadfast in his belief that an educated person ought to be exposed to a foreign language. And he resisted the jargon and distortions of English. Students and colleagues could endure the sting of his barbs. But Vinio was also generous with his time. His private students were richly rewarded by his tutoring.

Vinio was an enormous presence in my life. He had a rich life, and that is all that one can ask.

Mathis Szykowski is an emeritus professor of French.

Regional Roundup

Southern California – Alumni in the San Marino area joined architect Fred Fisher ’71 for a special tour of his latest building, the Erburu Gallery at the Huntington Gardens. The new 16,000-square-foot structure, ultimately built to house an expanding collection of American art, currently displays an inaugural installation of European art from the 16th-19th centuries.





Boulder (top) – Obies in Colorado gathered for a “Bagels And Boulders” Labor Day Hike along the Woods Quarry Trail in Boulder. The stalwart Obies made it to the top of the trail in good time and spent time noshing and enjoying the view.

New York (right)– As part of New York Cares Day 2005, 22 Oberlin alumni came together to clean up New York City’s public schools. Team Oberlin has been part of New York Cares Day every year since 1998—painting murals, classrooms, and playgrounds; organizing libraries; planting flowers; and more—in an effort to provide local children with a cleaner, safer, and more stimulating environment.

OBIEAdventure (left)– Obies from Alabama to Boston participated in the second OBIEAdventures tour in early October—a Vermont Biking Trip that included a 42-mile ride into Quebec, Canada. Here, Obies gear up for the ride in Montgomery, Vt.

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