Salvatore Giuseppe Rotella was born in Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, a town in Sicily, on July 24, 1934. His father, Sebastiano, was a carpenter, and his mother, Maria, a seamstress. He spent most of his youth in Asmara in Eritrea, then an Italian colony, and came to the United States with his family in 1951. He had great affection for all three of the countries that shaped his life; he knew the American dream wasn’t a cliché because he lived it. When he arrived by ship in New York at age 17, he barely spoke English. But he learned quickly, studied international relations at Hunter College while working full time, and earned his B.A. in 1955. Then he studied political science at the University of Chicago, getting his M.A. in 1956 and PhD in 1971. He won a Fulbright grant to the University of Pavia in Italy, earning an Italian doctorate in 1958. He had fond memories of his experiences living at the Carlo Borromeo College and traveling around Italy on a Lambretta motor scooter, the first time he really explored the land of his birth. When he returned to the University of Chicago to continue his graduate studies, he met Pilar Vives, a graduate student in comparative literature and fellow resident of International House recently arrived from Spain. They were married in 1961, soon after he began working as a professor of social science at the City Colleges of Chicago.
The next three decades were full of activity, innovation and advancement. In 1983, at age 49, he became chancellor of the eight-college Chicago system, one of the largest in the nation. He was dedicated to the mission of community colleges as what he described as “higher education for the masses.” He prided himself on creating new programs and institutions, among them the Public Service Institute, a pioneering effort to train police officers, firefighters and other public servants; Chicago City-Wide College, a non-traditional institution without walls whose students included U.S. troops at bases overseas; and the educational television channel WYCC. He was a tough and honorable negotiator who won the respect of the faculty and avoided the strikes that had plagued the system in the past. While chancellor, he also created a sister city program between Chicago and Milan. The Italian government honored him with its Order of Merit in 1985. He was also an adjunct professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, directing a graduate program in public administration whose students included many law enforcement officers seeking to advance their careers. He maintained his integrity and independence in the shark tank of Chicago politics, showing an ability to bridge divides and bring together people from different political factions. In 1967 he moved his family into the South Shore neighborhood just as most white residents were moving out and African American families were moving in, and his sons grew up there. He was almost certainly the only Commendatore of the Italian Republic living south of 67th Street.
In 1988, escalating factional conflict in the city's power structure brought his career at the City Colleges to an end. He spent a few years in New York, serving as a vice president at Nassau Community College and teaching at SUNY Stony Brook. But soon he went west to California and began a new chapter as chancellor of the Riverside community colleges, one of the fastest-growing systems in the nation. He thrived during his 15 years there, making the most of the opportunity to build and create. He was especially proud of expanding Riverside's campuses in Norco and Moreno Valley; founding the Passport to College, a scholarship designed to put fifth graders in working-class, predominantly Latino communities on a college track, and the Riverside School for the Arts, intended to prepare students for the entertainment industry; and building a state of the art research facility eventually named for him, the Salvatore G. Rotella Digital Library and Learning Resource Center. In California, as in Illinois, he displayed advanced mastery of the art of enlisting mayors, legislators, governors and corporate leaders to provide funds and support for ambitious educational projects. He was a no-nonsense leader, but he also had a down-to-earth human touch that won him loyalty and respect.
“Sal refused any pay raises that would exceed those of his employees,” said Congressman Mark Takano, who was a member of Riverside's Board of Trustees and considered him a mentor. “As Chancellor, he included as part of his contractual obligations teaching one class per year because he wanted to demonstrate to faculty and students alike the centrality of teaching as the institutional mission. He healed a divided faculty and encouraged the Board of Trustees to take principled stands in favor of inclusion and diversity.”
Throughout his adult life, he reminisced about his formative years in Asmara, expressing a profound love for the country and its people. He remained close to many Italians and Eritreans he knew there as a child. In 2002, he secured a Fulbright grant for advanced scholars and took a sabbatical to spend more than a month in Eritrea working with the government to set up its educational system. The experience filled him with hope because of the high caliber of the educators he met, many of them returning members of the Eritrean diaspora. Then the country slid into a dictatorship, and he found himself helping Eritreans who left to settle in the United States. One of them was his dear friend Wolde-Ab Isaac, a former university president in Asmara who today is the chancellor of the Riverside system.
Sal Rotella retired in 2007. He remained very active. He and his wife traveled frequently to Europe where, even when he was in his eighties, he loved to drive long distances to visit old friends and familiar places. He was a devotee of classical music, especially opera. He pursued academic projects in partnership with the University of Palermo and the Center for Italian Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He kept in touch with colleagues and friends in Italy, Chicago, California, New York and Eritrea, and was active in charitable causes related to Eritrea and the plight of refugees and migrants. Even in his final months, confined by illness and the pandemic, he stayed busy translating articles for La Voce di New York, an Italian-language newspaper.
As many people have told his family in recent weeks, Sal Rotella made a lasting impression. He was a contradictory man in some ways. He didn't fancy himself a tough guy, but his hard-edged demeanor assured anyone inclined to mess with him that difficulty lay ahead. He could be stern and solemn, but he also had a gleeful sense of humor and a booming, infectious laugh. He dressed elegantly, enjoyed fine food and wine, met presidents, and failed to conceal his conviction that the University of Chicago represents the pinnacle of human civilization, yet he was committed to the idea of social equality and single-mindedly devoted his professional life to fostering public educational institutions through which working people could rise and prosper. He could be maddeningly silent when the mood came over him, but he was a world-class host who treated all comers with authentic respect and excelled at persuasion and mediation. He delighted in presiding over epic Sunday dinners with family and friends, and stayed up late preparing a special “18-hour” pasta sauce for birthday parties. He taught his sons about hard work, intellectual rigor, honesty, honor, loyalty, tolerance and generosity--and in true Sicilian fashion, he did that while rarely uttering any of those words.
He died on August 11, 2020, in New York, the city where his American dream began. He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Pilar, to whom he was utterly devoted; his sons Sebastian, Carlo, and Salvatore, Jr.; his daughters-in-law Carmen Méndez, Christina Klein, and Maria Kiernan; his grandchildren Valeria, Ling-li, Yuan, and Joseph; and his brother Vittorio, Vittorio’s children, Vittorio, Jr., and Alessandra, and their families, Isabella and Alessandro, and Neil, Gabriella and Sofia.
The family requests donations to the following charities in lieu of flowers: the Scalabrini International Migration Network and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.