July 24, 1934 – August 11, 2020
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.
August 21, 2020
When Sal Rotella became president of Loop College, soon to become Harold Washington College upon Mayor Washington's death, I was the grievance chairman of Loop College, and I soon found Sal to be one of the best negotiators I had ever come across or ever would come across. He was determined to settle all grievances without going to the next level (the Chancellor's level), and with the exception of one grievance that could not be settled at his level, he succeeded. He was tough, but he was fair, and he and I were always able to find a way to settle a case to our mutual satisfaction without having to take it to a higher level He made my job as grievance chairman as pleasant as it could possibly be. In essence, we became partners.
I still remember the day I ran into him in the hallway and he told me that the grievance chairman of the entire system (and every public community college in Cook County) had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The man who died was my predecessor, and as I took over that job, Sal became Chancellor. Unfortunately, due to political restraints on both sides not of our making, it was no longer possible for me to settle matters directly with Sal, and I still regret it to this day. However, I can say that of all the Chancellors from Oscar Shabat onward to 2002 when I retired (and, I believe, since then), he was the best, and Oscar was the second best. No other Chancellor held a candle to either one of them in my opinion. What made them distinctive, I suspect, is that they were both faculty members before they were administrators, and however much they may have fought with the faculty (I am really talking about Oscar here), they knew that the faculty was the heart of the enterprise. As Hermine Hartman put it in her remembrance, it used to be understood that we needed a scholar to run a scholarly institution. What a shame that racial politics put an end to his career. Who knows how good our institution would have been had he stayed on.
Dr. Wayne Watson
August 18, 2020
Chancellor Rotella was an intellectual, creative, thinker, a visionary and he came up through the ranks from being a faculty member to Chancellor; the last of a dying generation of educators.
The Chicago police academy the Chicago fire academy the TV station WYCC and City Wide College all of which he either created or he breathed life into. All of which were partnered with city agencies to strengthen the workforce of the city of Chicago's public sector. All of which provided quality instruction, access to new careers and diversity to the city of Chicago’s workforce in the police department the fire department and numerous city agencies within city government.
Chicago citizens benefited throughout city government because of the creative programs that came through Chancellor Rotella’s creative and inclusive vision. City Colleges of Chicago was amongst the largest providers of distance learning to the US military. CCC was in Germany, Spain, North Africa, throughout Europe providing quality instruction to our front line defenders, our soldiers.
Chancellor Rotella's vision balanced the arts, sciences and vocational work force. and technology.
August 18, 2020
Dr. Salvatore Rotella was a master educator. We became lifelong friends. He was a professor of social science at City Colleges. In his class I learned about Aristotle, Plato, America’s Founding Fathers, the principals of government, international affairs and the like. His teachings were broad in scope. Politics was his favorite subject. He was a master teacher, conveying ideologies and philosophies of world thinkers.
I went from being his student to mentee as I graduated with my master’s degree ready for my internship at the community college. My student teaching was done with Sal. He was a brilliant educator. He taught at City Colleges and served as the second chancellor from 1983 to 1988. City Colleges was the city’s adult educator, with 8 schools and the second largest community college system in the country. He described the City Colleges as the institution of “higher education for the masses.”
He was a mentee of the founder of City Colleges Oscar Shabbat and was groomed for the position, as he rose from professor to chancellor. There use to be a time, when an educator had to be an educator in order to be at the helm of an educational institution.
August 16, 2020
We first met Sal and Pilar in Chicago in the 1970’s when Pilar and I were in the same Ph d program at the U of C; and Sal was Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago.
Without my asking, Pilar mentioned one day that Sal was looking for a part-time French teacher at Loop Community College. I started the following week. Better than beer money, it was a stepping-stone to other teaching positions.
In the fall of 1971 we were temporarily in New York City and drove cross-country on our BMW motorcycle, stopping to spend a night with the Rotella’s in their home in South Shore, Chicago.
Time moved forward and we and the Rotella’s went in different directions, until, in the late 1990’s, we found that we were practically neighbors in New York City.
We met for dinner from time to time, usually at Sal’s old standby, Paola’s, where he didn’t have to remind them to give him gluten-free pasta, and where they knew exactly how to serve Pilar’s beloved Cava.
Noteworthy was their 50th wedding anniversary party, at Paola’s of course.
And when our 50th happened, we were gifted two engraved copitas, reminding us of Pilar and Sal whenever champagne is opened.
We always talked about our trips to Italy and Sal listened patiently to our stories, new stuff for us, old hat for him. Sal’s travel tips were unerringly smart.
He regaled us with stories of his university projects in Asmara and Palermo.
And, we swapped Lambretta stories, mine riding through Italy in the ’60’s, and his riding through Chicago in the ’70’s.
Ever the educator, he gave our Italian language efforts a big boost by suggesting that we start reading novels in Italian, and, by the way, here are the three to get you started—authors we would never have found.
Again, his perennial interest in education: Sal and Pilar joined us for dinner at the newly opened Cornell Tech Campus on Roosevelt Island—food from the student cafeteria, like in the good old days.
We’ll miss our friend, Sal.
August 13, 2020
Sal Rotella was a genuine and brilliant visionary. He was President of Chicago City-Wide College, an innovative concept in which classes were held in organizations and businesses throughout Chicago. He then became Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. I was honored to implement many of his ideas and plans for the City Colleges of Chicago. Together, with Chancellor Oscar Shabat, we conceptualized and implemented Chicago's second PBS television station WYCC-TV, this country's most successful distance learning television station. Sal also created Radio College which I put on the air for him and the City Colleges. We were a professional team that will remain one of the greatest memories of my professional life. It was a great honor to work with Sal.
Sal and Pilar and my husband Richard and I would go to dinner when they would come to Chicago for their tax preparation every year. In NYC, we went to dinner together and Sal and Pilar attended the Museum of Motherhood to hear me perform one of my short memoirs from my book My Gift of Now. Sal told me he chose to purchase my book in Audible audio book so he could listen to my narration as he took his daily walks a few years ago.
In my last correspondence with Sal, I wished him a happy birthday in July 2020 and had the blessed opportunity to tell him some of what I have written in this post.
About this pandemic and distance learning, Sal said that this generation missed some of the creative opportunities in distance learning that we implemented in 1983. I agree!
Dearest Pilar, Richard and I are so sorry you have lost your partner and friend. You were an amazing couple. To your beautiful sons and family we send our heartfelt condolences.
Sal Rotella will live on eternally in all he created and touched.
Elynne & Richard Aleskow
August 13, 2020
I lost much more than a very dear and affectionate friend. Salvatore has been like a close relative of mine.
Salvatore has been and will always be an example for me of how culture, ability, generosity, strategic vision, pragmatism, and simplicity can magically blend into a sound formula of sustainability and equilibrium in everyday life. I will miss our dialogues, I will miss his advice, I will miss the time and attention he kindly wanted to devote to me as a true friend, I will miss the many good moments we shared, together with his beloved Pilar.
In these years I have been able to know your wonderful family: even the smallest memory will forever be a treasure for me to keep in my heart.
A warm hug to Pilar and all the dear members of the family.
August 13, 2020
Desde Barcelona os envio un abrazo muy fuerte, lo siento mucho.
Pilar un peto molt fort