By Ken Mammarella
Many different students – paesani and not – benefit from their minors in Italian at Widener University, associate professor Thomas K. Benedetti has found.
Engineering students – the largest contingent – become closer to all those classic architectural styles.
Business, tourism and hospitality management majors get better access to Italy, one of the European Union’s top economies, and artisanal producers of Italian food, the nation’s top export.
Computer science, nursing and English majors learn how another language works.
Political science and history majors delve into Italy’s rich political history and Italian character, with Benedetti explaining with a story about famiglia: Benito Mussolini’s son-in-law plotted to assassinate him, but Mussolini refused to kill him, saying he couldn’t let his grandchildren become orphans.
“Other students just like to have that international component,” he said. “I always tell my students to get an international component component to your degree because it gives you an inside track. … People with language skills tend to make more money than people without.”
The Historic XII October Lodge No. 486 of Chester, Sons and Daughters of Italy has helped develop more cosmopolitan students by donating $100,000 to endow partial scholarships.
Benedetti, who is 70 years young, grew up in Chambersburg, the Little Italy of Trenton. His father was an immigrant from Umbria, his mother from Naples. The family spoke Italian dialects at home.
“I was really, very, very fortunate. I went to the local parochial school, staffed by sisters from Italy. We would generally have a half-hour of Italian from kindergarten on. Sometimes it would be just prayers or songs or poetry. By eighth grade, we were building into grammar. We had Mass in Italian, and I was an altar boy.”
He continued studying Italian as an undergraduate and graduate student, and for a summer in Siena.
He earned his bachelor of arts degree in Spanish from La Salle University and his doctorate in Spanish from Temple University, with his dissertation on the Italian influences on Renaissance writer Pedro Calderón de la Barca.
He started at Widener in 1989, teaching classic Italian language and literature classes, also experimental ones, like one on the literature by immigrants to Italy and another on Italian food in film. A First Year Experience class this fall explored Italian American stereotypes in film and television. “We talk about stereotypes both positive and negative and how they can be used globally to talk about stereotypes in general.”
For 15 years, with support from the lodge, he has screened Italian films for students and community members. Repeated favorites include “Fango e Gloria” (“Mud and War,” a 2014 documentary that humanized World War I), “Mine Vaganti (“Loose Cannons,” a 2010 comedy) and “Finestra di Fronte’’ (“Facing Windows,” a 2003 film by revered director Ferzan Özpetek). He hopes to resume monthly in-person cinema nights this spring.
The lodge for several years has also paid for 35 tickets a year for students to see full dress rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera – in Italian, of course.
Those monthly film screenings led to joint ventures with the Associazione Regionale Abruzzese Delco, such as hosting Italian-American singers, which in turn led to the Delaware County Italian American Heritage Festival.
Benedetti returns every few years to Italy, visiting family members and chaperoning students – and sometimes both, including one memorable trip to Naples that began with his cousin filling a huge table with a typical Sunday dinner, and the house filling up with his extended family, down to third cousins. “It was like homecoming week, and it was a great experience for me. And I think it was a good experience for the students because their first day in Naples was with a typical Neapolitan family.”
Benedetti and his spouse, Dominic Cozzi, share their Hatboro home with sibling cats Luca and Lucia. Outside, it’s a white colonial with green shutters. Inside, it’s all Italian, with a Tuscan décor in the kitchen, with three shelves of pasta in the pantry. In the basement is a roomier “Italian kitchen,” with a pasta machine and a marble counter for rolling dough. Italianate fountains dominate the yard.
Benedetti ended his interview by talking about passion. “We all need to be a passionate about something. I’m very, very lucky that I’m able to teach Italian because the language itself is so beautiful, so poetic and so musical. There isn’t a thing about Italian that you can dislike.”
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