Celebrating Gonzaga-In-Florence at 50

May 04, 2014

Late one February night in 1964, three Gonzaga students were arrested in Florence. They “had the silly inspiration to bend one or two traffic signs in one of the piazzas,” reads a letter from Father Joe F. Conwell, S.J., then assistant director of the program. Gonzaga-in-Florence has its share of stories. but In Essence, It’s a program with deep roots and a rich history. Florence students come Home with a renewed sense of faith and inspiration, tales of travel and study, and connections that boast lifelong friendship. This year we celebrate Gonzaga-in-Florence’s 50th anniversary.

In the fall of 1961, Kevin Roddy (’64) wrote his father a letter. Fr. Neil McCluskey had organized a year-long study abroad program in Florence, Italy, and Roddy desperately wanted to attend, but tuition was $600 more than at Gonzaga – equal to about $5,000 today – and his family was already struggling to pay.

“I was convinced this would be a wonderful opportunity,” Roddy said. “So I wrote to my father, since we didn’t have email back then and I couldn’t call, and he wrote back with three words: ‘Go. Go. Go.’ ” So he went.

It wasn’t so easy for others. Marilee Hart Russell (’64) was already paying for school herself. When she wanted to go to Florence, she had to take on a second summer job, in the parts department at Sears. She put cardboard in the bottom of her shoes to save money. For a year, she slept an average of four hours a night. But in the end, she went.

Along with 67 others, mostly juniors, they sailed to Rotterdam, went on to Germany, and then toured Europe down to Florence.

The summer before, Ed Cody (’64) had been working the same job he did in high school, logging. “It’s a big gap from working with the loggers to Florence, Italy. For me, it all happened in three days.” When he arrived, he was completely overwhelmed. History was everywhere. “There, the Renaissance comes crashing down on you every day,” he said. World War II was still in the collective memory, you could see bullet holes in the walls. He had no idea what to expect, but immediately decided he needed to learn Italian.

“I bought a dictionary,” he said. “And then I wanted a notebook to write words down. So I looked the word up in the dictionary, walked into a store – I had probably been in town an hour and a half – and said ‘quaderno’ and the woman said, ‘You speak such beautiful Italian!’ That’s how it was the whole time. I had this feeling of being in the right place.”

Students who spoke more Italian, like Sunny Strong (’64), could take classes at the University of Florence. Otherwise, they used the Jesuit House as a classroom. She took English literature courses, so she had the advantage of reading the material in her native tongue. But still, she had to pass an oral final exam in Italian.

Everything wasn’t easy, that first year, with all of the logistics still being sorted out. The girls lived with nuns, two floors of them to one bathroom. They didn’t have any toilet paper, until Hart Russell’s grandmother mailed them a case. The sisters liked the toilet paper, and they took it, so the students had to steal it back. The rooms were so small that there was no room to study, so they would climb onto the roof of the flat factory next door and study there. There was barely enough food, especially for the boys – a roll for breakfast, a hot dog and half a hard-boiled egg for dinner.

And then there were the big moments. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated that year, while they were thousands of miles from home. The period of mourning was intense, even in Europe. Some of the students had made friends with a pair of Syrians, and they mourned together.

With everything so new, the students had the chance to make the year their own. Roddy took art classes, learning to draw and paint and sculpt from accomplished Italian artists. Hart Russell started writing poetry and won a trip to Paris. She also found a passion for art.

“I used to take my lunch to the Uffizi, where I had found this painting – La Battaglia by Paolo Uccello – that I would sit in front of every day. I learned, in a sense, everything I needed to know about composition from that painting.”

Cody joined a group of French ex-pats to learn that language too – he had fallen for a French girl on the boat, a girl he would woo and eventually marry – and became friends with an older Italian man who was also in the group.

“One night, we were walking home over the Ponte Vecchio,” he remembers. “It was April, and a busload of tourists pulled up and walked into a hotel. This guy looked at me and said, ‘It’s tourist season, doesn’t that make you mad? There’s going to be foreigners all over town.’ I felt very proud of myself, walking through town with this guy, speaking Italian and complaining about the foreigners taking over our town.”

After a year away, the students were changed. Hart Russell came back a traveler; she received a Fulbright and went to India the next year. Roddy taught cultural studies, and the history of the same art he studied in Italy. Cody stayed in France to work, and then became a journalist. He’s back in Paris now, writing for the Washington Post, after working in Mexico, Central America and the Middle East.

Florence, though, has stayed in everyone’s heart. Roddy recalls a bike ride with an Italian friend, Enzo, and the way he exploded with joy at the beauty of the flowers and the warmth of the sun. Strong remembers noticing the way that Italians spoke to each other on the street, thinking of it as an interaction and not an interruption. She still tries to live that out. And Cody still wears corduroys, just like the ones he bought 50 years ago to fit in with the Italians.

A Bold Idea for Gonzaga-in-Florence

By Dean Patrick Burke & Gabriela Horvath

During its first 50 years, Gonzaga-in-Florence has not only educated and transformed more than 6,000 students; it has built significant stature and goodwill within the city of Florence. Yet we believe that the best is still to come: Gonzaga-in-Florence is prepared and well poised to open a Center for Global Renaissance Studies.

Such a center would advocate that the Florentine Renaissance and successive renaissances in western Europe are the outcomes of earlier renaissances across Euroasia, including the blooming moments of Indian, Chinese, Islamic and Mediterranean cultures. This broad perspective offers an ideal platform for global Renaissance studies – while also complementing Gonzaga’s new Center for Global Engagement.

This new center in Florence would aspire to offer a two-year study abroad program with a minor in Global Renaissance Studies, granting a solid cultural foundation for any major of international breadth. Further, we would like to strengthen and refocus our curriculum to more vigorously reflect the remarkable significance of Firenze. For three centuries, Florence was the radiating center of the Renaissance, and a cultural crossroads from North Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and northern, western and eastern Europe.
The proposed Center for Global Renaissance Studies supports the concept of a global humanism. It also supports and connects with the New Renaissance, a vision for innovation and research now being promoted by the European Union.

The Center for Global Renaissance Studies would firmly root itself in the Jesuit liberal learning tradition. The Society of Jesus is the natural heir of the intellectual emancipation that took place at the Renaissance. It actively contributed to the building of modernity, by creating a new system of liberal education, participating in the scientific revolution and building the first early modern network of intercultural dialogues with non-Christian areas beyond the Mediterranean, as reflected in St. Ignatius’ letters.