Dr. Salvatore Cannavo: Sicilian-American Renaissance Man

Prof. Salvatore Cannavo

      The depressing news bashed me like an emotional tsunami set loose within me. Quivers forced me to clutch a chair and sit. Dr. Salvatore Cannavo, an old friend died. I’d not attempted to contact the deceased since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Why was I so overwhelmed?

      After a long walk, my feelings began to make sense. I recalled my favorite college professor, a gentle priest from the Emerald Isle so tall that he occasionally had to duck his head to get past college doorways. That man, in his comforting and deep voice would warn those wise enough to listen, “Please underline the following notes.” Of course, those accented notes always appeared on his exams. Wouldn’t it be nice if your guardian angel whispered in your ear, or an internal voice ordered, “Please listen to this person, or even if a light or buzzer triggered before us and instructed, “Stop, listen, learn from this person.”
Sadly, with many of us, we fail to recognize a surrounding stream of brilliance, or comprehend the humble suggestions of thoughtful messengers, until we’re long past our common station, and have travelled many miles of our divergent tracks of life.

      Reflect on your life. Is there someone who made a significant and cameo appearance, one you should have listened to more, and someone with whom you’d love to chat and explore their deepest thoughts today? Unfortunately, our wish is blockaded by the realities of life, and human mortality. Your door to learning future lifelong lessons from that sage has been slammed shut by the cold hands of Father Time.

      When I met and felt splashed by the genius of Dr. Sal Cannavo, I just continued to babble on babble on, failing to recognize the modern day Solomon who stood before me. Despite the dozens of college professors who crossed my life path and whispered into my thoughts, less than a handful of them ever awed me with pronouncements from their pulpits. Dr. Sal, however, was sent my way to unlatch spiritual and intellectual barriers and present me, and countless others, with an epiphany and a personal intellectual Risorgimento.

       Before the time of the fall of Berlin’s Wall an article I’d published in Newsday, “The Fig Tree Withers” about the erosion of Italian- American culture triggered an excited response from readers. Gifted Americans of Italian descent, from all walks of life asked me to host a meeting to discuss this shared concern. An inspiring cadre of like-minded people joined in our discussion. I recall Ralph, Lucille, Placido, Giuseppina, Richard, Adela, Giancarlo, Julie, Gaetana and her husband Sal Cannavo. Eventually we created an organization dedicated to keeping the Italian culture alive in America. We founded the United Italian Americans for Progress. The group invited powerful politicians, and I thought we were on our way to preserving our culture, tradition, and preventing denigration of our people.

      In dozens of subtle ways, Sal patiently tried to open my mind to other options. He didn’t think organizations would clear a path. Sal thought raising consciousness and awareness would eventually seep away tar brushing images of our people and would gain us our deserved respect. This soft-spoken brilliant logician spent hours trying gently convince me. Galileo said, “You can’t teach a man anything, you can only help him discover it in himself.” That man, as much as anyone, helped me sort out those discoveries. For over a score of years, I thought of Dr. Sal and his seamless teaching impacting me. In later years, I realized that my patience and even elementary grasp of calming screaming herds of malcontents were influenced by my clear thinking mentor’s teachings many moons past.

      I’d dreamed of recapturing those moments of epiphany spawned by Cannavo. I decided the time had come to call his brilliant widow Gaetana. His wife of over three score years taught me so many more things about Dr. Salvatore Cannavo. Born over 90 years ago in Castiglione di Sicilia, he emigrated to the USA at two years of age. Eventually, he graduated New Utrecht High School, from Brooklyn College, and then earned a PhD in physics at Princeton University.

      He was a student of the legendary Albert Einstein. Dr. Cannavo worked on the Manhattan Project, and resigned from that program when he realized its goal was to develop the Atomic Bomb.

      My conversation with Gatetana, a gifted poet and English teacher revealed so much about this man that I’d never known in the years that he befriended me. At our first meeting, he reluctantly and humbly announced that he was chairperson of the Philosophy Department at Brooklyn College. He never mentioned that he’d earned doctorates in both physics and philosophy. The man declined to disclose his world-class litany of academic achievements.

      Following my chat with Gaetana, I realized that this man, capable of playing a guitar, also designed jet fighter planes, worked alongside history’s most brilliant scientists, and published several philosophy books. Because of his patience, pace, searching eyes (that often detected my confusion), I eventually learned how to logically handle a variety situations. My wisdom grew because of my tutorials with Dr.Cannavo. Once I ended my discussion with his brilliant wife, I knew I had to share my memories of this genius.

      Times of Sicily publisher Gio Morreale mentions gifted people sharing our Sicilian sangu, venturing to every corner of the world, in every field, elevating the standards of the international society. Sicilian born Dr. Sal Cannavo is a perfect example of what Morreale speaks to. Sure, Salvatore taught thousands, yet, he continues to teach thru the books he’s written. Cannavo is a perfect example of a Sicilian treasure brimming with simpatico sent from heaven to uplift all humankind.

F. Anthony D’Alessandro

F. Anthony D'Alessandro
F. Anthony D'Alessandro
D'Alessandro retired from a 30 plus-year teaching career in New York State. For twenty-five years, he served as a high school newspaper advisor. For several years, he acted as an associate editor for the now defunct, Italo-American Times. A former "Educator of the Year," he recently retired from his position as Coordinator of Student Teachers for the University of Central Florida, and an adjunct professor at Valencia College.

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  1. Tony,

    I have shared this beautiful article with my mother and brothers. You captured my Dad very well.

    Thank you so much.

    Francesca Antognini

  2. I wonder if we are distantly – or not so distantly related. Your father sounds like a brilliant man. My grandfather was also from Catana and emigrated here in his young adulthood but I do not know much about his family in Sicily. I am doing some research to see if I can find my roots there : ) I have also called myself a rennassaince woman so I was really amused when I saw the title of theis piece!

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