The year 2012 is one of many anniversaries for Richard Guarasci: It has been 10 years since the trustees elected him president of Wagner College, and 15 years since he was named provost. It has also been a full century since the arrival in America of the first Guarasci, Richard's grandfather, Louis. Family, memory and story all intertwine to describe how Richard Guarasci arrived at this moment in his life, and Wagner's.

By Lee Manchester / Photos by Anna Mulé

[This story is an extended version of the feature presented in the summer 2012 print issue of Wagner Magazine.]

When Richard Guarasci was growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, his father would usually get home from work well after the children's dinner time. His mother let the boy sit with his father while she served his meal. A production manager in a ladies garment factory, Frank Guarasci would never talk about his work, “but he loved to tell me stories,” Richard recalls, “almost parables, from his childhood.

“One story he told me many times involved his swimming with friends near their house by the Brooklyn Bridge, in the oil-slicked waters of the East River.”

Although Frank's parents, Louis and Brigida, had repeatedly told him to stay out of the river, thick with New York City's commercial traffic, one day he came home black with East River oil. Louis was a gentle man, but Brigida ordered him to “teach the boy a lesson” so that he would stay out of the dangerous waters for good.

Father and son went into the bedroom — there was only one — and closed the door.

Standing in front of 14-year-old Frank, belt in hand, Louis broke down and cried.

Louis had survived the sulfur mines of Sicily as a boy and worked seven hard years in the quarries of Tunisia. He had celebrated his 25th birthday, alone, aboard the S.S. La Provence en route from Le Havre to New York, seeking a better life for himself. Entering Gotham harbor, his ship had crossed the mouth of that very river in which his son now tempted fate on a daily basis.

How ironic would it be for this river to rise up and swallow his boy, after all that?

“My father Frank never swam in the East River after that,” Richard Guarasci says. “That encounter seemed to move him beyond anything else that passed between him and his dad, before or since.

“He loved to tell me that story when I was little, a small boy watching my dad eat a quiet supper, upstairs in a small second-floor kitchen in my mother's parents' house. Those moments made an indelible mark on me.”

One Fathers Day a half century later, Richard Guarasci took his two adult children back to the East River dock beneath the Brooklyn Bridge where his father had swum as a boy. Just a stone's throw from the newspaper office where Walt Whitman had worked, the soon-to-be president of Wagner College recalled the bard's poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” about the memories borne upon the East River's waters of all who had played and worked and lived beside it.

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;

I project myself — also I return — I am with you, and know how it is.

RICHARD GUARASCI'S GRANDFATHER, Luigi Guarasci, was born in 1887 in Castrogiovanni, the modern-day Enna, a small city set smack in the middle of Sicily. As a boy, Luigi worked in slave-like conditions in Sicily's sulfur mines. At the age of 13, he fled across the Mediterranean to the French protectorate of Tunisia, working for seven years in the quarries of Bizerte before embarking upon the electrician's trade in Tunis. Finally, in late 1911, Luigi — now using the French version of his name, Louis — started preparing for his next great leap: the journey to America. His ship docked at Ellis Island just over a century ago, on March 10, 1912.

THE FIRST GENERATION: Louis and Brigida Guarasci, circa 1915.
THE FIRST GENERATION: Louis and Brigida Guarasci, circa 1915.

The next year, Brigida Viggiani came from Enna to New York, and she and Louis were married. Their first son, Frank, was born a year later — and thus began the Guarascis' American family. Between 1917 and 1932, Louis and Brigida had three more children, all girls.

“My grandfather Louis spoke five languages,” Richard Guarasci says. “Though unschooled, he had an incredible thirst for knowledge. He bought the Encyclopedia Britannica on a payment plan from a traveling salesman. He believed that if he could read the encyclopedia from beginning to end, he would be a fully educated human being — so that's what he did.”

The Depression was hard on the Guarascis. Though Louis worked as a mechanic on the Brooklyn trolley line, his pay was meager. Son Frank had to quit school before he could graduate, finding a job in the garment trade; a few years later, his younger sister Angela followed him, securing work in a dress shop. One of her co-workers, Josephine Minardi — everyone called her Joan — caught Frank's eye. The couple married in 1938 and, a year later, delivered their first child, Patricia. That same year, Louis Guarasci died — and war broke out in Europe.

RAISED A PRESIDENT: Frank and Joan Guarasci, 1938.
RAISED A PRESIDENT: Frank and Joan Guarasci, 1938.

Frank Guarasci served in the National Guard throughout the war, continuing to work in the garment industry. He and Joan joined financial forces with her parents to buy a turn-of-the-century Shingle Style house on Westminster Road in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Shortly after the war concluded, Frank and Joan's second child was born: a son.

“My mother wanted to name me Lance; my father just waited her out,” Richard says. “They compromised by naming me Louis Richard Guarasci — Louis was for my grandfather, and Richard was a name she liked. She just took to calling me Richard, and that's the way it's been ever since.”

Richard's father Frank was the kind of man who didn't want to burden others with his troubles — not even his family.

“In the early 1950s, he was out of work for a whole year and we didn't know it,” Richard recalls. “He got up every morning, put on his suit and tie, and left the house for the day. Obviously, he was looking for work — but we just thought he was going to work. When he finally got a job, they had a big celebration, and my sister and I just looked at one another and said, 'When didn't he have a job?!' ”

The house on Westminster Road was packed with family, from ground floor to finished attic.

“My grandmother and grandfather lived on the first floor,” Richard recalls. “My parents, my sister and I lived on the second floor, and on the third floor lived my two aunts, who were unmarried and independent at the time — and there was always room for some other relative who was out of work and needed a place.

“Every Sunday, we had a huge family dinner. It was a command performance; you were not allowed to miss it. … We would have unbelievable meals, six or seven courses; it would take you three or four hours to get through it. At the end there'd be card playing, and people napping, and kids trying to play ball in the street — and an hour later, my grandmother would take out all the food again and we'd have dinner. I don't know how we consumed so much food!

“My family was not religious; for them, the table was the sacred place,” Richard says. “Like any big family, we had a tremendous diversity of personalities, and Sunday meals at that table felt a little like Grand Central Station — there was always a lot being said, a lot of conversation, with conflict, laughter, jealousies, affinities going on simultaneously.

“Without even realizing it, you learn a lot of skills in that environment. You absorb how to deal with a lot of differences and different personalities and different moments, when to speak and when to be silent, when to be funny and when to be serious, who to listen to and who to ignore.

“The one thing that was sacred was the food,” Richard reiterates. “When the food came out, everybody was nice and everyone loved it.

“I've always used that as a metaphor for education, particularly at this time of my life when I'm president. The institution is like the table; it's the sacred place — and learning is the food. And out of the cacophony of voices around that table, you have to make a concert.”

THE GUARASCIS ENROLLED Richard at St. Rose of Lima Elementary School, 10 blocks away. It was there that he first met Carin Marie Tomasuolo, a girl a year behind him who lived around the block from school. Her father, Andrew Tomasuolo, ran Andy's Luncheonette, just down the block. Boys and girls were educated separately at St. Rose, but Andy's was a midday favorite of everyone at St. Rose because the school provided no lunch service.

Carin and Richard never really connected until their middle-school years (St. Rose offered K-8 classes). It wasn't until Carin was in the seventh grade that Richard caught her eye.

“One day, I happened to be coming down the stairs at Andy's, dressed in my uniform skirt, blazer and beret,” Carin recalls. “I looked up and I saw this gorgeous guy with a beautiful tan blazer, wonderful, thick hair and thin, thin tie — I can see it like a picture today — and these cute, cute dimples.

“I stared at him for a moment. I didn't know who he was. I didn't know that we would be connected in the future, but at that moment I said to myself, 'This is someone interesting!' It was almost like a premonition of what was to come.”

It wasn't until high school, however — the two went to separate Catholic schools — that Carin and Richard became a steady couple.

“Richard's friends were planning a 16th birthday party for him at someone's house,” Carin remembers. “I knew him, but I didn't really talk a lot to him. For some reason his friends set us up to go to this party together, but I had plans to meet another boy after the party got going and to spend the evening with him.

“When we got to the party and I told Richard about this, he wouldn't have any of it.

“'Oh, no — you came with me, you stay with me!' he said.

“I kind of liked that!” Carin admits, “so I said OK, and we had a great evening. He walked me home, and we started dating after that.”

Just as their relationship was getting started, Richard's education was stalling out. He was attending Brooklyn Preparatory School, a Jesuit school with a strong academic reputation.

“I loved learning — but I hated school,” Richard recalls. “I lasted there about two and a half years.

“One day my father said, 'We're taking a trip upstate to look at schools.'

“We got to Cardinal Farley Military Academy, right outside of Rhinebeck — and he dropped me off.

“'You're flunking out of school,' he said, 'you're out of control, you're 16 years old and your life is going nowhere.'

“He explained that what little money he had was invested in me because I was the last son with the Guarasci name. He told me, in vivid detail, what his father's struggles had been like, going from Sicily to Tunisia to America to carve out a life for himself. His father had wanted him to be a doctor, but my grandfather Louis had died suddenly when he was just 51 years old, leaving my father burdened with the responsibility of taking care of the family. So now it was on me, he said, to live up to Louis's promise of what America would mean for the Guarascis.

“I'm telling you, I changed my personality on the spot. I felt the weight of history on me — and I still have my father and my grandfather with me in my head every day. That gave me, as a youngster, a sense of destiny and proportion and responsibility. I began to take school seriously.”

As the final months in Rhinebeck wound down, Richard started thinking about college.

“I wanted to apply to NYU or Columbia, but Cardinal Farley would only send transcripts to Catholic schools,” he said — and so, in 1963, Richard enrolled in the business school at Fordham University, majoring in economics and minoring in philosophy.

It was at Fordham that Richard Guarasci really fell in love with learning.

“I was living at home and going to school in the Bronx,” Richard remembers. “I was on the subway an hour and 45 minutes each way, so I had a lot of time to read and study. I learned how to fold the newspaper so I could hold it with one hand while hanging onto a strap with the other. I read the Herald Tribune, the New York Times and the Daily News on the way up, and the New York Post and the World-Telegram on the way down. I absorbed everything I could about world events and culture, and I just took off from there.”

REACHING FOR THE DREAM: Carin Tomasuolo and Richard Guarasci in 1964, when Carin was a senior in high school and Richard was a Fordham freshman.

Richard Guarasci continued dating Carin Tomasuolo throughout his Fordham years. She was still a year behind him, studying education at Fordham's Manhattan campus, just north of City Hall. By the time he was a senior, they had decided to marry as soon as Carin had her degree.

She graduated June 8, 1968.

The next day, Richard and Carin Guarasci were married at St. Rose of Lima Church, right next door to the elementary school where they had met.

Richard was already in graduate school by then. Carin recalls the conversation that had helped determine Richard's choice of grad school the year before, between the two of them and Richard's father Frank.

“His father really had a tremendous influence on our lives,” Carin says. “He looked at both of us, and I could see that he felt we were good together. There were some graduate schools nearby that Richard could have gone to, but Frank said, 'I want you to go far away from your family. I want you to be on your own. I want you to live your own life.'

“We took that advice.”

Richard enrolled in the economics program at Indiana University in Bloomington, almost 800 miles from his family's house on Westminster Road. Carin joined him there for his second year, after their wedding.

In the middle of that second year, with one semester to go for his master's degree in economics, Richard Guarasci realized that he had become disenchanted with the discipline. He kept remembering his commencement speaker at Fordham, Robert Kennedy, who had been terrifically inspiring, and he realized that he wasn't finding any inspiration at all in the study of economics. As one of his professors put it, “We don't do policy here, we just do numbers. It's up to the politicians to make policy.”

“I didn't want to just do math,” Richard says.

Registration for classes at Indiana University was conducted in a huge arena with long, long lines. Coming into that arena, Richard needed nine more hours for his master's degree. He could either do a master's thesis, or he could take three electives outside the field of economics.

His decision?

“I'm going to take these nine credits in political science, and I'm probably going to terminate with the master's,” he recalls thinking. “I'll go back to New York, get a job at the Fed, and do something interesting with my life.”

After waiting in the line to register for political science courses, he got to the table and told them the courses he wanted.

“Sitting behind the table was this older woman, hair in a bun, glasses on the tip of her nose, knitting away — obviously a secretary overseeing the operation here,” Richard recalls. “The guy at the table told me that all three courses I wanted were closed. The woman looked up and said, 'You're a graduate student in economics, you shouldn't be taking those courses anyway. You should be taking the advanced course in political methodology with Vincent Ostrom.'

“Full of stereotypes, I said to myself, 'Who's this secretary telling me what I should be taking?' That woman turned out to be Elinor Ostrom, the chair of the department, and her husband Vincent was teaching that key, make-or-break course for graduate students. I ended up acing the course and winning a full fellowship for the Ph.D. in political science. She became my adviser and went on to co-author my first publication with me.”

Much later, in 2009, Elinor Ostrom became the first woman — and the first political scientist — to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

“I happened to be in Oslo that summer, speaking at a conference sponsored by the Council of Europe on civic engagement and democracy's future,” Richard adds, “and who should be on the plane with me on the way back but Elinor Ostrom. I got a chance to tell her that I wouldn't be here today had she not been sitting at that table.

“Serendipity is a huge part of life.”

AFTER RICHARD COMPLETED the coursework for his Ph.D., in 1972, Carin Guarasci took a job in West Long Branch, New Jersey, teaching 10 boys with severe discipline problems while Richard worked on his dissertation.

The following summer, Richard interviewed for a position at St. Lawrence University, a highly respected liberal arts college in Canton, New York. The political science department had an opening; they had called the Ostroms for recommendations, and Richard's name had come up.

“I thought upstate New York was just slightly north of Westchester,” he recalls.

A long, long trip of multiple short, connecting flights demonstrated to him just how remote Canton was, less than 20 miles from the Canadian border in the North Country of New York.

“When we finally touched down, I'm looking around for someone to pick me up, and the only person I see is this guy in shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, black socks and black shoes, and he's driving a 1962 station wagon with a canoe over the top,” Richard remembers. “He turned out to be Professor Bernard Lammers, one of their top guys. I thought, 'This is going to be real interesting.'”

Richard's job interview was to be a speech he would deliver to the political science department. It being June, the only people around were half a dozen faculty members and a few students, all of whom had gathered at Lammers' house.

“I was pretty disoriented,” Richard recalls. “I had just gotten off the plane and I was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by more woods than I had ever seen in my life. The students were passing out these little green bottles of Rolling Rock beer, and everybody was partaking. I started my talk, fielding a few questions about the statistical analyses I'd used, when all of a sudden an intense argument breaks out between these two professors about the validity of political primaries in choosing presidential candidates — and they forgot all about my talk.

“That was my job interview.”

The Guarascis moved to Canton later that summer, ready to put down roots. A year later their first child, Bridget, was born, followed three years later by her brother, Patrick. Remote as St. Lawrence was, Canton was a great place to start a family — and SLU is where Richard first put down the roots of his career, too. With a group of about 12 faculty innovators determined to bust up what was perceived as a “country club culture” at St. Lawrence, Richard led in the development of the university's now famous First-Year Program in 1987.

Five years later, Richard was a full professor and associate dean at St. Lawrence, and a reporter was writing a feature article for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the First-Year Program.

“At that point, I figured I could spend another 20 years at St. Lawrence to go another inch, or I could look elsewhere for new challenges,” he recalls.

He was “being wooed” by Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in New York's Finger Lakes region between Syracuse and Rochester, to become the dean of Hobart College. The president, Richard Hersh, was known for his “entrepreneurial, very aggressive management style,” according to Guarasci. “He's like the Bobby Knight of college presidents.”

Hersh's approach put Richard off, badly. Following the penultimate interview in the hiring process, Richard told Carin that he would return to Hobart only to put Hersh in his place.

When Richard went down for his final interview, he says, “We got into this huge argument — which sealed our friendship. We had that relationship all through my five years at Hobart. He would kill his senior staff in private — never in public — and I would be the only one who would stand up to him.

“But that night I was so angry with him that I told him I was not taking the job, even though he begged me to take it. I got in my car, got onto the Thruway — and found I was headed in the wrong direction. The three-and-a-half-hour drive became a five-and-a-half-hour drive home. I got back to Canton at 2 o'clock in the morning.

“And after a few days, I realized that he was exactly the kind of guy I wanted to work for,” Richard said. “So, he liked to argue; I liked to argue.

“I took the job.”

AFTER FIVE YEARS AS DEAN at Hobart, Richard says, with Dick Hersh as his mentor, “I was ready to run a college. I had the skill, the ability, the experience, the temperament, the love of learning, the appreciation for the dignity of the faculty, the admiration of students — and I was battle tough, so I knew nothing was going to knock me off my pins in terms of criticism.”

At the beginning of that fifth year, Richard invited his mentor over to his home one evening and told Hersh that he was going to go on the market and become a provost, there being no comparable position at Hobart.

Richard's first book, Democratic Education in an Age of Difference: Redefining Citizenship in Higher Education, had just been published, co-authored with former SLU colleague Grant Cornwell, who had succeeded Richard as First-Year Program director. Richard felt that the new book, combined with his work on several national higher education councils, would make him a prime candidate for a provost's job.

“I got a lot of calls from different places,” Guarasci says. “One of them was from Wagner College. Quite frankly, I didn't know where Wagner was and whether it was public or private.”

Despite his initial resistance, he was eventually persuaded to take a look. After all, his mother still lived in Brooklyn at the old family home, so the trip would offer a chance to spend some time with her as well.

“We got to campus, and I have to tell you it was a campus with a lot of challenges,” Richard recalls. “But when we were driving up to the gate, and I saw that view of New York Harbor — what immediately came to mind was my dad, who used to swim in those waters. It was like an instant connection to my heritage; it was such an identity thing for me, it just stopped me in my tracks.”

The location struck him, not only on a deeply personal level but also for the potential it offered to a small liberal arts college — but Richard had never heard of the school, and that troubled him.

“I came back to Carin a day later and said, 'You know, I've got to think about this one,' ” Richard remembered.

Carin, however, was not encouraging, nor was Dick Hersh.

In the meantime, Richard got an offer for the provost's job at a college in semi-rural suburban Akron.

“It was a stepping-stone position,” Richard says. “In three years, I would have gotten an offer for president somewhere else, it was that prestigious an institution. I spent a few days there interviewing, meeting everyone, and the job was clearly mine for the taking, but the president told me, 'I just want you to know, we're not interested in changing the curriculum' — and that's what I do!

“I went back to my room to call Carin, and before I could tell her what I thought about the job, she said, 'I really think you should take this job. They want you; they need you; you're going to be a huge success. However, I won't be coming with you,'” Richard recalls, laughing uproariously.

To Carin, rural Ohio seemed like a step back toward a Canton-like environment, rather than a step closer to the urban life to which she wanted to return.

Richard told her the ultimatum was not necessary; he wouldn't be taking the job, no matter what.

Meanwhile, Wagner was continuing to put the pressure on Richard to come be its provost, so he made a second visit.

WHERE IT ALL STARTED: Carin and Richard Guarasci today along the East River.
WHERE IT ALL STARTED: Carin and Richard Guarasci today along the East River.

“It was a crisp January day in 1997,” he remembers of his next visit to Grymes Hill, this time to meet with the Search Committee. “You could see all the way to the Twin Towers.”

Richard asked the committee members why he would want to send his children to Wagner College.

“Highly dedicated faculty,” one said.

“Small classes,” said another.

“Personal attention to students.”

“Positive campus atmosphere.”

“Friendly place.”

According to Richard, “They all boiled down to, 'Nurture, nurture, nurture.'

“So I ticked off the names of eight of Wagner's competitors. All of those schools say exactly the same thing. What do you have that distinguishes you from them?”

One faculty member pointed toward the window looking out upon the harbor and said, “All we have is that damned view.”

For Richard, something clicked.

“I looked at him and replied, 'That's not a view — that's a mission,'” Richard recalls.

“'On that waterway is written the promise and the pitfalls of the American democratic experiment. You are in New York City, and those other eight institutions aren't. You have something they don't have.'”

Pointing at Manhattan, he added, “'If you can find a way to make that other borough over there an intimate part of the way Wagner students learn and Wagner professors teach, you will have something those other eight institutions can never have.'

“The Wagner Plan was born that day,” Richard says, referring to the curriculum overhaul he shepherded through the faculty the following year, after he was named provost. As most of those reading this story know, the Wagner Plan united the kind of interdisciplinary learning communities that Richard had pioneered in the First-Year Program at St. Lawrence with service-learning activities linking course material with community responsibility, and practical internships throughout the city of New York that take advantage of Wagner's unique geographic situation overlooking the crossroads of the world.

Several years later, in closing his presidential inaugural address, Richard Guarasci revisited the same imagery to evoke what is genuinely unique about the mission of Wagner College:

In his famous poem, 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,' Walt Whitman tells us about the way in which our lives and memories are connected across time and space. In his poem he looks into the waters of the New York Harbor, the East River, and he sees all the souls who have crossed over to Manhattan in all the previous generations, just as he sees those who are present with him. He envisions those in the future who will look into these same waters, generations later, and they will see his memory that preceded them. He wrote:

These, and all else, were to me the same as they are to you;

I project myself a moment to tell you — also I return.

I loved well those cities;

I loved well the stately and rapid river;

The men and women I saw were all near to me;

Others the same — others who look back on me, because I look'd forward to them;

(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)

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