International Education & The Shadow of Giants

Apr 13, 2015 5:30:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

This month, Dr. Woolf writes of a man who left an impact on the lives of many and pays tribute to others who have made a great impact on the field of international education. 

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Many many years ago (back in the 1970s) a very great eccentric Englishman, Richard Creese-Parsons, asked me to be a consultant on the management and development of a chain of English language schools that he had founded in Northern Italy, with its headquarters in Venice where Richard held court.

At the time, I was teaching American Literature to Italian students at Ca’ Foscari, in the University of Venice. Mutual incomprehension, and a profound level of well-intentioned confusion, characterised my contributions and occasional encounters with students. This was also the days of the Brigata Rossa – a radical paramilitary organisation who, even in their more moderate moments, did not bring calm or scholarly focus to our endeavours. About one-third of my very few lectures were interrupted by cries of “sciopero” (strike)!

I met Richard by lucky accident at a bar in Campo St Angelo – one of the more beautiful squares beyond the tourist quagmire of San Marco. Richard had arrived in Venice some twenty years earlier intending, so he said in his customary whisper, “to spend a weekend or two, Dear Boy.” He had never really worked out how to leave or, indeed, thought of a good reason why he should leave. Indeed, he is still there.

Busy Campo Sant'AngeloPhoto: Campo Sant Angelo, Venice by La Citta Vita

Richard never spoke above a whisper – you strained beyond patience to understand what he was saying. He had, nevertheless, given daily English lessons to a totally deaf admiral for over 15 years, and they were the closest of friends. The admiral spoke, not surprisingly, not a word of recognizable English but wrote voluminous letters of fulsome recommendation (in Italian of course) on behalf of Egregio Illustre Eminenete Dottore Professore Creese- Parsons (esteemed, illustrious, eminent, doctor, professor…). This form of address was (even by Italian standards) somewhat inflated given that Richard was neither dottore nor professore. It re-enacted to some degree a traditional Venetian greeting (that was all the rage in the Medieval Republic);

Gentleman A on meeting his friend: “Sir, I am the last button on your lowest valet’s tunic.”

The necessary response was:

Gentleman B: “Sir, the last button on my lowest valet’s tunic is a diamond.”

Richard was known to greet you in just such a fashion if he had had sufficient prosecco or grappa, for both of which he had considerable enthusiasm. In those circumstances, your response needed to be precise and prompt if you were to avoid one of Richard’s dismissive waves.

Richard considered my qualifications for the role of Senior Consultant (senior by default – I was the only consultant). His exhaustive review of my relevant experience was limited to finding out about my birth sign. Richard had a strict measure of employability: he hired Geminis for preference, though the odd Virgo and, if really in dire need, an Aries or two might make the cut. No Sagittarian ever gained employment with Richard. He never, to my certain knowledge, ever read a resume or curriculum vitae. He, nevertheless, gathered a loyal, underpaid, and entirely devoted staff.

On learning that I was indeed, as he suspected, a Gemini, Richard whispered, I think, that I was just what he needed (“Dear Boy”) to be his Senior Consultant on the future of English language teaching in Italy. The fact that I knew precisely nothing of the field was no barrier to my surprisingly lucrative employment.

I had one barrier to overcome, however. He asked me to come to his apartment at 10am the next morning for a formal interview: “These things must be done properly Dear Boy.” My duties at the University of Venice, if carried out a level of diligence unprecedented in my department, were not arduous. I taught, when there wasn’t a strike, for about two hours a week, attended an occasional staff meeting (usually cancelled), and gave oral examinations if and when anybody turned up. The academic year seemed to be of about 15 weeks duration assuming that there were no strikes, acqua alta (high water), riots or nervous breakdowns.

Palazzo Foscari (Ca' Foscari)
Photo: University of Venice by John Riviello

In these circumstances the idea of additional lucrative employment was, in view of the demands made upon me, very attractive because:

a) I had more leisure time than the Doge of Venice had ever enjoyed.

b) My salary at the university was, even by the standards of an unemployed gondolier, pitiful.

I arrived at 10am as requested, knocked on Richard’s door on the Calle Borgolocco. After about 40 minutes, I heard stirrings and Richard appeared in a full evening suit, red-eyed, cummerbund dangling, a fading blue gardenia drooping on his stained lapel, sipping a grappa. He had (with his equally dishevelled wife), returned about an hour before from “a wonderful evening at La Fenice, followed by a few drinks with friends at Ca’ d’Oro”. The devoted admiral was, I learned later, sleeping in one of the many rooms upstairs still wearing full marine uniform, shoes polished to mirror-like perfection, and two rows of medals.

To cut a long and unlikely, but true, tale short I consulted for Richard for two years. At the beginning of my appointment I knew nothing about English language teaching in Italy. At the end (when I limped back to England with what was left of my mind and close to nervous collapse), I knew nothing about English language teaching in Italy. In spite of my earnest consultancy, Richard’s schools thrived and still represent a quality standard for English language education in Northern Italy.

At my farewell party which was outlandish and lasted for, I think, about two days, Richard gave an impassioned, lengthy address lauding my contributions, my qualities, my intelligence, my dedication and so on, I assume. Sadly, nobody could hear much of what he said. My eloquent valedictory remarks were drowned out by the hysterical weeping of an elderly, noble Infanta Duchessa (a Dowager Duchess we would say) who, it seemed, had been possessed by the dead spirit of the comic dramatist, Carlo Goldoni. Given that the great Goldoni had died in 1793, this hysteria was, it was generally felt, entirely reasonable.

I missed several flights but, finally, a few days later, in his private water taxi Richard took me to Piazzale Roma, the mainland bus terminal that links Venice tenuously to Italy and reality. He could go no further: Richard’s world was defined by the Venetian lagoon.

My last memory of Richard was obscured by tears. As we both wept he pushed a brown envelope into my jacket pocket. “A small bonus Dear Boy”. Everybody who worked for Richard was always paid in cash in a brown envelope: “Much easier for tax purposes, Michael”. I never opened the envelope until I reached home. It contained the equivalent of 6 months’ salary – more money than I had ever seen before.

Cemetery Island, Venice
Photo: Isola di San Michele by Mario Vercellotti

I never saw Richard again. 6 months after I left he was buried on the Isola di San Michele, the island cemetery of Venice. When I visit his grave I bring flowers and leave a stone at the head of the grave, as is the tradition in Judaism. It is the way we remember the hard ache of loss.

I am not telling you this because it is strictly relevant to study abroad but because it illustrates something profound about the world in which we work. The history of international education is populated by the shadows of giants. Richard was just such a person. By the power of personality and his bewildering capacity to inspire dreamers, he enriched many many lives – even that of a dead deaf admiral.

Richard Creese-Parsons, like David Larsen who died in March, like Bill Allaway, like William Fulbright, like Jack Egle, and many other great visionaries, taught me and touched my soul. We are blessed to work in international education – to listen to the echoes of pioneers. Now and again I hear a barely audible whisper from La Serenissima. It is a privilege to be surrounded by the voices of those dead, and their living successors, who carry on a mission to touch the world with the gentle hands of wisdom.

We aspire after all, Dear Boys and Girls, to illuminate and enrich lives, however imperfectly. We too, like Richard, hope to leave, when we go, a good shadow upon the troubled earth.

Thanks Mike!

Read More From Dr. Michael Woolf

Topics: Travel, International Education