Joseph Russo 1937-2023
Joseph Russo, who taught classics at Haverford for more than 30 years, died August 16 at his home in upstate New York of complications from a motor neuron disease. He was 86.
The eldest child of two Italian immigrants and the first in his family to go to college – at the age of 16 – he graduated summa cum laude in his undergraduate program at Brooklyn College in 1958. He then received his master's and doctorate from Yale University, where he taught from 1962-70. Russo arrived at Haverford as an associate professor of classics, becoming full professor in 1972 and the Audrey and John Dusseau Memorial Professor in the Humanities and Classics In 1999. He also served as visiting professor at the University of Michigan, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania, The Johns Hopkins University, the University of Urbino, and Bryn Mawr College and retired in 2006.
“Joe was not only a remarkable scholar and teacher, but a wonderful colleague and friend, unfailingly kind and always happy to talk,” says Professor Emerita of Classics and Comparative Literature Deborah Roberts, who joined Russo at Haverford in 1977. “When I arrived at the college I could hardly believe my good luck in having a colleague so welcoming and supportive and with such an appealing variety of interests: new directions in the field of classics, languages from ancient Greek to Yiddish, the light verse form of the double dactyl (in which he was expert). He was also an excellent cook (I remember his braised leeks and crusty bread) who on occasion brought madeleines to his intermediate Greek class and explained the Proust allusion – to their double delight.”
Elaine Hansen, a former Haverford professor English and provost of the College, remembers Russo as a supportive colleague who never lost sight of faculty well-being while administering the needs of the College. "He served as my recommender for my first pre-tenure reappointment," she says, "and certainly made the whole process seem shockingly easy and comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, that even before the final approval, I decided to tell him what no one else knew at that early point: that Stan and I were expecting a baby the following fall. He seemed briefly taken aback and unsure what to say, but after a few seconds offered words I have never forgotten: 'Well, that's a life-affirming decision!'"
Russo's scholarly work was primarily concerned with the Homeric epics and with oral traditions in general. He first gained recognition for several important articles on the Homeric formula and the traditional oral, formulaic style of Homeric epic, and the oral aesthetic remained a life-long interest. But he also wrote on Homeric psychology and the ways in which this can illuminate our understanding of epic narrative; his work in this area anticipates the recent cognitive turn in literary studies. His breadth as a Homerist is reflected in his commentary on books 17-20 of the Odyssey, first published by Mondadori in Italian and then by Oxford University Press in English, and on his commentary on books 21-22 in the seventh Mondadori edition. Among the American scholars of Greek literature in his generation, Russo was one of the best known and most highly respected in Europe, where he published in scholarly journals and collected volumes in French, Italian, and German as well as English.
He regularly taught Greek at every level as well as a popular course on mythology, which was enriched by his knowledge of comparative myth and folktale and his interest in psychological and psychoanalytic approaches.
"I first met Joe Russo as a student, dazzled by his brilliant and far-reaching insights into the beauty of Greek literature, and energized by his infectious brio, zest for intellectual adventure, and warm, nurturing personality," says Joe Bosurgi '77, now a contract negotiator and principal consultant in international technology sales at IntlStrat.com. "We clicked as people too, keeping in close touch after graduation throughout what turned into a 50-year friendship."
Kate DiLorenzo ‘92, who went on to earn a doctorate in classics at Penn, remembers Russo as "the very archetype of the prolific, polymath professor" while noting that his "warmth, humor, and generosity made him an invaluable teacher and friend to me at Haverford." In addition to connecting over their Italian names ("He shared his amusement over people’s tendency to mispronounce his name as “Rousseau,” and I jokingly considered Frenchifying my name to “DiLorenzeaux”) she says Russo "showed particular generosity by taking my undergraduate work seriously. He helped me polish a paper and encouraged me to present it at an academic conference, something I never would have considered or accomplished without his support. As a scholar and a person, Joe Russo made Haverford a place where students could thrive and be happy."
Russo was in mid-career when DiLorenzo was an undergrad, and had begun to expand his scholarship to include the study of comparative folklore, partnering with James Ransom in the English department to teach a new "Introduction to Folklore" course. His interest in gender issues led him to teach the department’s first course on women in antiquity and he wrote on the relatively neglected subject of the Greek proverb and on other non-epic oral genres. In retirement, returning to the language of his grandparents, he collaborated with Jack Zipes on an English edition and translation of G. Pitrè’s massive collection of Sicilian folktales (2009), and wrote articles on some of these tales that reflected the same interest in performance that can be found in his earlier work on oral traditions. He never abandoned his interest in Homer, and in 2015 gave the inaugural talk in Yale’s Adam and Anne Amory Parry Lecture series: “The Ghost of Patroclus and the Language of Achilles.”
His passing comes at a time of resurgent student interest in the classics at Haverford. The mythology course that Russo pioneered decades ago recently enrolled 120 students, making it one of Haverford's most popular offerings last year.
"Dad loved teaching at Haverford," say his daughters Nina and Maura. "He had many terrific memories of his time there and of the friends, colleagues, and students who remained dear after his retirement. He was very aware of the special opportunities afforded him – through the people he met and the time available for scholarship and research, and to attend conferences – within the Haverford community. His department-mates and many others – Diskin and Jenny Clay, Ariel and Martha Loewy, Lucius and Freida Outlaw, Peter Rose, the Thompsons, the Bernsteins, the Davidons, the Gangadeans, the Mortimers, The Wintners, Dan Gillis, Mel Santer, Aryeh Kosman, Deborah Roberts – were extremely rewarding relationships."
In retirement, he and his late wife Sally Wise (whom he met while both were graduate students in classics at Yale) lived in Wilton, NY, near their daughters Maura and Nina. In addition to spending time with his grandchildren, Russo started a folk song singing group, a religious studies group, a Shakespeare play reading group with new friends, all while attending a local Italian Conversation group and joining the Methodist Church of Saratoga Springs (in honor of Sally’s upbringing), where he was an active member of their choir. Although he was no longer able to play the recorder due to the progression of his motor neuron disease, his family says he reacquainted himself with the harmonica - adding several harmonicas to his existing collection - and enjoyed sitting outside making music to relax in the late afternoons or after dinner - which his daughters describe as "a treat for anyone who was visiting."
Always activists, the Russos continued to support the national organizations important to them (Doctors without Borders, Planned Parenthood, Southern Poverty Law Center) while also attending rallies and donating locally to organizations including The Franklin Community Center, Shelters of Saratoga, and The League of Women Voters.
Bosurgi, the Class of '77 alum, says his discussions with Russo continued via Zoom up until just a few days before Russo's death. Their conversations ranged from "the structural qualities of jazz riffs vs. poetry riffs, to Indo-European word derivations, to current epic performance traditions of the Heike Monogatari bards or the dalangs of the Javanese puppet theatre in videos that I'd send him from trips to Japan or Indonesia. Our last conversation compared Jungian trickster deity archetypes in the Iliad and Odyssey with the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa.
"So many wonderful conversations with my dear friend… I'll miss them deeply."
Russo is survived by his daughters, Nina and Maura (Mark O’Brien), his grandchildren Maisie Guzi and Phineas O’Brien, his sisters-in-law Lila Russo, Maureen Mitchell-Wise and Nancy Connelly (William Connelly), his nephews Scott (Paul) Russo and David (Mary) Russo, Grover (Leah) DiMarinas, his great-nephews, Gabriel, Daniel, and Pi, and his nieces Irene, Kathleen, and Rosalind.
A celebration of life is being planned. Details will be added to this article once they are available.