By EMILY WEIKL
(TEANECK) – Dr. Thomas Stavola loved musicals.
“It was a great love of his,” as longtime colleague Dr. Bernard Dick recounted. Stavola did not get to see his favorite show, however, which was “Carousel.”
“Over Christmas break, he went down to the box office hoping to get tickets,” Dick said. “Ironically, it opened on January 8. He said ‘Oh, I’m going to go down on January 8.’ He was very particular about where he sat.”
Stavola died on Jan. 1, after complications from a fall in Dec. 2017. His last semester as a professor was the fall session of 2017.
Fellow colleagues, family, and former students gathered on January 23 to celebrate and remember not just the professor, but the man behind the title.
“The last time I spoke to him was at the School of Humanities holiday party,” Dr. Vicki Cohen said. “We spoke about his leadership in that and he wondered who would take that on. And we spoke about Richard Russo, and other books that we had read.”
Stavola joined the university in 1964, helmed the Gene Barnett Speaker Series, taught English classes, and won the FDU award for Outstanding Teaching in 1999. To everyone who knew him, it was common knowledge. It was part of his story.
Stavola was born on May 5, 1935 to Thomas and Concetta Stavola, and grew up with three siblings all of whom predeceased him. He was a classmate of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at Xavier High School in Manhattan. Holy Cross University and Fordham followed, the latter where he earned a doctorate in literature. He joined the Jesuit’s in his 20’s, then left to teach the subject he was so fond of at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
“Tom was called to literature as his beloved Odysseus was called by the siren song of Circe to the island of Aegea,” Dr. Bruno Battistoli said. “He pursued his quest for 54 years at this university, on the banks of this river. In the more than 100 semesters of his journey, he was accompanied by more than 6,000 students. Countless of whom he inspired to begin their own search for beauty and truth.”
One of those students was Angela DePaolo.
DePaolo first met Stavola not as a student, but as a child. “It’s 1992, I’m six. My mother will soon divorce my father,” DePaolo said. “At that point she decided to finish her BA in humanities at FDU that she started years before marriage, or me.” She said that her mother brought her to class in lieu of getting a babysitter.
DePaolo started going to FDU and attending Stavola’s classes at 17. At 22, She was accepted to a graduate
assistantship in the English program. Her mother wanted to know if Dr. Stavola used the same yellow notes to teach “The Great Gatsby,” and she said he did.
DePaolo said she still expects him to stop by and ask questions about his computer and phone. But she knows an invitation to her wedding will remain unanswered.
Stavola believed in teaching simply. He believed in the power of it. Dr. Janet Boyd explained that each professor had to detail their teaching philosophy for their portfolio. She read some of what he had submitted.
“Teaching is both an art and an invitation,” Boyd read. “It is the art of the interesting and inspiring, rooted in the teacher’s passion for mastery of the subject. Teaching is also an invitation for both teacher and student to pursue the Grecian ideal of human excellence and growth through the study of representative works of literature from various cultures and societies. Quite simply, these works o er true, abiding, and universal values that are fundamental to self-awareness.”
She told the audience that the next time they pick up a book, they should consider it an invitation and think of Stavola. He surely saw students and colleagues as a second family. He chose not to retire, and only death itself could stop him from teaching what he loved.
Stavola taught his last exams in the waning weeks of December. During that time, he made room for another love of his: theater.
“Tom saw his last Broadway show three weeks before he died,” Dick said. “And it was the revival of ‘Hello, Dolly’ with Bette Midler.” He continued by saying Stavola hoped Midler wouldn’t cancel. Dick called him the day after the musical. Stavola said, ‘When she sang ‘Before the Parade Passes By,’ you could feel the electricity.” The parade can be taken as a metaphor for life itself, and could serve as an epitaph for Dr. Tomas Stavola:
“Pardon me if my old spirit is showing/All of those lights over there/Seem to be telling me where I’m going/ When the whistles blow/And the cymbals crash/And the sparklers light the sky/I’m gonna raise the roof.”
The reporter was a student of Dr. Stavola’s for the Spring and Fall semesters of 2017.