It is entirely fitting that Victor Vari, Ph.D., is the distinguished figure who regularly leads the University’s most august ceremonial processions, as the carrier of the historic mace of Santa Clara University. Not only is he the University’s longest serving professor—as the tradition of the mace bearer requires—he is also an undisputed jewel in the crown of Santa Clara University.
Dr. Vari, who is approaching his 91st birthday, has been teaching at Santa Clara for 64 years, almost his entire professional career. He is also the walking epitome of many of SCU’s most-treasured values.
As a person, he is well-rounded, having traveled extensively around the world, and was educated in London, Paris, Mexico, Switzerland, and the U.S. In addition to his seven decades of teaching at SCU, at various times he has been an Olympic-caliber competitive fencer, fencing coach, a journalist, actor, radio announcer, military intelligence agent, and elementary school teacher.
As a professor, he is devoted to the advancement of students.
“Dr. Vari’s dedication to his students, his work on behalf of SCU, and his zest for life are precious gifts to the community he loves,” said interim Provost Don Dodson. “He is one of Santa Clara’s great teachers.”
A man who thrives on interpersonal relationships, he shares his gifts generously and often, sometimes for free, especially when he sees a need. For years throughout the 1950s he gave private language lessons, for free, to disadvantaged students of the San Jose Unified School district. During his military training, he taught English to soldiers with limited education and taught fencing to the officers.
He is also a Knight Commander of the historic Knights of Malta, a Catholic group with origins in the 12th century. From 1947 to 1952, Dr. Vari coached the Santa Clara fencing team, which won the Pacific Coast Championship for Novices.
Vari was born on Feb. 22, 1920 (George Washington’s birthday, he notes with pride) in San Francisco. His father was a waiter and avid stock-market investor, and his mother was a homemaker. In 1929 the family figured they were well-off enough that they could live a cushy expat life. But then came the stock market crash, wiping out much of his father’s wealth. Vari, his mother, and his grandparents stayed in Italy because it was a better life than the Depression-plagued U.S. But all along, Vari said, “I felt very, very American.” Sure enough, his family moved back to the U.S. in 1936, when he was 16.
After a few months of catch-up high school, he graduated Galileo High and started tutoring sons of Italian immigrants at Dopo Scuola. That lasted until World War II, when suspicion of Italians caused the school to be shuttered. It also caused Italian-born disc jockeys to be shipped to internment camps, leaving an opening for American-born Vari to spend a year as a night-time DJ, translating news into Italian and playing opera.
In 1942, Vari received his undergraduate degree from San Francisco State University. When World War II began, he joined the Army, and after basic training was sent “of all places, to Arkansas,” recalls Vari with a laugh. “I couldn’t relate to that culture at all,” imitating—with a heavily Italian-tinged southern accent—a banjo-like ditty that his fellow soldiers used to play.
He considered his fellow soldiers uncouth at first. But then a colonel asked him to teach the soldiers to read, and Vari quickly learned that it was a lack of schooling, not a lack of intelligence, at work. “It gave me tremendous pleasure to help them,” he said.
Vari’s trilingual skills also earned him a spot in intelligence school, where one of his classmates was Henry Kissinger. He spent a year in England and France, attending the Sorbonne too, before the war ended in 1945.
He did his graduate work at the Sorbonne University in Paris and Lausanne University in Switzerland, then started attending and student teaching at Stanford. While there, he met his future wife Julia. They didn’t marry until seven years later when Vari was finally ready to settle down. “She was the right woman for me, but I wasn’t ready at first.”
He received the call to teach at SCU while he was at Stanford, and he could hardly resist the $1,600 a year salary he was being offered. In 1946, Vari began teaching elementary French, and in the ensuing decades has taught all levels of Spanish and Italian language and culture as well as literature, including Dante’s Divine Comedy.
He received his master’s degree from Stanford University in 1952. He completed his Ph.D. (summa cum laude) at the University of Madrid in Spain in 1961.
After marrying Julia, the couple became fully immersed in SCU life, chaperoning dances and other activities including modeling for the Catala Club. He brought Italian opera to SCU radio and campus, led tours of Europe, and assisted the Army in launching the first military intelligence unit at SCU in 1949, which later became part of ROTC. He initiated and taught at the successful summer program in Assisi that lasted from 1982 to 2004.
“It was the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to us,” he says of his long tenure at SCU. “We’ve done so much for the University, and the University has done so much for us.”
Never having had children himself, his legions of students and alumni are his extended family. He keeps multiple scrapbooks of letters, mementos, and important correspondence from and to students. Typical letters express boundless gratitude for how Vari introduced a student to the abundance and richness of Italian culture and language. One young man wrote how Vari “influenced some of my life’s greatest moments,” adding, “you have become like a member of the family to me, and the thought of ever letting you down stings, with the same bitterness as does the thought of failing the rest of my family.”
He loves to tell stories about his students, even better if the story involves a student poking a bit of fun at him—like the young woman who looked at her watch one too many times during Vari’s reading of Italian poetry. “I asked her, ‘Lauren, am I boring you?’” The student replied, “No, Professor Vari, you are scintillating, and I just want to know how many more minutes of enjoyment I have left.”
He is thrilled to see his students succeed, including Francisco Jimenez, noted author and Fay Boyle Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures, who has become a highly respected peer alongside him on the faculty.
Despite his age, Vari has a vivid memory and adapts well to change, calling himself “a realist.” So while he dislikes technologies, such as e-mail, and the discourteousness they can engender, he doesn’t begrudge other evolutions on campus, including the erosion of student interest in his beloved Italian opera, or the diluted Italian focus of the Casa Italiana residence hall he helped create.
“The important thing is to be happy,” he says, his Italian accent turning even more poetic. “To love and be loved.”