by Meghan Van Dyk C’07
Photography by Bill Cramer
The nation’s longest-serving,
not to mention most beloved,
dean of a liberal arts college
will hand out diplomas this
spring for the final time.
The end of an era
Paolo Cucchi shaped the education of nearly 7,500 Drew students during his tenure.
CHARMING. GRACEFUL. DIPLOMATIC.
The ways people describe Paolo Cucchi all point to the kindness he exudes from each breath, each bone in his body. For 24 years he has been the face of the college for so many students, serving as the first administrator to greet prospective students and the last to hug graduates on the Mead Hall porch. He’s been like a father to the professors, hiring 80 percent of the faculty. He’s at times been the single administrator who can bring accord, not to mention chuckles, to chemistry and Spanish professors alike during heated discussions at faculty meetings.
“It seems like yesterday,” Paolo Cucchi says of his first day at Drew in early August 1984. Working at Princeton University as the assistant dean of the college, Cucchi never thought he’d end up here. But then-Drew University President Paul Hardin made him an offer he could not refuse.
“I never doubted for a minute that private education is where I was meant to be,” Cucchi says, as to why he stayed at Drew so long. “It is so different from Italian education, which can be so impersonal, so very inhuman. To a lesser degree, so too is public education. But at a place like Drew, the education process is so fulfilling. Unlike Princeton, it’s not anchored in the past. You can try things.”
This fall, Cucchi will take his first sabbatical at Drew. On his top-three list of must-do’s for the year: Visit Italy (his hometown is Trieste, in the northern part of the country), plant a vegetable garden at his new home (hopefully with a yard that allows for more sun than the dean’s residence) and take in a classical performance at Carnegie Hall.
Then, it’s back to the Forest to start a new path—Cucchi plans to teach Italian and French literature and language, and maybe even a European cinema course. “There is so much to look forward to—teaching, writing, reading,” Cucchi says. “Most of all, I look forward to controlling my own schedule.”
Asked why people consistently describe him as “smooth” and “wonderful” (the students) and “fair” and “diplomatic” (the faculty), he just shakes the compliments off, saying, “It’s the Italian in me.”
The Paolo Cucchi I Know
“One of the more difficult jobs a dean must do is chair the committee on academic dishonesty. When a student is accused of cheating, the dean oversees the hearing process, which involves some crying, some shouts, some swearing and a great deal of sober, sweaty talking. I’ve never known anyone who could handle complex personal relationships with such dexterity and panache.”
—Perry Leavell, professor and chair, history department
As you get to know Paolo, you learn a special language, and I don’t mean Italian. Rather it’s what I call Paolonese. If he tells you, “Make sure the faculty knows how much you love them,” he means, “Bob, they’re ready to string you up if you don’t behave better.” Paolo knows how to put things in such a way that you can hear them and not get your feelings hurt. He’s extremely sensitive and, in fact, brilliant about how things look to other people—he has an enormous empathetic intelligence. When you’re deaning, you have to be part academic chief of the college, part colleague, part psychoanalyst. Paolo’s done all three remarkably well.
—President Robert Weisbuch
Plenty of teachers have the courage to believe in students, but Paolo possesses the unique ability to make people believe in themselves.
—Erik Emdur C’09, SGA president
I’d been left behind from a Drew International Seminar (don’t ask why), and the Greek Embassy needed a couple of things to fly me out of New York City—letter of good standing crucial. Just a couple of papers, but I couldn’t think straight. So I call Dean Cucchi, get his voicemail, blurt out the crisis through snot and hiccups and poor grammar, bad words. Didn’t think he would answer at all, or if he did, he wouldn’t be nice and would let me suffer my carelessness. As usual, I was wrong. That same day he called back and grasped all; that same day—in an hour probably—he wrote the letter (brilliant, you wouldn’t think it was the first time we’d interacted); and that same day I drove like mad to the embassy, showed the papers, waited—and got on the plane in the end. That’s the way a leader ought to move, no tape and no bull. In beautiful, well-tailored suits too.
—Sarah Lou Bonifacio C’06
The Cucchi Legacy
There are those who say that the most important person in the history of the College of Liberal Arts (after the Baldwin brothers, who bankrolled its creation 80 years ago) is Paolo Cucchi, especially in terms of academics. The most significant impact he’s had on the institution is perhaps the most intangible, says Associate CLA Dean Kathleen Madden. “His legacy isn’t a handful of programs he vigorously championed,” she says. “Rather, it’s that the faculty’s visions have been achieved because of his support and encouragement.”
Here, a few of his accomplishments:
Emphasized multiculturalism in the curriculum and enlarged the college’s international focus by expanding the Drew International Seminar program
Encouraged faculty to involve students in their research and add experiential and service learning to their mix of teaching methods
Boosted interdisciplinary offerings, adding eight new majors and 17 new minors
Oversaw the revision of the general education requirements—twice
Graduated more than half of all CLA students who’ve earned diplomas at Drew
When I became chair of the English department, I began to be aware of Paolo as a kind of lifeline, only a phone call away. I would enter each conversation with my mind in a frenetic, dizzying, loopy shape and leave convinced that equipoise, a sense of humor and simply moving forward would undoubtedly be the best course. He never critiqued or judged but simply and calmly offered a possible and better alternative. Having him move on leaves me feeling as if I am about to wander out onto the Mongolian steppe, exposed to all sorts of wintry sand blasts without even a lean-to.
—Peggy Samuels, professor and chair, English department
He’s a real politician. The faculty can get hot, and he could step into those arguments and calm everyone. You see him coming and can’t help but smile. We’ve been through some tough times: The university was in deficit for a few years, Mead Hall burned down, the old gym needed an update; but Paolo just made the hard times better. Drew won’t know what kind of person he is until he’s gone.
—Gov. Thomas H. Kean, former Drew president
When we arrived at Drew, not only were we worried we were late for orientation, we also had all the anxieties over a first child leaving home. Then we met Dean Paolo. For me, it was total admiration and surrender at first sight. He is the molder of men. Steadily, he transformed our son into a confident, proud American. Our son developed the courage to face odds that life has thrown at him, and he’s learned to help himself and others. He has even chosen a life of service. Students who have had the fortune to have Paolo Cucchi as dean are blessed.
—Ashok Mukerji, father of Indroneil Mukerji C’02
Paolo never called when there was something he needed to discuss. Instead, he’d walk down the Brothers College hallway so we could talk face-to-face. I decided years later that perhaps Paolo didn’t always need to see me, but he knew that I might need to see him. You know how sometimes you don’t even realize you’re thirsty until someone hands you a glass of water? Conversations with him were like that—and still are. I believe that fate gives us exactly what we need, when we need it. Drew must have needed someone of extraordinary integrity and compassion for the past 24 years, because fate provided Paolo.
—Stacy Fischer C’89, G’05, former director, Drew Office of International and Off-Campus Programs
What is often not mentioned about Dean Cucchi is that he is also a great teacher. His Italian language class was downright fun, even though his examinations were ruthless.
—Stefan Zorich C’93
Paolo Cucchi should go down as one of the great deans in Drew’s history. He has earned that honor by virtue of his remarkable longevity as dean of the college, his deep commitment to higher education and the graceful way he has worked with multiple constituencies that do not always see eye-to-eye. While he served as my boss for many years, I always felt that he was a friend I could trust. He has been a wonderful dean and is a fine human being.
—Doug Simon, professor emeritus of political science