A Passion For History: Frank Nero, FSU History Alumnus (BA 1994)

Frank Nero in Tallahassee, FSU football stadium

I can’t say when my passion for history began or from where it sprang.  It predates even the vague memories of my early childhood.  When I’m able to conjure them up now the memories come like happy and strange mirages, perhaps dotted with funny musings from my parents.  My mom laughs when she recalls that one year, I think I was in third grade, they said that I and my two sisters could each pick a vacation destination for the family.  My sisters, much more intelligent than I, picked Disneyworld while I chose Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Mount Vernon.  For some reason I won that year.  I remember the demonstrations in colonial garb in the shops of the blacksmith and the glassblower, the butter churn, the printing press, the militia in formation marching out to the drum and fife, loading and firing muskets on the green in front of the Virginia Capitol Building.  I recall returning home with a tricorne hat, a militiaman’s jacket, and toy pistols and a musket; and later in our backyard in the summer or down in the basement during winter, I’d reenact by myself--me a minuteman--The Shot Heard Round the World at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, or “Don’t fire ‘til you see the whites of their eyes” at the Battle of Bunker Hill.  I had a children’s book with that title.  My friends must have thought I was mad. 

Maybe the wellspring was my father who began his career as a high school history teacher, but right after I was born he had already moved on from that job and rarely spoke about it.  But I do remember the rows and rows of history books and biographies in our basement with their colorful dust jackets and the names of the presidents on them—Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Wilson, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon—and I can still clearly see the bronze busts of JFK and RFK he had positioned low on the bookshelf.  I would run my hands over their faces and wonder.  I also distinctly recall the 1980 presidential election.  I was eight-years-old, lying on my stomach on the floor with my elbows propped up on a pillow watching the returns on television.  My very Italian-American grandparents were babysitting us because my parents had to be in Washington D.C. for election night; my dad worked for the Carter Administration in the Department of Labor.  When Carter lost in a landslide I remember my grandma saying to my grandpa, “Pat, now what’s he gonna to do?  Raygun’s gonna fire him---I don’t know—he should have been a mailman like I told to him to be.”  I remember feeling very angry with Ronald Raygun, as my grandmother called him.  Speaking of Italian Americans and the presidents, my dad to this day tells the story of how when he was a kid he had helped my great-grandmother with her U.S. citizenship exam.  She was an immigrant from the deep, poverty-stricken region of Molise in Italy and she didn’t speak English well.  The only way she could remember some of the presidents’ names was to use her own language, much of it gleaned from soap operas.  So the greats became “A-George-A-Wash-in-da-tub” and “A-Abraham-A-Linguini.”

I have many more flashbacks like this, which I guess when compiled could construct a childhood encyclopedia of how my love of history began.  I guess it began with imagination.  I do, however, remember the moment I first critically questioned the pre-teen history books I religiously checked out of the North Plainfield, New Jersey Public Library.  I still must not have been more than eight or nine.  It was a book about Custer’s Last Stand. It clearly made the distinction that Custer was the “good guy” and the Sioux were the “bad guys.”  The end of the book concluded that even if Custer had lost the battle, he was really the true winner because the U.S. Cavalry had killed more Indians than the Sioux had killed soldiers.  I was enraged, saying to myself that couldn’t be right.  The librarian scolding me when I threw the book across the table harder than I meant to and it went ricocheting across the 1970s-style linoleum floor. 

I guess I should describe myself as a lazy student throughout middle school and high school.  We moved to a very plain town called Plainsboro, New Jersey, where life was pretty plain.  The schools were good, but I just didn’t give a hoot, that is except for History and English class in which I always received straight A’s and was placed in the advanced sections.  Oh, by this time I had read whole volume sets on the Civil War, World War I and World War II, all the biographies of the presidents whom I could name in order by heart up to George Bush Sr., even if that didn’t much impress the ladies.  By this time I was even trying my hand at tomes such as The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.  I knew the strategies, the grounds, the outcomes of all the big Civil War battles, and it seemed to me as if I knew the historical personages as friends.  I read Zinn who blew my mind and made me seek out books on the histories of the oppressed and firsthand accounts and journals and autobiographies from the periods in which I became interested. Now I wanted the primary sources.   All that in high school.  For fun.  The poor teachers didn’t have a chance, though they certainly got their revenge in math, science, and gym.  My love of literature undoubtedly grew out of my dedication to history.  Literature placed me in media res within the historical events which the dates and names and strategies couldn’t.  And this even led me to a little amateur writing.  I wrote my first short story for freshman English class; it was a stream-of-consciousness rip-off of Stephen Crane but for the fact my protagonist caught a Confederate minie ball right between the eyes at Fredericksburg.  The teacher, Ms. Cuneo, read the story aloud to the entire class.  The ladies remained unimpressed. 

I wish I could say the catalyst for my application to Florida State University in 1990 was the prestige and reputation of its History Department.  Alas, it was not.  It was all Deion Sanders’ and Jimmy Buffett’s fault.  I only applied to three colleges—FSU, UF, and UM.  By some miracle of the Olympian Gods I got in to all three, but right away it was narrowed down to the two state schools because of cost.  So my dad and I hopped in his white Chrysler Le Baron and drove down from Jersey to Florida in order to visit both schools.  It ended up being a no-brainer for two reasons: the beauty of FSU’s campus with the Neo-Gothic brick buildings, Westcott Fountain, and the Live Oak trees with moss hanging down, and though I don’t remember how it happened, I also got a chance to meet Dr. Jim Jones.  Case closed!

My experience as an undergraduate of the History Department at FSU, even if now it sometimes appears murky and viewed through a nostalgic lens colored with the naivete of youth, floats in my head as something comparable to the film Dead Poets’ Society.  It seems to me now as if I would run to the Bellamy Building to attend those classes on Colonial Society, the Civil War, the Presidents, the Progressive Era.  It was a world without visual aids—no computers, no powerpoint, no projectors in the classroom, just an old blackboard with actual chalk and erasers—and Dr. Jones in his loose jeans and blue sweaters sewing tales, telling yarns, each word a thread, each lecture a section of a tapestry, the end of the semester a masterpiece like Raphael’s Sistine Chapel tapestries of the Acts of the Apostles, golden in his room in Bellamy, the new Sistine. 

Dr. Jones, however, wasn’t the only one.  At that time there was also Dr. Tannenbaum.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember his first name, but Dr. Tannenbaum taught European History.  He had a very different style than Dr. Jones, but sometimes a change in style was just what the doctor ordered—a “just the facts, sir” delivery, though never dry, mixed in with period novels which was just up my alley.  Europe was new to me, especially when American History wasn’t too much involved with it—real street tales of the French Revolution and Napoleon, the Dreyfus Affair.  I still recall all these years later the chills running up the back of my neck when Dr. Tannenbaum quoted Napoleon in a dramatic voice: “The revolution is over; I am the revolution.”  I think it was he who one day told the class that he had never thrown away or borrowed a book that he had read or was going to read because one never knew when one would have to consult it again.  Build your own library, he said.  I still practice that philosophy today much to the detriment of my pocketbook, and since I’ve never been able to get an apartment or house large enough, my thousands of books remain in boxes somewhere in a storage unit in the swamps of Ft. Myers.  “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need,” Cicero said.  One day, I hope, before I’m too old to enjoy them both.

The professor of Latin American History also had a profound impact on me.  Time has unfortunately took its toll on my memory and I can’t remember his name.  Latin America was a region I had ignored, and once again an entire treasure chest of history and possibilities spread out before me as if I were Magellan.  But before long there was an ulterior motive: there was a young woman in this class whom I liked.  She was from Panama. This professor would always make us argue our readings in discussion groups, and I remember I would purposely position myself in the correct seat in the correct aisle and row—the only time I didn’t sit in the front row in any of my history classes—so that when he made up the groups I would always be in hers.  She ignored me.  This professor also would give out prizes—books from his personal library—to the student who would earn the highest grade on an exam.  What a wonderful idea!  There was no doubt in my mind who was going to get the highest grade just so the Panamanian girl could see me get that book before all our classmates. She’d ignore me no more.  The Mexican Revolution? Simon Bolivar? The Perons and Argentina?  Allende and Chile?  American imperialism? The Panama Canal?  No topic was too grand to stop me.  I was obsessed and driven—100s on all the exams and four books from my professor’s own library!  I still have those books somewhere, and many years later—in my forties—I had a chance meeting with the young lady, actually in Panama.  She said she remembered being impressed. 

My original plan in college was to graduate, become a high school history teacher for a few years, then maybe go to law school and eventually become the President of the United States.  That all came crashing down in 1994, however, when partly on a whim and dare with a fraternity brother, and partly because of the inspiration of Dr. Charles Ewell and Dr. Nancy de Grummond from the Classics Department, I decided to put off graduation a semester and attend FSU’s Florence Program in Italy.  Like the medieval Italian poet Petrarch said, it was when by youthful error I was first misled by idle strains borne on sighs.  In Florence it seemed like every forest path I’d trod upon with my studies met in a sun-filled but stony meadow of history that you could touch, walk through, see tower monumentally above you—not books—but objects and buildings caught in some sort of historical slipstream down the aqueducts of time, into which I dived, crooked and belly first, but when I came up I was someone new, yet someone whom I knew existed all along somewhere inside myself. I was doomed.  A semester wasn’t enough, but real life intervened. 

My first “real” day job began in 1996 as a high school history teacher at an inner city school in Miami-Dade County.  They hired me to teach 9th grade World Civilizations and 11th grade American History.  I was convinced that my undergraduate history degree and my experiences in Europe would make a lasting impact on these youths.  I was going to make a difference, and just like in the movies, inspire the students, to whom nobody gave a chance, to new heights.  When the assistant principal threw the county-mandated lesson plans at me like a fishmonger throws a salmon at the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, I simply brushed it off like a hard-boiled detective.  I scoffed when she told me not to expect big things, that only five percent of my students had a chance at going to college, that my goal should be making sure they survived and that I survived and to stick to the lesson plans.  What passéists!  So jaded!  Not I!

After the first day of school of my first year of teaching high school was the first and last time I ever cried in my adult life.

Month after month it continued.  I couldn’t find the key, I couldn’t manage the classroom, I couldn’t keep them on topic much less seated, I couldn’t keep up with the county-mandated lesson plans, I couldn’t keep them from skipping class, I couldn’t keep them from fighting, all my words fell flat—the Ancient Greeks and the First Continental Congress meant nothing to young people struggling to survive.  I’m not a praying man, but I prayed for Christmas break to come as quickly as possible.  Even then I had no plan, no strategy—the students rebelled if I was too strict, and they took advantage if I was too chill.  I began questioning myself as a functioning human being and posed the existential question if 29.5k per year was worth it all, all the heartbreak and failure.  I was rudderless for the first time in my life, so much so that after the break I had no interest, didn’t prepare the lessons, just the thought of opening the county-mandated lesson plans made me wretch—I’m not going to write out pages and pages of notes on these laminated pages for the overhead projector when no one cares.  I’d rather quit; I’m just going to get through this day and that’s it; I’m moving back to Italy, even if I’ll be illegal, to be Rodolfo in La Boheme, Hemingway in Paris, Shelley in Rome.

That day I rocked up to class with nothing even remotely prepared.  I was just going to wing it and get out of Dodge.  The bell rang and the freshmen came flowing in.  They could tell something was about to go down.  “Let’s see, where were we?  The Ancient Greeks, huh?  Well, one time a long time ago at the summit of Mt. Olympus there were three goddesses: Hera, the Queen of the Gods; Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom; and Aphrodite, the Goddess of Beauty, who were all invited to a wedding banquet.  Eris, the goddess of discord, wasn’t invited and wanted revenge, so she crashed the party and threw out a golden apple among the attendees upon which was written for the most beautiful…”  Silence.  Heads on hands looking up at me, even a couple of binders open.  Soon I began acting out all the parts, as if I were a minuteman at Lexington in the basement again.  “...And as the mighty Achilles stewed in his tent, boiling with rage over the beef he had with Agamemnon, he found out his best friend, Patrocles, whom he loved as a brother and who had been wearing his armor, had been killed in battle by the Tamer-of-Horses, Hector.  And what came next no mortal man should ever have to witness, what the historians and poets called (wait for it) The Wrath of Achilles!  But you guys have to wait until tomorrow to find out about that.”  The bell rang and the students were still in their seats.  It was the first time I ever said, “you’re dismissed,” and they filed out of the classroom. One student, a girl, gave me my first fist bump. 

I had found the key and unlocked the door.  Just tell the story, you’re an actor, the bard, Homer himself, the true and original Nero with his fiddle--but Rome shall be rebuilt!  And it worked with everything.  From the Middle Passage and Slavery to the rise of Julius Caesar and the Fall of the Roman Republic—they loved Cleopatra and Mark Antony. The next three years slid by and I became a man, and more importantly, a professional—but the dome of the Florence cathedral still loomed on the horizons etched into the cortex of my brain.  My last year teaching I moved in with my parents to save money, sold my car and everything I owned except my books, and the day after school ended I was on a plane back to Florence.

I had to learn everything there was about the Italian Renaissance--Art, history, literature, culture, food, architecture, dress, graffiti, every stone of Florence, the markings on the walls, the coats-of-arms, the pottery, the myths, the legends, but also the grit: the poor, sexuality, gender, the slaves, the children.  It was too much for any person to learn.  A master’s degree in Art History from the American University of London?  It wasn’t enough and too much.  I started a Ph.D. at FSU in Art History--it was just too much, but never enough.  I couldn’t process it all; Florentine history and art history would lay me low, waylay me forever.  Archival work in an obscure Tuscan town that was only open two hours-a-day with documents in fifteenth-century Latin or Italian writing that looked like hieroglyphics.  Did I have to learn to read and write a whole new language?  There was no way out.  I had to start letting things get out again instead of just bringing them in all the time.  I had to teach.  I couldn’t wait any longer, plus, I was broke, I passed the orals and the writtens, but couldn’t finish the dissertation…

In 2005 thanks to the former director of the Florence Program who had remembered me when I was a student, plus a little support and cajoling by Dr. Freiberg of the FSU Art History Department, I was invited back to Florence to teach a summer semester.  If I were going to fail at all things Renaissance, I wasn’t going to fail at this.  My philosophy was that I was going to give every drop of energy and sweat to my students, each one I hoped would become an Odysseus on a Renaissance Art History Odyssey of six weeks, in-and-out of the museums and monuments, a small group of Prometheuses unchained every day from the shackles of the classroom.  Business and biology majors too?  Bring it on; I didn’t care.  I’d be the Morgan Freeman of the Introduction to Renaissance Art, and the students would follow me straight into Dante’s inferno.  It worked, and I was asked to teach one course per semester on a permanent basis at the FSU Florence Study Center.

In the meantime, thanks to my Italian heritage, I was able to become a dual citizen, which allowed me to stay, but teaching only one class was not going to pay the rent and grocery bills.  Florence is expensive and the pay is next to nothing.  I had to co-opt myself out to other study abroad programs.  For the next ten years I hustled.  Some semesters I worked at four different schools and taught six courses, and there were even quite a few times when I had to teach four classes in a day.  I think I spent whatever was left of my salary on espresso and Red Bull.  I had to be on each time, I had to tell the students the story of history, the critical debates, the conflicting scholarship, but not in the classroom, out in the piazza in the rain, or in below-freezing winters, in the 100-degree summers, in the overcrowded museums jostling for position with the tour guides, refusing to give ground before Michelangelo’s David or Raphael’s self-portrait.  My philosophy morphed a little as I gained more and more experience each semester; it was Joe DiMaggio’s philosophy, who, when asked by a reporter why he played so hard even when the game was in the bag, responded “because there might have been someone in the stands today who never saw me play before, and may never see me again.”  No matter how tired I was, that is how I thought about the history of the works of art, each one, which I had the privilege to introduce to my students, not in a slide, but face-to-face; each was a base hit that had to be legged out into a double because they may never see it again.  Both the history and the students could not be let down, just like I had not been let down in 1994 when I had enrolled in the FSU Florence Program.

In 2015, though, I burned out.  I was getting older, and it seemed the more classes I taught the more the Italian government took in taxes out of my paychecks.  It got so bad that those semesters I taught six courses, when the final tabulation was made, the overall pay was the equivalent to three.  So I was teaching three courses just for the benefit of the Italian IRS, and despite living austerely, every month my bank account would always tickle the feet of the balance of zero.  It was time for a break and maybe a change; I was done with Italy.  So once again, at the age of 43, this time in Florida on Sanibel Island to where my parents had moved, I set up shop with mom and dad.  I answered an ad in the local beach paper for a 10-buck-an-hour gig as a kayak attendant at the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge (of course I had to learn everything about Mr. Darling).  I loved the job, hauling kayaks and prepping fishing boats.  A year later, in my kayak deep in a mangrove in the back bay with hundreds of mullet jumping and splashing in the sun, my cellphone rang.  On the other end was Dr. James Pitts, Director of FSU’s International Programs.  The director of FSU Florence had decided to retire, and he said, because of my passion for teaching history and art history, many people whom he asked had mentioned my name as a possible replacement.  I fell out of the kayak and had to wrestle an ibis and a gator to get back in it alive.  It was time to put the fiddle back in the box.

I hope since having been appointed director of the FSU Florence Program in 2016, that I have proven myself somewhat worthy in the eyes of every Seminole who has come to Italy to study.  There have been great heights and some struggles, but every day our goal is to stretch that single into a double.  With the help of our team and faculty, and especially the leadership of the Florence Program’s Associate Director, Lucia Cossari, the future remains bright as we move in to our new Study Center, the sixteenth-century Bagnesi Palace, FSU-owned-and-operated, a new post-Covid renaissance for FSU in the heart of the renaissance city.  I’m delighted because I know it will be a splendid home for past, present, and future Seminoles.  The History Department at FSU played a pivotal role in my formation and still resonates with me each day.  I encourage every Florida State student, no matter his or her background or major, to take advantage of studying abroad at one of FSU’s campuses in either Panama, Spain, England, or Italy.