The Colby community is mourning the death of Patrick Brancaccio, the Zacamy Professor of English, Emeritus, who died Dec. 31, 2019, in Waterville just days before he was scheduled to leave for Verona, Italy, to teach a Jan Plan course on Italian fiction.
A memorial service will take place in Colby’s Lorimer Chapel Saturday, Jan. 11, at 2 p.m., followed by a reception in the atrium of the Diamond Building.
“Pat had a profound impact upon those of us fortunate enough to have had him in our lives,” said Eric Rolfson ’73, one of Brancaccio’s former students. “A cultured lifelong learner, he helped us uncover quality, inner strength, and joy—and did so in his mild, intuitive way with that charming half-smile on his face and gleam in his eye. He taught us to look at a book before reading it, to taste a word before digesting it.”
Brancaccio’s greatest love was teaching, and for 40 years, beginning in 1963, he taught 19th-century American literature, modern American drama, detective fiction, and Italian fiction and film in Colby’s English Department. “Few faculty members have ever offered students such an eclectic array of courses over a lifetime,” reflected College Historian Earl Smith, who knew Brancaccio for more than 50 years. “He was the consummate teacher, ever searching for new things to teach and new ways to teach them.”
A scholar of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, Brancaccio earned a doctorate at Rutgers University, where his thesis was devoted to Hawthorne’s 1860 The Marble Faun. A research grant in 1969 allowed Brancaccio, the son of an Italian immigrant, to take a sabbatical year in Italy to study the background of Hawthorne’s romance novel set in a fantastical Italy. He would return to Italy frequently throughout his life, often with Colby students for the Verona Jan Plan program, which he ran from 2006 to 2019.
In his first year at Colby, he created a pioneering course in African-American literature and successfully convinced the administration to let him teach it, despite their reluctance to change the curriculum without years of consideration. Within a few years, he cofounded a black studies program at Colby—a remarkable achievement at the time—and was its first director (1971-83). The program was one of the first such programs in the country and would eventually become Colby’s African-American Studies Program.
To deepen his knowledge of African literature, he accepted a year-long Fulbright Lectureship in 1974 to teach at the University of Madagascar. The Fulbright gave him firsthand knowledge of the struggles of developing African nations while thrusting him and his family, including his three children, into a country under martial law following a coup d’etat. He told the Colby Echo upon his return that the year in Madagascar allowed him to “sharpen his insights into black studies by means of a cross-cultural experience.”
Brancaccio was the author of several publications and poems. He also loved photography and often exhibited his work. Among his other contributions to the College was serving as chair of the English Department and directing Colby’s program in London for several years. After retirement, he was a frequent and popular lecturer for the Friends of the Goldfarb Center seminars in Waterville.
“There are scores of traditional and non-traditional students, theater lovers, African-American studies scholars, and Italophiles who were inspired by Pat Brancaccio,” added Rolfson, who credits Brancaccio for his career in teaching and higher-ed administration. “We will treasure his memory while intuitively conveying his grace and values.”
Colby owes Brancaccio a great deal for his remarkable contributions as a member of our community. “And all of us are grateful,” Smith said, “for being benefactors of his kindness, his generosity, his sense of humor, and his calm voice of reason.”
Brancaccio’s obituary is in the Jan. 7, 2020, Morning Sentinel.