On Friday, March 17, 2018, Dr. JoAnne Ruvoli lost her battle with leukemia, leaving behind many loved ones, and leaving the English department poorer from her loss.
I was a new professor at Ball State the same year as JoAnne. We became fast friends; both of us enjoying deep conversation, good books and films, Chicago and Chicago food, and good jokes. Her compassion during my times of need made her irreplaceable when she gently prodded me to come over so she could order what passes for pizza in Muncie. Her kindness, understanding, and good company will be greatly missed.
JoAnne was an accomplished scholar whose contributions to the field of Italian-American literature reach beyond adding to the body of scholarly writing. As a doctoral student at UIC, she diligently navigated a legal maze to bring the late Italian-American writer Tina De Rosa’s papers to the library archives—a feat unheard of for a student. This preserved the unpublished writing of a woman whose body of work explored the neighborhood that once existed where UIC campus rests today.
She was later the recipient of the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at UCLA, where she mentored graduate students and helped organize and participated in presentations, seminars, and conferences in her field. She was an active member of the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS).
Her diligence in her field meant she constantly read the works of Italian-American writers, particularly women. She often promoted books she enjoyed and felt others should read on the Twitter account @ItalianAmLit. JoAnne loved film—the more obscure the better—particularly those written and directed by women. She was well-known for her affection for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (books and films), and not only often taught them but enjoyed giving likeminded friends horse-head pillows on special occasions.
Her true passion was for teaching. She started her career teaching through the Teach for America program at an LA high school. JoAnne Ruvoli’s accomplishments as a professor at Ball State are best summed up by her former officemate, Becca Manery, who noted that her former students were always stopping by on the 3rd floor of Robert Bell just to say hi: “There’s no better tribute to a teacher than that.” Her students valued her contributions to their educations, at all levels and across decades.
Despite her illness, JoAnne volunteered to read scholarship essays for disadvantaged youth from her hospital bed. She never stopped thinking of ways to help students succeed in pursuing their educations.
More than anything, JoAnne was known for her compassion, willingness to go out of her way to help others, and wickedly witty sense of humor.
On what would have been her 50th birthday, April 14, I trekked up to UIC campus in Chicago to attend her memorial service. Squeezed together in Stevenson Hall, standing room only, well over 100 people grieved together. Laughter and tears greeted the stories of her life, her essence, and her giant compassion. Each person there shared something, along with many others who could not be there. We shared a love for JoAnne, someone who had touched our lives and was gone too soon. I wish I’d had more time to know her.
In the end, as family, friends, and colleagues came together in the academic setting she loved, we knew JoAnne wouldn’t want us to grieve. She’d want us to go to a bookstore cafe and pick up a book by a contemporary Italian-American writer to enjoy with our coffee. She’d want us to seek out obscure films by female screenwriters. She’d want us to go read and watch The Godfather, snuggled against a horse-head pillow. She’d want us to enjoy a good joke. And she’d want us to reach out a hand to someone in need, and help them.
Would you like to share your stories about JoAnne? Please post in the comments to share in tribute of her life and work.
-Prof. Emily Scalzo
I actually saw JoAnne teach “The Godfather” a few years ago, and I marveled at her deep knowledge about and passion for the movie. Even more impressive was the exciting way that her students were engaging with the film at a very advanced level. She was, indeed, a great teacher. Thanks so much Emily for this tribute!