WC’s Mentors: Dominic Alonso LaRusso


This is the first of a series of irregular blog posts on the persons in WC’s past who served as WC’s mentors, instructors, role models and influences. We’ll begin with the one who was indisputably the greatest influence, Dom LaRusso.

Prof. Dominic A. LaRusso, PhD

Prof. Dominic A. LaRusso, PhD

A professor and professor emeritus at the University of Oregon from 1969 to his death in 2001, Dominic A. LaRusso was an inspiring teacher, who expected and usually received the very best from his students. It was WC’s great privilege to be among those students. He was a pioneer in research and writing on nonverbal communication. He was the recipient of the Erstad Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1985, the first year the award was given, and he received the Burlington Northern Faculty Achievement Award in 1986, the first year that award was given. He was the author of numerous books, essays and articles, and was a visiting professor at more than 20 institutions.

Afterwards, we became friends. Over the course of three decades, we met, we corresponded and we drank a great deal of wine. Conversations with Dom would range from Cicero’s public speaking technique to the beauty of Sicily, from the brilliance of Dante Allegheri to the deep flaws of Richard Nixon. He loved conversation, as an art and as an aspect of what makes us human. He had an uncanny, sometimes unnerving, ability to read nonverbal cues. When he wanted, he could say, “What your words are saying is different from what your body is saying.” He was always right. WC misses him and misses those conversations.

Dom wanted no special memorial. He was emphatic. But he was too important to WC and to others. WC cannot let him pass without some commemoration, however modest. WC’s apologies to Carol, his wife, and to Dom’s shade.

WC sets out here brief memorial comments from a colleague, Dr. David Frank, used with permission:

Dominic A. LaRusso
Professor Emeritus
Rhetoric

Dominic Anthony LaRusso, professor emeritus of rhetoric, died on November 1. I am deeply sad that our university, a university in great need of humans with peregrine visions, has lost a humane voice. I am sad, selfishly perhaps, because I have lost a friend of twenty years who was not afraid to judge and not afraid to show kindness. If he could not command an immaculate perception, he had immaculate integrity. And I speak with sadness mixed with trepidation as he ordered me and others not to hold services after he died. A former Golden glove boxer, he grabbed me by the lapel of my shirt one day, lifted me several inches above the ground, and insisted that I not contribute to or participate in a memorial ceremony after his passing. On this one occasion, splendid rhetorician though he was, he failed to persuade.

LaRusso served in General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters in the Pacific during World War II with the First Calvary. He was wounded in action, and the pain that followed him made his life a rough road. After the war, he attended Northwestern University’s School of Speech and earned a Ph.D. in speech. This was the halcyon period at Northwestern, and he met with a host of important thinkers, including Martin Buber. LaRusso wrote a brilliant dissertation on the rhetoric of the Italian Renaissance. The word Renaissance, LaRusso claimed, was a French word for an Italian phenomenon. He read broadly and widely, in English, Italian, Greek, and Latin. A noted scholar, he translated the rhetorical works of the Italian Renaissance into English, wrote poetry, and created a one man play on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. I lament that his translations and insights on the rhetoric of the Italian Renaissance will end with his death.

I hesitate to use the phrase “Renaissance man” to describe him as it is come to have a popular meaning of “Jack of all trades.” LaRusso embodied the deep virtues of the Renaissance, beginning with the Italian concept of ethos and its emphases on public service through oratory. As with the word Renaissance, LaRusso recovered the meaning of rhetoric, as he wrote about the theory, models, and practice of discourse as a civic art designed to secure justice. Integrity, truthfulness, and Cicero’s striking notion that the most important applause a rhetorician should seek is from one’s conscience were at the heart of LaRusso’s theory of rhetoric. His vision and practice of rhetoric avoided the pandering and the chameleon ethics of the politicians he despised. To him, rhetoric targeted, sought, and was guided by the polar stars of humanness and justice.

After more than thirty years of university service, he retired and earned the distinction of professor emeritus. He was proud of the title. He often told his students that he hoped that he could make a difference with his life. Without question, he did. He did with his books and articles that survive him. He did in the habits of mind and speech of his students. He did as a citizen soldier in service to country. He did as a son, brother, father, grandfather, and valued friend and colleague. He made a difference with his life. When he retired, his present and former students gave him the gift of a bench, which they placed outside the window where he taught his yearlong sequence in rhetoric. His students placed a plaque on the bench bearing one of LaRusso’s favorite adage: Ad astra per aspera “A rough road leads to the stars.”

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