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More than one hundred friends attended Nick Salerno’s funeral mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and again they came to the Harkins Valley Art Theatre memorial. More than “a few hundred of his personal friends” mourn him. He is part of us all.
I’m glad to be asked to write about my lifelong mentor and friend, Nicholas Andrew Salerno.
By including his second given name, I’m remembering how his other students loved him, and love him still. Andrew is the name of Salerno’s godson, Andrew Meyer (the son of Dan Meyer, one of my fellow graduate students in the 60s).
Salerno taught us all in his electric, arguing, insistent way in seminar, and he made social activists of us too. Some taught literacy classes during the weekend imaginary “spare time” he allotted us. I taught sewing at a Guadalupe community center. It was the 60s!
Salerno usually wore a purple Neru jacket and that beard to campus anti-war demonstrations, either trying to calm us down—or trying to protect the red-white-and-blue petunias around the flagpole near the President’s office—we never knew which. He said the only time he made the front page of The Arizona Republic was when he convinced a group of protesters, who had taken over Old Main, to leave before force was used. He then talked university administrators into a no-punishment policy.
You may remember him best from television, KAET. “Nick Salerno: Cinema Classics Goes National!” Perhaps you recall his columns about film in the Scottsdale Daily Progress—Weekend. “Big-screen bad guys prove memorable,” or “Greta Garbo: Allure that won’t quit,” or “Rocky IV waves the flag and wins the battle,” or “Montenegro: WILD, FUN.” Did you see the huge billboard near the Westward Ho on Central Avenue featuring a ten-foot-tall Nick Salerno?
When he became Chair of the Department of English in 1983, Salerno resigned from Cinema Classics at KAET. It was news! “Promotion at ASU prompts Nick Salerno to leave KAET,” said The Arizona Republic. On the front page of the Arizona Republic Magazine, “Nick Salerno’s Last Picture Show.”
A first-generation American, the son of Italian and Sicilian immigrants, Salerno (who said he was very Sicilian) acquired English as a second language. “I was raised in the dark,” he liked to say, going to movies each Saturday with his mother, who tried to speak movie English. When the family moved to Phoenix, he attended grade school in Phoenix, and Phoenix Union High School (with Alleen Nilsen).
When he enrolled at Arizona State College, he majored in English, Journalism, and History. The State Press editor by his senior year, Salerno had come to the attention and the regret of several campus administrators. Despite how annoying that Salerno could be in an editorial, it was Grady Gammage who would later negotiate his first teaching contract. Salerno had just graduated from Stanford with a PhD. He’d gone there on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship—to Stanford instead of Yale or Harvard where he’d been accepted—because that was where professor John Ratliff had gone to school, Ratliff who was Salerno’s lifelong mentor and friend.
At the age of fifty-five, when he took early retirement, Salerno said “I like leaving parties while I’m still having fun.”
The last time I saw Salerno doing well was a Sunday, March 6, the day after Will Buckingham’s memorial at the University Club. He wanted to know every detail about the service, who was there, what was the choice of music. He was cheerful, witty, and sweet as ever he could be—but adamant, he did not want to go to the hospital.
As I left I said, “Well I guess you taught us about that,” I laughed. “To strive, to seek, to find . . . and not to yield!” He laughed too—Ulysses.
Image 1: Jim and Karla Elling are greeted by Karla's friend and mentor, Nick Salerno, on their wedding day in 1965. Photo courtesy Karla Elling.
Image 2: Nick Salerno in the 1960s. Photo courtesy Karla Elling.