1969 was a year of tumult and change. The Apollo 11 space mission successfully landed the first man on the moon, and Neil Armstrong’s famous phrase, “That’s one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind,” entered the world’s collective vocabulary. In America, Woodstock attracted more than 350,000 rock-n-roll fans, members of the cult led by Charles Manson murdered five people in Los Angeles, 250,000 people marched on Washington to protest the Vietnam War, PBS was established, Seiko sold the first quartz wrist watch, the first Automatic Teller Machine was installed, and the microprocessor was invented, opening the way for the computer revolution that followed.
Around the world, the Beatles' played their last public performance on the roof of Apple Records, the album Abbey Road was released, the first Concorde test flight was conducted in France, enormous student protests rocked cities around the globe, the PLO was founded, and a coup in Libya deposed King Idris.
In Italy, 1969 was a year marked by tension and terrorism. Throughout that year, a series of explosives were detonated on trains and in stations. But on December 12, 1969 “la madre di tutte le stragi,” or “the mother of all massacres” happened when a bomb exploded in the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in Milan, killing 17 people and injuring 88. Orchestrated by Neo-fascists to discredit the anarchist movement, the event ushered in the anni di piombo, the years of lead, definitively ending nearly two decades of economic, cultural, and creative growth in Italy. Before these tragic events, Italy was known for la dolce vita, the sweet life: a growing standard of living, elegant fashion, iconic products like the Vespa and Fiat, a thriving film industry, and a beautiful playground for celebrities and aristocrats.
In this combination of hope, energy, and fear, The American University of Rome was born. The brain child of three philanthropists, who all had complicated wartime experiences and a love of Italy, AUR was the embodiment of the belief in progress that the post-war boom ushered in, and a safeguard against the growing anxiety and polarization that threatened it.
Popular lore has it that AUR was founded as a “school for spies,” and given the turbulent times in which it was established, one can understand how the story started. The United States was alarmed by Italy’s shift to the left during the sixties and seventies and was actively, albeit covertly, involved in preventing the country from going Communist. However, the factual evidence suggests that if there was a political motivation for establishing The American University of Rome (and surely there was), it had more to do with spreading American ideology and cultural values than actively training spies.
The three founders—David Tyron Collin, Lisa Sergio, and George Alfred Tesoro—all shared the belief that education was the only way to prevent the world from tearing itself apart for a third time in a century. International understanding, firmly rooted in American democratic values, was the key to a peaceful and productive future. All three also had fraught wartime experiences and knew intimately, though in varying ways, the realties of fascist ideology and the trauma of war. Also in varying ways, they all understood the shifting political sands in America and Europe after the end of World War II, when old allies become new enemies, and political opinions harden into blinkered thought, violence, and oppression. The creation of The American University of Rome was their positive response to the negative forces that had shaped their earlier lives and a way to “reclaim” the country they loved.
David T. Colin was born in Saint Louis, Missouri with, according to his son, “an itch to see the world.” He travelled widely, working as a journalist and international correspondent for several US newspapers. In December of 1941, when Italy officially declared war on the United States, Colin was a civilian member of the US National Broadcasting Company in Rome. As an American on Italian soil, Colin was considered an “enemy alien” and was most probably interned in one of the pensions or hotels where American journalists and diplomats stayed after December 11, 1941. American negotiations with Axis countries allowed him to secure a passage on the Swedish steamer Drottningholm, which sailed from Lisbon on May 22, 1942 and arriving in New York on June 1, 1942.
After his return to the United States, Colin enrolled in the U.S. Army and was sent back to Italy with a Psychological Warfare unit. In October of 1944, Colin was captured on the border between France and Italy and was sent to prison in Munich, Germany. After six harsh months in Munich, he was transferred to Fort Zinna, at Torgau, to await trial before the German Supreme Military Court for “crimes committed against the German Army.” The encounter between Soviet and American troops on the Elbe River near Torgau on April 25, 1945 saved his life. Aware that the Allied net was tightening, the Nazi guards deserted the prison camp, leaving many of the cells unlocked. After his liberation, Colin was sent back to the U.S., but when the war ended, he headed back to Rome, where he was to live out much of his life. His apartment on Via della Mercede, near the Spanish Steps and the place where John Keat’s took his last breath, was to become the site of the first American University in Rome.
Giorgio Alfredo Tesoro was born in Rome in 1906. He studied law at La Sapienza, working closely with important scholars and eventually specializing in corporate and tax law. His ground-breaking work in the new field earned him esteemed scholarly and professional posts, but as a Jewish Roman and a politically engaged citizen, Tesoro watched with concern as Mussolini drifted closer and closer to Hitler’s views on race and ethnic purity. In 1938, with a thriving career, Tesoro was banned from teaching because of his Jewish origins. With a sense of what was to come, he left Italy and arrived in the United States on December 29, 1939.
Tesoro immediately applied for US citizenship and to US government positions, while pursuing his academic interests. His first teaching job was at the American University in Washington, D.C. where he wrote a detailed study of war finance, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and which eventually led to his government posts as an economic analyst and officer with the Foreign Economic Administration, the State Department, and the US Mission in Geneva. When George (no longer Giorgio) Tesoro died in 2001, his obituary in The New York Times read: “97 years of kindness, loyalty and hard work. A beloved father, grandfather, uncle and friend. Esteemed lawyer, economist, professor, diplomat, Commendatore della Repubblica Italiana, founder of American University of Rome.”
Perhaps the most enigmatic of the three is Lisa Sergio, writer, broadcaster, activist, and philanthropist. Born in Florence of Italian father, Baron Agostino Sergio, and a wealthy American mother, Margherita Fitzgerald, Sergio grew up in the heady atmosphere of the city’s Anglo-Italian community. Rich in gossip and intrigue, the Anglo-Florentine community included a mix of academics, intellectuals, artists, and wealthy aristocrats. She claimed to have translated some works of Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence into Italian and had a burgeoning editorial career among the Anglo American expat community if Florence. However, Sergio’s parents divorced in 1922, when she was just 17, when her father attempted to shoot her mother.
She became the editor of Italian Mail, the only English language weekly in Italy, and eventually moved to Rome in 1929, after falling in love with a much older man. She met Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio and known worldwide for his work in long-distance radio transmission, who connected her with the fascist government. Eventually, Sergio was hired by the Italian Ministry of Propaganda, where she translated newspaper items into French and English for a fifteen-minute daily new program. Known as “the golden voice of Rome,” Sergio became an international sensation as the first woman broadcaster in Italy and Mussolini’s official English translator. The position gave her access to high ranking Fascist officials and more inside information about the regime. In the spring of 1937, Sergio was fired from the Office of Press and Propaganda in Rome.
There are two different stories about how and why Sergio left Italy for the United States. Sergio’s version was that her dismissal was primarily due to her broadcasting omissions and ideological differences with the regime. However, according to Sergio’s FBI file, she lost her position because she was too vocal about her affair with Galeazzo Ciano (Mussolini’s son-in-law) and other fascist officials. Regardless of the true reason, Lisa Sergio left Naples for the United States in June 27, 1937.
By the time she arrived in the United States, her political beliefs had shifted dramatically, and she became an advocate of democracy and a strong anti-fascist. She explained her change of heart in a note from 1937: "Human beings are not born knowing. They are endowed, from birth with the capacity to learn. They learn to walk, to talk. We must also learn how to be free." Despite what is in her FBI file, Sergio’s ideological change of heart was genuine, and she spent the rest of her life fervently working for democratic ideals and against fascism in all its forms, even those that stalk democracies. She became a vocal supporter of education, women’s rights, and special target of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
After moving to the US, Sergio worked for NBC, but she quickly became frustrated because she believed that "NBC was not about to allow a woman to do news.” In 1939, she was hired by WQXR as a news commentator, developing her program “Column of the Air,” which focused on the crisis in Europe. When asked about being a woman in a man’s world of news broadcasting, Sergio wrote, "Here, too, women can claim and hold a place. If men and women are equally needed in the war effort, as they indubitably are, if men and women the world over are bearing the tragic burden of a war without quarter, as they are, it follows that men and women can equally contribute to the understanding of issues at stake and of the sometimes baffling trend of the events which affect us.”
“Column of the Air" broadcast seven times a week from 1939 to 1946, when WQXR cancelled it. Sergio was blacklisted by the American Legion in 1949 and listed in the anti-communist publication Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television in 1950. During the McCarthy era she was unable to work in broadcasting, and she eventually became a visiting professor and lecturer for several universities. Sergio also became very active in humans rights organizations and in The Society to Prevention of World War III. For Sergio, the responsibility of learning how to think and the liberation that comes with knowledge would eventually inspire her to help found The American University of Rome.
Archival evidence does not tell us exactly how the three founders of The American University of Rome met, but their wartime experiences, connections in the political and cultural world, and their love of Italy certainly put them in the same orbit. More importantly, though, their post-war commitment to building a better world, to promoting international understanding, and to educating young people to learn how to be free meant that they were involved in similar activities.
On the 50th anniversary of the founding of The American University of Rome, it is important to remember the crucible of history in which it was born. Envisioned by committed individuals who had seen the violence and destruction of world war, AUR was an active step in educating a new generation of young people who grew up in a post-war world during the largest economic expansion in the history of the world. The university’s aim and mission is to educate students in an international context, to understand themselves and others, to work across boundaries, and to always be aware that freedom is a responsibility and education is the key to peace and progress.
Fifty years later, we find ourselves on a similar historical precipice, where economic expansion has made the material lives of most people in the West more comfortable than ever before, but the citizens themselves, perhaps, a bit more complacent. Freedom and democracy cannot be taken for granted; they need a well-educated, thoughtful citizenry to thrive and to overcome the chaos of the current moment.