In Memoriam: Dr. Eugene Paul Nassar (June 20, 1935 – April 6, 2017)

Gene Nassar - In Memoriam

Dr. Eugene Paul Nassar, Professor Emeritus of English at Utica College, passed away on April 6, 2017 at the age of 81. His former student and current opinion page editor at the Utica Observer-Dispatch, Dave Dudajek ‘72, penned this tribute, which ran in the April 7, 2017 edition of the newspaper. It’s reprinted here with his permission.

I was scared to death of Gene Nassar.

He was one of my English professors at Utica College way back when, and the fact that he was a Rhodes scholar trying to teach me Ezra Pound’s “The Cantos” simply was more than I could bear. I often sat stupified in class, staring out the window and wondering what the heck I was doing in the same room with this man.

I told Dr. Nassar that just last week as we enjoyed lunch together with artist Bob Cimbalo at Massoud’s on Bank Place, and he laughed. Gene — I had a tough time calling him that, but he insisted — and I became good friends since those days at UC, and I wished I had known then what a down-to-earth guy he really was. It would have saved me a lot of angst.

Gene always was smiling and full of life when we had lunch together, and that’s the way he was that day at Massoud’s. Which is why I was left stunned Friday morning when I opened an email from another former UC English prof, Frank Bergmann, informing me that Gene had died Thursday night at age 81.

If ever there was a guy who bled Utica it was Gene Nassar. He was born on the 700 block of Lansing Street in East Utica, and lived in the same house for more than 65 years. He was a brilliant man — he quit Yale Medical School after just one week to pursue his love of literature, and returned to his alma mater, Kenyon College in Ohio, where he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship. He earned a master’s degree from Oxford University and later received a doctorate from Cornell University.

The new Dr. Nassar taught briefly at Hamilton College before finding a home at UC in 1964. He could have gone anywhere — he had unsolicited job offers from Duke, the University of Rochester and University of Delaware — but stayed in Utica, the place he loved so dearly.

“I guess I have a little Immanuel Kant in me,” Nassar told me in a 1999 interview, referring to the 18th-century German philosopher. “Kant never left his village. They consider that a form of self-burial today, self-immolation.”

Nassar’s brilliance was superseded only by his commitment to his hometown and the people who live here.

“I wanted to teach the kids of the working class and be able to help them work their way up,” he said. “That’s always been the key to UC’s success being the school for Central New York, a place where the working-class kid can make it.”

Nassar’s constitution was reinforced by strong Lebanese immigrant roots that ran deep. During my days at UC, I’d often wait anxiously outside his classroom door, hoping (sometimes praying) that he wouldn’t show up. Little did I know then that Gene Nassar never missed a day of school in his life, including grammar school.

He learned such dedication from his father, who kept the family going through the Great Depression and never missed a day of work in his life.

“Back then, immigrants were afraid to miss work because if they did, somebody might show up and take their place,” Nassar told me.

Our friendship grew over the years, and I quickly discovered the humble, caring, loving man. In addition to a wide assortment of books — many in collaboration with Cimbalo, fellow Proctor High graduate and longtime friend — Gene wrote many columns for the O-D’s Opinion page. Most were simple reflections on life back when in his East Utica neighborhood, marvelous memories that he has pricelessly preserved for future generations. His roots were very important to him, and no doubt strong motivation for his founding the Ethnic Heritage Cultural Center at Utica College.

“When I arrived on the UC campus 40 years ago, Gene Nassar was a commanding presence in the faculty. He was someone whom junior faculty members inevitably looked to as a role model,” said John Johnsen, UC provost and vice president for academic affairs. “Many of our alumni remember him with both fondness and great respect. The fact that Gene had deep life-long roots in Utica made him a commanding figure also in the community as well as on campus. Even after retirement, Gene remained very active in the life of the college and the faculty. He was a friend as well as a colleague, and I have a very personal sense of loss with his passing.”

Gene also was author of many scholarly works, most of which I still don’t understand.

That’s OK. One thing I do understand is that this community has lost a treasure with the passing of Eugene Paul Nassar.

“Gene Nassar was a scholar of the highest credentials, beginning with his Rhodes scholarship to Oxford,” said UC’s Bergmann, one of his longtime colleagues. ” But he was also an East Utica Lebanese homeboy who deeply cared about his town. To me, he was a great friend and mentor at Utica College, irreplaceable.”

Irreplaceable, for sure. Gene Nassar loved his family, his college and his community with all his heart and soul. And we loved him.

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