Professor, writer, activist and citizen are just a few of the words that Blank Slate Media columnist Michael D’Innocenzo used to describe himself. Father, brother, husband, friend, columnist and coach are some that others will use in keeping his memory alive after his death on Thursday at 86.
D’Innocenzo’s long list of accomplishments started with a tenure at Hofstra University that began in 1960 and ended with him being the school’s longest-serving faculty member and professor emeritus of history. Before making his own history, D’Innocenzo earned a bachelor’s degree at Union College and his master’s degree at Columbia University, where he was a Danforth Scholar.
After arriving at Hofstra as a history professor, the awards and recognition began to accumulate. In 1966, he received Hofstra’s Distinguished Teaching Award. In 2009, he received the American Historical Association Eugene Asher National Distinguished Teaching Award. In 2014, he was honored for a lifetime achievement by the Association of Italian American Educators.
“In more than 60 years of teaching, Mike D’Innocenzo’s record of service, his dedication to the larger Hofstra and regional community of students, scholars and neighbors, and his core belief in democracy and deliberative dialogue changed the lives of thousands of students and members of the community,” Hofstra President Susan Poser said.
D’Innocenzo, who lived in Mineola, was also the first Hofstra faculty member to serve as the university’s Harry H. Wachtel Distinguished Teaching Professor for the Study of Nonviolent Social Change. The university lauded D’Innocenzo’s work in teaching, writing and community activities centered around civil rights and social justice.
In association with the university and the Kettering Foundation, D’Innocenzo helped establish the Hofstra Public Policy Institute. He also served on faculty committees for events through the Hofstra Cultural Center.
State Comptroller and Hofstra graduate Thomas DiNapoli touted D’Innocenzo’s ability to spark change inside and out of the classroom by going beyond his lessons and creating his own history.
“For Mike, history matters deeply. The intellectual work we do to understand the past does not stop in the library, the classroom or at the edge of campus. It continues into the present and into the world we all share,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “As a teacher, but also over a lifetime of civic activism and community leadership, Mike D’Innocenzo has demonstrated the power of learning to inform our debates and spark positive change to make our society better.”
James C. Metzger, a fellow Hofstra graduate and CEO of the Whitmore Group, whose last name can be found throughout the university’s campus, said D’Innocenzo was “the most passionate, charismatic professor that I ever had.”
D’Innocenzo’s wife, Andrea Libresco, said he would always want to hear others’ reasoning and views on various subjects so they could feel heard as well.
“One of the really great things about him was that he welcomed all comers, even if they disagreed with him,” Libresco said in a phone interview. “Mike would have the people who disagree with him speak and follow the logic of their opinions. It doesn’t mean they changed his views or that he changed their views, but I think he was welcoming of all views.”
Libresco, who is Hofstra’s Leo A. Guthart Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence, said he was a person who would remember more about someone than they would remember about themselves. As an immigrant, she said, D’Innocenzo loved to learn about where people came from and ask questions to learn more about their personal history.
“He loved finding out information but, even more than that, he loved sharing information with those around him,” Libresco said. “He was really interested in people’s backgrounds and asked questions in, not an intrusive way, but in a genuinely curious way.”
As a professor who truly wanted to connect with his students, Libresco said, D’Innocenzo jumped on his desk and encouraged students to do the same after first seeing “Dead Poets Society.” She also said he was the kind of professor who would go on a field trip to Boston but make the driver turn around to patronize small businesses and buy everyone a drink at a child’s lemonade stand they passed.
Libresco said D’Innocenzo donated his body to the Hofstra Medical School “so he can still be teaching beyond the scope of his life.”
D’Innocenzo was a congressional candidate in 1984 and also ran for a seat on the North Hempstead Town Board. He also served as the chairman of the United Campuses to Prevent Nuclear War, overseeing 600 chapters nationwide.
In this role, he worked with physicians from all backgrounds to promote social responsibility. Additionally, in 1985, the International Association to Prevent Nuclear War recognized him during its acceptance speech when it received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Though his column, “Out of Left Field,” graced the pages of Blank Slate Media’s six newspapers over the years, he had a different relationship with Editor and Publisher Steven Blank. The two met when their children, now grown, played on the same Roslyn Booster Basketball team, Blank said.
“Mike was probably the oldest parent but that didn’t stop him from accepting the role as coach which he assumed with his usual high level of enthusiasm,” Blank continued. “He soon deputized me as assistant coach and had me running up and down the court with him during practices. From then on, he was ‘coach’ to me.”
Blank touted D’Innocenzo’s work in the classroom and for the paper, saying he would commit to deadlines even in the most difficult circumstances.
“In addition to all his accomplishments as an educator, lectures, husband and father, Michael D’Innocenzo was a valued member of Blank Slate Media’s team,” Blank said. “On a few occasions in recent years, he would submit his columns from his hospital room or after being discharged – with an apology for being late. So I will say goodbye coach. You will be missed.”
Temple Emanuel Rabbi Robert S. Widom described D’Innocenzo as “eloquent, provocative, and challenging” in a statement to Blank Slate Media. Widom lauded the inspiration and the desire for social change he displayed throughout his life, saying it will be missed by the entire congregation.
“He kindled into light the minds of others, realizing that ignorance makes a small circle of a person’s years,” Widom said. “At Temple Emanuel, he taught courses, and he was guest in the pulpit on numerous occasions, becoming a close friend to me. He established a bridgehead in the hearts of all those who unfailingly came out in large numbers to hear him. We will miss his smile and his booming voice that projected optimism in the face of today’s growing challenges. May his memory be for a blessing.”
Libresco said the entire family would laugh at how much he said the book he was currently reading was incredible.
“We feel that we had read the book too, but I think everybody he came in contact with felt that way,” she said. “He wanted to share his exciting experience of learning about something with anyone and everyone.”
In addition to Libresco, D’Innocenzo is survived by his children Zach Libresco, Leah Libresco Sargeant, Laura Laramie and Maria Huntsman; five grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and a brother, Joe.
Hofstra will hold a memorial service for friends, colleagues and the university community on Sunday, Dec. 12, at 1 p.m. at the Student Center Theater. The event will also be livestreamed.