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Iorio's dad, a noted USF prof, dies at 82

Published February 8, 2007


TAMPA - As he fought for his adopted homeland amid the Battle of the Bulge, John J. Iorio always felt he had cheated death.

Returning home to New Jersey, he vowed to live the rest of his life fully. For more than 60 years, he did, teaching, writing and cooking his way through life, raising a family and watching his daughter Pam become Tampa's mayor.

Mr. Iorio, 82, one of the University of South Florida's earliest professors, died at his Tampa home Wednesday (Feb. 7, 2007), seven months after being diagnosed with cancer and six decades after returning home from World War II.

"You know you should have died, but maybe you didn't," Mr. Iorio said in a 2004 interview about how the war shaped his life. "So you better appreciate everything."

Mr. Iorio, whose infectious love of language and life inspired friends and students, retired from USF's English department in 1991 as a professor emeritus. Recent years have been spent on his first passion, creative writing.

"I used to have conversations with him unlike conversations I could have with anyone else," said his son, Jay Iorio, a musician and writer in West Hollywood, Calif. "There's a certain sense of humor, his intelligence, his impatience with platitudes, and his good heart. Those are the things ... I'm really going to miss."

Mr. Iorio's impact on Tampa came in a less obvious way starting in the mid 1980s, when one of his three children, his only daughter Pam, launched a political career.

"He had a tremendous sense of right and wrong and a conscience," said Nell Abram of Tampa, 44, who grew up going to dinner parties at the Iorios' home with her father, the late USF professor and pianist Jacques Abram. "I think he passed those values on to Pam. I think he shaped the mayor we see today, the mayor who listens and considers and truly follows a moral compass in her leadership in our community."

But there was a lighter side to the relationship, one that made the sometimes-staid mayor laugh. Tampa residents had a glimpse of it during two cooking shows she filmed with her father that aired as Mayor's Hour specials on city television.

The pair made crab pasta, mussels and focaccia bread. The mayor asked her father not to name the crabs, and they playfully bickered about salt content.

"My father was a wise and kind man who lived his life in a joyful way," Pam Iorio said in a statement Wednesday. "He spread joy to so many through his teaching and friendships. I am grateful to have had such a father."

"I never known anyone who was so vividly alive as John Iorio," said Kathy Wyly, a longtime family friend whose husband, Don, worked with Iorio for decades. "The relationship between John and Pam was a unique father/daughter relationship."

But before John Iorio was the mayor's father, he was a local legend in the USF community, because of his infectious enthusiasm for modern literature. In 1969 it earned his most cherished award from students: Best Teacher of the University.

"People used to say, 'Have you had Iorio? You gotta take Iorio,' " said former USF president Betty Castor, who first met Mr. Iorio about 40 years ago.

A gifted dramatic speaker, Mr. Iorio told her after a campaign speech for a Hillsborough County Commission seat that she needed to speak up, step away from the corner "or you'll never amount to anything," Castor recalled. "He was always quick with advice, but always with a smile."

Kathy Betancourt, a USF associate vice president, said Mr. Iorio changed her life. After a lackluster English course in summer school, she was contemplating dropping out.

Then she took freshman writing with Mr. Iorio in the late 1960s. "He was so energetic and challenging. He was demanding and funny as hell. A class was like a ride on the Kumba (roller coaster at Busch Gardens.) He was fabulous," Betancourt said.

Mr. Iorio estimated he taught 9,000 students at USF between 1963 and 1991. Before joining the fledgling university, he had taught at several institutions, including Vassar College. A graduate of Columbia College, he received a master's degree from Columbia University. His doctoral studies were at the University of Minnesota and the University of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Iorio's courses ranged from freshman English to graduate criticism. But retirement gave him time to write more fiction.

"Fiction writing is the only field of human endeavor that gets into the inner state, the mind of a person," he said. "Even the soul of a person, if the fiction is good enough. It's a form of the truth."

His short stories have been published in the Southern Review, Texas Quarterly and Southwest Review. He made honorable mention three times in the yearly anthology Best American Short Stories.

Mr. Iorio was two years old when his family immigrated from the Italian village of Casandrino, near Naples. At 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, becoming a paratrooper with the 17th Airborne Division. His time in the Army would define him.

"It makes you a lot more humane, a lot more practical. It makes you distrustful of abstractions, shibboleths, platitudes. Don't give me a lot of malarkey about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Mr. Iorio said in 2004. "You're down to your inner self, it strips away all the phoniness you ever had."

Mr. Iorio is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and children, Jay, Paul and Pam; grandchildren Caitlin and Graham Woodard; sisters Katherine Bartolini, Susie Cirillo, Mary Koch; brothers Louis and Christopher. He was predeceased by his parents, Salvatore and Josephine, sister Antoinette and brother Dominick.

Paying respect


Visitation: Visitation with John J. Iorio's family will be held at the University of South Florida Alumni Center Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m.

Funeral: A private interment will take place at Myrtle Hill Cemetery.

Contributions: In lieu of flowers, the family asks for contributions to the USF Foundation John & Dorothy Iorio Scholarship Fund, 4202 E. Fowler Ave., ALC 000, Tampa, FL 33602, or the charity of your choice.

[Last modified February 8, 2007, 06:20:59]

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