Nicolae Iliescu, 88; professor of Italian literature at Harvard

Nicolae Iliescu was a widely recognized Dante scholar. Nicolae Iliescu was a widely recognized Dante scholar.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / December 16, 2007

When the Communists swept across Eastern Europe in the 1940s, Nicolae Iliescu was a student at the University of Bucharest in his native Romania. An outspoken critic, he was sentenced to six years of hard labor - including imprisonment for two years - at the notorious Aiud prison in Romania.

But his ordeal wasn't over. After his release, he was sent to the Russian Front as a soldier in the Romanian Army, relatives said.

"He was on the front lines for one or two years," his daughter, Doina of Arlington, said via e-mail. "On Aug. 23, 1944, Romania capitulated to the Russians, and my father dropped his gun and fled his country by foot. He did not return home again until April 1989, after the Romanian revolution 45 years later."

Dr. Iliescu, a widely recognized Dante scholar who earned doctorates from two prestigious universities but who still thought of himself as "a man with the heart of a peasant," died Nov. 25 of a stroke at Emerson Hospital in Concord. He was 88 and had lived in Lincoln.

Dr. Iliescu taught Italian literature at Harvard for 33 years as a double-chaired professor, and at the Harvard Extension School for 25 years. His passion for teaching inspired countless students.

One such student was Horia Mocanu of Miami, who emigrated from Romania as a young man in 1982 and met Dr. Iliescu through his father. Mocanu's father had spent 13 years in the gulags of Romania as a political prisoner, Mocanu said.

"Professor Iliescu basically assured me that if you work smart and hard and can demonstrate integrity, leadership, and intellect, all doors are open, regardless of how you got to the US or when," Mocanu said in an e-mail. "I followed his advice during my high school years, applied to Harvard without safety schools and got in early action in 1986."

At Harvard, Mocanu established the school's Romanian Society, with Dr. Iliescu serving as the group's faculty adviser. Today, he works as an investment banker.

Before becoming a colleague of Dr. Iliescu's years later at the Harvard Extension School, Ivan Galantic met him in Florence when both were students and members of "the displaced persons" academic community from Central and Eastern Europe. By then, he said, Dr. Iliescu already had a doctorate in Italian literature from the University of Padua.

"The strength of his endurance and ideals were derived from observing and relying on human greatness wherever found in the realm of the spirit," said Galantic of Belmont.

"A man of profound faith and deeply learned religiosity, he possessed one clear model, which brought together his scholarship and his way of life: Dante - the Dante of 'La Divina Commedia'. . . . Certainly Dante was a man of faith and unbending principle," Galantic said, just as was Dr. Iliescu.

Dr. Iliescu's passion for teaching extended to his nighttime students. They were "lawyers, engineers, self-employed, housewives, etc. Many are office employees, and they certainly cannot expect a raise in salary just because they have taken a course on Dante," he wrote in a bulletin honoring him for his quarter-century of service to the school. "It is rather their mind, their intellect, their spirit that makes them want to change the subject, so to speak from their regular work. For it is not by bread alone that life has meaning."

Dr. Iliescu was a slender man, 5 feet 10 inches tall, another daughter, Rodica Woodbury of Edmonds, Wash., said in an interview. "One of his mottos was 'to live in moderation.' Dad would never have more than one pair of shoes and would wear them until they got holes in them. He probably never ate fast food in his life. His favorite country and people in the world have always been Italians. He loved and respected Italian life."

He was born in the village of Constantinesti, Romania, one of seven children. His father was an elementary schoolteacher, and his mother raised silk worms and sewed and embroidered with the silk. The family lived in a two-room house.

As a boy, Dr. Iliescu worked in the fields, tended the family sheep, played ballgames, and swam. At the local schools, he studied French, Latin, and German.

After he escaped from the country following his imprisonment and conscription, he crossed the mountains into Austria in 1944.

"There he met up with a former professor of German, Ernst Gamillscheg, whom he had known at the University of Bucharest," said Doina. Gamillscheg gave Dr. Iliescu a false ID card that allowed him to enter Italy as an Albanian.

After appealing for help from the Catholic Church, in 1945 he found work on a farm outside of Padua. There, he slept in a stable. With the help of a Romanian teacher at the University of Padua, he was admitted there and earned his doctorate in Italian literature in 1947.

He came to America in 1952 and headed for Cleveland, with its large Romanian population. There, Doina said, he became editor of a weekly Romanian newspaper, Solia (The Messenger); he worked on the assembly line at a Ford factory for two years; and he married Esther Gheta in 1953.

In 1955, Dr. Iliescu was accepted at Harvard and earned his second doctorate, in philosophy, in less than two years. According to a Harvard spokeswoman, Dr. Iliescu became an instructor in 1958, an assistant professor the next year, associate professor in 1963, full professor in 1968, and professor emeritus in 1989.

He remained active during retirement. Harvard said he was still teaching evening courses in fall 2002.

In addition to his wife and two daughters, Dr. Iliescu leaves two brothers, Octavian and Virgil, both of Bucharest; and one granddaughter.

A memorial service will be held this winter.

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