Mario Salvadori: 1907 – 1997
The late Mario Salvadori was an engineer, educator, and (I use this word rarely) visionary, who lived what most of us would consider a very colorful life: born in Rome, Italy, Salvadori earned doctoral degrees in civil engineering and mathematics, and served as an instructor at the University of Rome. A critic of Benito Mussolini, he followed the recommendation of his friend and teacher, Enrico Fermi, emigrating to the United States around 1938.
Salvadori worked for the Lionel Train Company until 1940, and then, unbeknownst to himself, became a consultant on the Manhattan Project. After WW II, he took up teaching at Columbia University, where he became a professor at the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Nearing retirement, Mario turned his attention to working with underprivileged youth in under-served schools in New York City. He created a hands-on curriculum to teach children about engineering and architecture, and was an inspiration to teachers (including myself) for many years. I first met Dr Salvadori at a workshop he gave at Brooklyn College in 1988 where he discussed the principles of structural engineering and its applications to mathematics.
I later hired Mario to give a presentation to parents and children at a full-day math and science event I organized at the Bank Street College of Education in 1991. My fondest memory was discussing the workshop with Mario on the phone, when he inquired how many people might be in attendance. When I said there would probably be about 15 parent-child dyads, he asked, “oh, so few? Why can’t we have more?” I eventually arranged for him and his crew to use a space that accommodated over 60 people.
While perusing back issues of Harper’s Magazine, I discovered a charming article which Salvadori authored on the state of mathematics education in the United States. The article, entitled “Math’s a Pleasure,” described Salvadori’s own unhappy memories of learning mathematics, the boredom and frustration he felt throughout his education, and how the current state of mathematics education drives out curiosity and excitement. What is most fascinating about this article is that it was not published in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s or 90’s, but back in 1958. To read it more than a half-century later is to experience, as Yogi Berra would describe it, “deja vu all over again.”