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'Peace fellowships' honor Hofstra University professors' legacy

"We're trying to free outstanding young people so they can work on leadership, human rights and humanitarian concerns," says Michael D'Innocenzo, professor emeritus of history.

Martin Melkonian, left, and Michael D'Innocenzo, both longtime

Martin Melkonian, left, and Michael D'Innocenzo, both longtime professors at Hofstra University, have endowed "peace fellowships" to continue their social justice work.  Photo Credit: Howard Simmons

This fall Michael D’Innocenzo and Martin Melkonian will come out of semiretirement again — albeit briefly — to teach a Hofstra University course near and dear to their progressive hearts: Introduction to Peace Studies.

Another class of Hofstra undergrads will learn about Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as the veteran peaceniks, both 83, work to pass on their passion for peace and social justice to mostly Gen Z students.

D’Innocenzo, of Mineola, a Hofstra professor emeritus of history, and Melkonian, of Uniondale, an adjunct associate professor of economics, have been teaching and fighting for peace, justice and other rights enshrined in America’s founding documents, for many decades. At a ceremony last fall, a room in the history department offices was named in honor of D’Innocenzo’s nearly 60-year career as Hofstra’s longest-serving professor.

But lately, the academic duo have been seeking to secure a monument beyond the commemorative plaque on the wall of the Michael D’Innocenzo Seminar Room.

They recently backed their beliefs with gifts of $25,000 each to the university's Institute for Peace Studies. The donation by D’Innocenzo and his wife, Andrea Libresco, a Hofstra professor of Teaching, Learning and Technology, funded the D’Innocenzo Peace Fellow endowment. The contribution from Melkonian and his wife, Margaret Melkonian, executive director of the Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives, created the Avedis Melkonian Peace Fellow endowment, named for Martin Melkonian's late father.

The peace fellowships will fund education, research and student travel to such conflict-torn areas as Central America and Bosnia. The endowment may also fund a trip to a three-day international conference on peace and conflict in October at Kent State, the Ohio university where the National Guard fired on peace protesters, killing four, in 1970.

“We’re trying to free outstanding young people so they can work on leadership, human rights and humanitarian concerns, [by] making an effort to compensate them [students] for their leadership,” D’Innocenzo, a spellbinding speaker with sparkling blue eyes, said on a recent afternoon as he sat beside Melkonian in the seminar room.

“We think we’ve ignited interest in these issues,” said Melkonian, a slim, energetic man with a sandpaper voice.

Mike and Marty — as they have been known to generations of Hofstra students — were “woke” decades before the term was coined to describe people who are aware of social and racial justice issues. Since the two started teaching at Hofstra in the 1960s, they’ve combined classroom lectures with activism ranging from public protests to runs for public office.

Part of their legacy is already secured at Hofstra’s Center for Civic Engagement, an institute D’Innocenzo founded on campus to promote small-“d” democratic values and host such events as Civil Rights Day panels during Black History Month.

“Some of the things that they worked on all these years are now getting institutionalized at Hofstra,” Libresco says.

Their supporters on campus include students and administrators.

“Mike and Marty have been promoting peace for as long as I’ve known them,” said Herman A. Berliner, the university provost. “It’s absolutely wonderful that they are supporting students that are carrying on the tradition of service to the community and placing peace initiatives as a priority.”

Margaret Engel, 19, a sophomore, took the peace course last fall. Whether discussing the 1962 Cuban missile crisis or the Trump administration, Engel says, “they tried to be as unbiased as possible so we could form our own opinions.” Back home in Syracuse, she said, “I started having political debates with my parents” and quickly learned that “we all have different views.”

Growing up in immigrant households helped form the views of the friends born eight days apart in the fall of 1935. D’Innocenzo’s parents spoke Italian at home in upstate Piermont, and Melkonian’s parents spoke Armenian in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Both can still speak a little of their ancestral tongue.

D’Innocenzo got a bachelor’s in history from Union College in upstate Schenectady and a master’s in history from Columbia University in Manhattan. Hired full time in 1961, he developed and taught a popular American Revolution history course that year and won the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award, which is voted by students.

“I got to know every student’s name, and I made an effort to learn about them so I could back them up and help support and guide them,” D’Innocenzo recalls.

He also met and trained with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who received an honorary degree in 1965, and lunched with future “Roots” author Alex Haley. As a civil rights advocate he spoke at teach-ins, and when students were at risk of being drafted, he joined an anti-Vietnam War march through Hempstead Village.

Six years behind D’Innocenzo, Melkonian, who earned economics degrees from CCNY City College and The New School for Social Research in Manhattan, arrived on campus in 1966, in time for a major cultural shift.

“If you look at the course bulletins that were put out in the 1960s, everybody looks pretty buttoned down, but by 1970 everybody has beads, long hair and mustaches,” he said. By decade’s end Melkonian was also wearing blue jeans to class and asking students to call him by his first name.

Although the two professors had been friendly throughout the 1970s, they forged an alliance after a 1982 gathering of anti-nuclear war activists at the Westbury Friends Quaker Meeting House.

Melkonian said that he and D’Innocenzo were concerned that then-President Ronald Reagan believed “a nuclear war was winnable.”

"We both were very much motivated about war and peace issues that were going on, and we got to talk a lot and discuss how maybe there was something we could do about it,” Melkonian says.

On June 12 that year, the new friends took the train into Manhattan with two-dozen students to march through Central Park with 750,000 anti-nuclear protesters in one of the largest public demonstrations in U.S. history.

Back at Hofstra, they developed and co-taught a course titled “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age,” which enrolled several hundred students over the next 20 years. (After 9/11, it was renamed “War and Peace in the Age of Terrorism,” and it was offered for another decade.)

“The ’80s were especially exciting. The students were really involved,” says D’Innocenzo. Several Hofstra students volunteered for his quixotic 1984 campaign for U.S. Congress as a Democrat in a solidly Republican district. (He lost in the landslide Republican turnout that re-elected Reagan.) Nevertheless, he was elected national chair of the United Campuses Against Militarism, and he coordinated marches on Washington.

Nowadays, the issues may be different, but the passion for positive change is the same.

“One positive thing is that our best young students are more likely to think globally — that’s the positive side of the communications revolution,” D’Innocenzo says.

Peace is still being given a chance in a program funded since 2013 by the Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives at the Hofstra Center for Civic Engagement. About a dozen student Peace Fellows selected annually are paid a $250 stipend to take a five-session noncredit course, reading such classics as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

“Each spring semester everything that’s happening in the world comes into the classroom,” says Margaret Melkonian, who codirects the program with Libresco. “We’re talking about what is going on in Venezuela and Iran and the rest of the world, and the connection to global climate change. And they are thinking about what kind of world they want to live in.”

Three former peace fellows started a campus Peace Action Matters club to air important issues during the 2016 presidential campaign. Other peace fellow alumni work for such progressive organizations as the anti-war groups CodePink and Brooklyn for Peace.

“We’re getting the sense that people are picking up the torch,” Melkonian says.

He says he hopes today’s activists will come up with solutions for what he calls “the two existential threats that my grandchildren are going to be faced with — nuclear war and the environmental problem.”

The two men are also developing new courses for a minor in peace and conflict studies, another sign, D’Innocenzo says, that “Hofstra has embedded civic engagement at the university.”

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