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Michael D'Innocenzo, longtime Hofstra University faculty, dies at 86

Michael D'Innocenzo, Hoftra University's longest-serving faculty member, died

Michael D'Innocenzo, Hoftra University's longest-serving faculty member, died Nov. 18 at 86. Credit: Howard Simmons

Michael D’Innocenzo, Hofstra University's longest-serving faculty member who taught history for more than six decades to generations of Long Island students and inspired many to pursue careers in public service, died Nov. 18 of heart failure at his home in Mineola. He was 86.

D’Innocenzo, Hofstra's professor emeritus of history, was remembered for his dedicated pursuit of knowledge and his commitment to civil rights and social justice.

He met and trained with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who received an honorary degree at Hofstra in 1965, launched peace organizations at Hofstra and ran a quixotic and ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Congress as a Democrat in a solidly Republican district.

"He was a generous colleague, who modeled for younger faculty qualities of university citizenship that went beyond the boundaries of the classroom," said Bernard Firestone, former dean of the Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of political science.

D’Innocenzo grew up in Nyack, the oldest of two brothers to Michael D’Innocenzo, a laborer, and Mary D’Innocenzo, who worked in a senior center.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Union College in Schenectady and a master’s in history from Columbia University in Manhattan.

In 1960 he was hired by Hofstra and the following year developed a popular American Revolution history course that won the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award, which is voted on by students.

Over the years, his work received other honors, including the Eugene Asher National Distinguished Teaching Award in 2009 and a lifetime achievement award in 2014 by the Association of Italian American Educators.

Hofstra President Susan Poser recently designated D’Innocenzo as a recipient of the university's Presidential Medal, which recognizes individuals for outstanding career achievement, leadership and noteworthy public service. The medal will be conferred posthumously.

"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," Poser said.

D’Innocenzo was married for 27 years to Mary-Rose Waldron and the couple had two children, Maria Huntsman, 63, of Hartford, Connecticut, and Laura Laramie, 61, of Rhode Island. After the couple's divorce, D’Innocenzo met Andrea Libresco, 62, at a peace conference and the couple married in 1987, having two children: Leah Libresco Sargeant, 32, of Alexandria, Virginia. and Zachary Libresco, 30, of Manhattan.

Andrea Libresco, Hofstra's Leo A. Guthart Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence, recalled that her husband would give guest lecturers up to seven times per month at Long Island libraries.

"He really touched a lot of lives," she said. "In East Meadow, 200 people would show up for current events and perspective in walkers and with aides. They depended on him to talk about issues of the day … There was a lot of give-and-take in those sessions. He is someone who wasn't just the sage on the stage. He had gobs of information but he wanted to hear from people as well. Everybody felt like they knew him."

As a civil rights advocate D’Innocenzo spoke frequently at teach-ins, and when students were at risk of being drafted, joined an anti-Vietnam War march through Hempstead Village.

He was a founding member of the Hofstra Center for Civic Engagement and the Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives, and the inaugural recipient of the university’s Harry H. Wachtel Distinguished Professorship for the Study of Nonviolent Social Change, teaching a course on King and the civil rights movement.

D’Innocenzo twice ran for office, first losing a 1984 House race in New York's 5th District to Rep. Ray McGrath and narrowly losing a race for North Hempstead Town Council by less than 500 votes.

In 2019 D’Innocenzo and Adjunct Associate Professor of Economics Martin Melkonian endowed "peace fellowships" that gave students the opportunity to spend more time outside the classroom working on far-reaching community projects and funding education, research and travel to conflict-torn areas as Central America and Bosnia.

"Mike was a mighty oak at Hofstra and in the Long Island community," Melkonian said. " … He was a tireless advocate for peace and social justice."

He is survived by his wife; four children; a brother, Joseph; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

D’Innocenzo donated his body to Hofstra Medical School and convinced 22 others during his library conferences to follow suit.

A memorial service for D’Innocenzo will be held Dec. 12 at Hofstra's Student Center Theater. The service will be livestreamed.

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