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Retired longtime dean of Community Services
at CCRI reflects on his career
Jan. 9, 2015
On a dreary, rainy day in Johnston, Americo “Rick” Ottaviano, the first dean of Community Services at CCRI, puttered around his home, warm and dry, gamely posing for a few photos by the light of reading lamps. Books crowded the shelves around him over a desk he made from one of his children’s old bed frames. Upstairs, a portly border terrier named Andy sat in an armchair like he was expecting company. “I retired at 73,” said Ottaviano, who soon would turn 90. “Big mistake!”
Hearing Ottaviano speak of all he accomplished in his time at the college – beginning in 1966 as an instrumentation instructor, just two years after the institution’s inception – it’s easy to understand why, despite his cozy setup, he would have liked to work a little longer.
He is a man who likes to stay busy, to put it mildly. He wasted no time, for instance, once he had completed his Navy service during World War II, returning home to Providence to start a business fixing small electronics. He and his wife, Margaret, had five children, and he still found time to first teach at New England Tech and then go on to complete his own education – first at the Vocational School, then to Rhode Island College for his bachelor’s degree and, eventually, the University of Rhode Island for his master’s degree in education.
“I’ve always been passionate about continuing education,” he said. “My parents were immigrants from Italy. My father worked at Brown and Sharpe and my mother was kicking a foot press. I knew if I was going to go back to school, I’d have to do it myself. I couldn’t ask for their help.”
Talking to some people with whom Ottaviano worked closely over his years at the college, it’s clear that his passion for continuing education – forged in part by his own experience – was infectious.
Emilio “Meo” Colantonio, director of Community Services in the college’s Center for Workforce and Community Education (CWCE), remembered that Ottaviano impressed him from their first meeting, when he interviewed for his first job at the college as a vocational counselor in 1985.
“He has an entrepreneurial attitude,” said Colantonio, remembering how instrumental Ottaviano was in creating revenue-producing programs for the college that would benefit students in all disciplines, for all walks of life.
“It was the best job I ever had. The idea was always to get as many people into the building as I could,” said Ottaviano. He knew if he built it, students would come – and come they did in the hundreds over the years.
Ottaviano built programs to train bus drivers and CDL drivers, the motorcycle training school and counseling for drivers convicted of driving under the influence and other offenses requiring driver retraining.
He also pioneered the GED® preparation program and testing administration through the college, making the transition easy for students who completed the GED® test to begin taking courses at the college immediately. During his tenure, approximately 25,000 Rhode Islanders achieved their GED® credential through these programs.
The noncredit side of the college, CWCE, as well as some of the credited programs, such as the Engineering, Fire Science, EMT and Nursing programs, owe a debt of gratitude to Ottaviano for helping to spearhead their creation.
When there was funding, he made it work; when there wasn’t, he found his own money, writing grants and burning the midnight oil to make the college the best that it could be for the greatest number of people.
“When the name was changed to the Community College of Rhode Island, he really took that to heart,” said Colantonio. “He thought we should be reaching out to the community and providing programs for everyone.”
Ottaviano’s entrepreneurial spirit was part and parcel of his tendency to solve problems creatively, such as when he and Colantonio lugged typewriters from the Flanagan Campus in Lincoln all the way to the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston to offer clerical courses to the female inmates – “They were heavy, and he wasn’t young at the time!” remembered Colantonio – or simply pushing through to create new programs where no one had thought to do so before.
“Basically, they didn’t tell me I couldn’t do it,” Ottaviano said, laughing, remembering when he brought the state testing for truck and bus drivers to the college. “So I did.”
Another of Ottaviano’s hires was Richard Tessier, now an associate professor of English. Tessier first met Ottaviano in 1986 when he was working with a nonprofit group to write grants to provide skill training services for adults. Ottaviano and Tessier worked together to “hammer out” the funding, recalled Tessier, and when a position as a grant writer opened up, Ottaviano tapped Tessier for the job.
Over the years, Tessier’s respect for Ottaviano grew as he saw his commitment to the community and the programs he built to serve it. “He always made it a point to go visit his programs, to be involved. People knew who he was, but there was never any name recognition, because for him, it wasn’t about him, it was about the services that were being provided to the public. He really believed in the mission of the college. He made it easy for the community to come in and reach out to us, and he never said no,” said Tessier.
Although Ottaviano’s work touched the lives of many students, some individual memories stick out as moments to savor, things that summed up the big picture of what he intended to accomplish. He recalled one woman who approached him during an orientation session – an older student, she was worried about taking her first college course, and she was about to walk out the door before talking to him.
“She was interested in nursing,” he said. “When we were done talking, she signed up for the class. She took the class, eventually became a nurse, and went on to serve on the state Board of Education. After almost walking out the door! That’s what I loved most about my job.”
Ottaviano’s work ethic didn’t get in the way of having a little fun. He and his wife packed lunches and chartered buses so students could see concerts and museums in New York City and Boston, an idea Ottaviano had after visiting New York during the San Gennaro Festival. “We wanted them to see it,” he said. “It was wonderful.”
Tessier said CCRI President Ray Di Pasquale is always talking about what makes this college unique: “It’s the people who are here,” he said. “The people who came before us and the people who are going to come after us. Rick did that very well. He left his legacy here.”
Now enjoying his retirement, spending time with his family (and his great-grand-dog Andy, who perked up only at the mention of coffee and cookies to be served to guests), caring for his wife and keeping up their home, it’s still about that legacy of community for Ottaviano.
“I was always for the little people. By hook or by crook, I wanted to get everyone back to school,” he said.