Who was Nick Salerno? Many would say: a generous soul who changed the Valley of the Sun and ASU for the better.
In the 1960s, he defused a confrontation between student protestors who had occupied Old Main at Arizona State University and the armed National Guard who surrounded them.
In the ’70s he launched Cinema Classics, which became a decadelong PBS institution in the Valley, foreshadowing the popular Turner Classic Movies (TCM) hosted by Robert Osborne.
And in the ’80s and ’90s, he introduced foreign and independent films to the Valley through a partnership with Dan Harkins of Harkins Theatres.
Salerno, retired emeritus professor at ASU, died on March 15. He taught at ASU for 33 years and in ways almost too numerous to recount, Salerno’s work intertwines with ASU history and the rise of Arizona arts, literature and, most particularly, film appreciation.
He published numerous scholarly and popular articles and, later, was celebrated as a local celebrity; however, his work with students is what Salerno always wished to be remembered for. Thousands of students in Arizona pursued British literature, film history and appreciation, the short story and composition with his mentorship.
“I was just an unread kid from a mining town,” said Karla Elling, one of his early students. “Nick rescued me as my adviser in English.”
Salerno also helped her obtain a fellowship for graduate study and urged her on when she was close to quitting: “I was writing the dissertation for my doctorate. I had a husband and two small children and just didn’t think I could do it,” she said. Salerno told her, “You’re almost to the finish line. Don’t quit now.” He met Elling at home at midnight after her marathon writing sessions at the ASU Library and gave her notes and ideas until she finished her dissertation and graduated.
Salerno was a first-generation American, born in Chicago to Sicilian immigrants. They moved to Arizona in 1948. At Phoenix Union High School he began his writing career and was published regularly in the Arizona Republic. Graduating as valedictorian, he was awarded fellowships to attend ASU (then called Arizona State College).
While an editor of the ASU student-run newspaper State Press, he later recalled being somewhat of a thorn in the side of the university administration. Kathryn Gammage, wife of then ASU President Grady Gammage, insisted her husband “wished there were more Nicks on campus” regardless of how troublesome Salerno could be in print.
"He was an amazing person. We’ll not see his like again.”
— John Ratliff, former ASU Shakespeare professor
While earning his bachelor’s degree in English, he began a 12-year commitment to the U.S. Army Reserves. After graduating summa cum laude in 1957, he toured on active duty as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps, returning to ASU for his master’s.
Salerno attributed his decision to become a university professor to his longtime friend and mentor, John Ratliff, then a Shakespeare professor at ASU. At Ratliff’s urging, Salerno applied to eight prestigious graduate schools and won fellowships to all of them, including Harvard and Yale; he chose to attend Stanford. After earning his doctorate there in Victorian literature and Latin language and literature, he returned to a permanent teaching position at ASU in 1961.
Ratliff, now 94, calls Salerno “a helper, a generous soul” who could always be relied upon to give whatever was needed.