By John Grennan
Spend time with Ron Isetti, former U.S. and Asian history professor at Saint Mary’s, and you begin to appreciate what William Faulkner meant when he said, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”
With Isetti, the American Revolution and imperial Japan are inextricably linked to the present and every bit as palpable. His rich descriptions of intriguing characters and crucial moments in history introduced students to a world where they breathed the same air as George Washington and Shogun Tokugawa.
“History is like time travel — you can go wherever you want to go,” Isetti explains from Palm Springs, where he retired in 2005.
During 27 years at SMC, Isetti took thousands of students on journeys of historical imagination.
“He was an amazing presence in the classroom,” says U.S. history professor Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo. “Every word that came out of his mouth was intentionally framed to convey the feeling of the period and his passion for the subject.”
Isetti’s grasp of history and devotion to teaching created a loyal following.
“What made him unique were the relationships he had with students. His door was always open,” says Alex Bauer ’91, a history teacher at Galt High School in the Central Valley.
As a boy, Isetti spent hours lying on the floor at his family’s house in Stockton, poring through the World Book Encyclopedia. He cultivated his omnivorous curiosity for history at the University of the Pacific and later at UC Berkeley, where he earned his doctorate.
His first contact with Saint Mary’s was Brother Robert Smith, an Integral professor who often visited UOP in the late 1950s to lead philosophy discussions.
Impressed by Brother Robert and other Brothers’ devotion to students, Isetti joined the Christian Brothers in 1960 and began teaching U.S. history at Saint Mary’s in 1968. He remained a Brother until 1995.
His mentor was Irving Goleman, a Stockton City College world literature professor. Goleman began each class by writing a quote from Roman poet Terence on the board: “I am human, therefore nothing human can ever be alien to me.”
The sentiment resonated with Isetti, encouraging him to view history as an opportunity to study different cultures. In this spirit, he added Asian history to his graduate studies at Berkeley in the early 1970s.
“That was a brave leap to make,” says U.S. history professor Carl Guarneri. “It is still rare today for graduate students in American history to take on societies as different as Asia for their second field.”
After his graduate work, Isetti introduced Asian history courses to a College whose curriculum had focused almost exclusively on the European cultural tradition.
“That’s been one of Ron’s biggest legacies,” Guarneri says.
While Isetti fondly remembers the classroom, he thoroughly enjoys retired life.
“My mornings are a cup of really good coffee and devouring the Los Angeles Times.”