John Rassias, 90: Dartmouth professor who created Peace Corps language program

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Professor John Rassias
Professor John Rassias demonstrates the Rassias Method to a group of teachers from Mexico in 2010. (Photo by Joseph Mehling ’69)

MANCHESTER, NH – John Arthur Rassias, the William R. Kenan Professor of French and Italian, Emeritus, and creator of the Rassias Method of teaching languages, died Dec. 2 at his home in Norwich, Vt. He was 90.

He will be remembered for his internationally renowned teaching method—which includes rapid-fire drills, immersion in culture, and a healthy dose of theater—a unique style that quickly makes students comfortable using a new language. Key to the method was his dramatic style, the goal of which was to eliminate students’ inhibitions and encourage dialogue from the first day of class.

Rassias grew up in Manchester, N.H., a son of Greek immigrants. Before heading to college, he served in the U.S. Marines, piloting an amphibious tank in the 1st Marine Division’s landing in the Battle of Okinawa, on April 1, 1945, the last and largest of the Pacific island battles of World War II.

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He studied French at the University of Bridgeport, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1950. Following graduation, he went to the Université de Dijon in France as a Fulbright Scholar, and stayed there to complete his PhD. He then went to Paris, where he studied French drama at the Sorbonne and acted in the theater. His time in the theater served him well as he developed his teaching method.

In 1964, he began a long affiliation with the Peace Corps language programs, working as a consultant and developer. Two years later, he became director of the first pilot program of languages for the Peace Corps in Africa, leading training in Ivory Coast. The Rassias Method of language instruction was later adopted by the Peace Corps.

Rassias joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1965, and served thousands of students and colleagues for close to 50 years. He was a founder of the College’s Language Study Abroad programs and was the director of foreign study programs for several years. His commitment to communication and cultural understanding was the cornerstone of his life.

The Dartmouth community learned of Rassias’ death today in an email from President Phil Hanlon ’77. “Our thoughts are with John’s family,” wrote Hanlon.

President Hanlon recalled the words of former Dartmouth President James Freedman, who he said captured the magnitude of Rassias’ impact on students and teachers around the world when Wright told the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, in 1990, that “Professor John Rassias’ high-powered language drills reveal the values of foreign cultures more tellingly than a dozen weighty treatises.”

The Rassias Method of instruction lives on, not only at Dartmouth, but in places across the world. In the past few years the method—brought to Mexico by John’s daughter Helene Rassias-Miles—has been taught to more than 2,000 English language public school teachers who, in turn, have instructed hundreds of thousands of Mexican students in states throughout the country.

Rassias-Miles, her father, and Dartmouth alumna Luanne Zurlo ’87 created the Mexico project. “It was such a huge love of his,” she said yesterday from Mexico. “He was so excited that I was coming down this week to work on it with our colleagues.”

Professor John Rassias
Professor John Rassias claps his hands to make a point while teaching Mexican teachers of English in 2014. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

Dartmouth was not the only recipient of Rassias’ enthusiasm for language. He shared his method with the People’s Republic of China, Bulgaria, France, Japan, Greece, Turkey, the city of Baltimore school system, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Program, and the New York City Transit Police, among others.

He was the recipient of a number of honors. The French government awarded him the Palmes Académiques in 1978; he received the Italo Ponterotto Memorial Award in 1989, for contributions to the development of foreign language pedagogy; Dartmouth conferred the Robert A. Fish Award on him in 1997; and in 1998 he was named New Hampshire Professor of the Year from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He was an adopted member of the Dartmouth classes of 1949 and 1976.

National recognition came in 1978, when he was the only language instructor appointed to President Carter’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies, where he also chaired the writing team that drafted the commission’s final report.

At Dartmouth, he founded the Rassias Center for World Languages and Cultures and, with the Center, became one of the founding partners of the Inter-American Partnership for Education, a Clinton Global Initiative.

His colleagues and students will remember his perpetual optimism and curiosity. In his trademark suspenders, he was a familiar face on campus, and for a number of years led the annual commencement procession to the Green. Whether cracking an egg on a student’s head to prove a point of literature or throwing paper balls across a classroom, Rassias made learning languages logical, lively, and above all, fun.

He was predeceased by his wife, Mary Evanstock Rassias, who died on July 10, 2012. The couple had been married for 57 years. Mary and John Rassias always made room at their dinner table for Dartmouth students and many other visitors.

In addition to Helene Rassias-Miles and her husband, William Miles Sr., survivors include a son, Athos Rassias, and his wife, Marcia Procopio, and daughter Veronica Markwood and her husband, David Markwood; and nine grandchildren, Jacob, Noah, Eliza, Matthew, Nicholas, Aris, Ida, Daniel, and Isaiah.

Funeral arrangements are pending and will be announced at a later date.

Professor John Rassias
Professor John Rassias leads the faculty off the Green at the conclusion of commencement in 2013. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

 

About Carol Robidoux 5364 Articles
Journalist and editor of ManchesterInkLink.com, a hyperlocal news and information site for Manchester, NH.