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Gabriel Battista, 1944-2020

The passing of Gabe Battista on Sunday, 26 January has shocked all of us. Gabe had had recent illnesses but volunteered only a few weeks ago that he was fighting fit. He was a wonderfully expressive man who never failed to surprise me. I tried to capture a little of his unforgettable character and enriching personality in this short memoir. 

Gabriel Battista, 1944-2020 Gabriel (Gabe) Battista was the Chairman of AUR’s trustees since 2012, and a Board member since 2006. Just to say the name, Gabe, conjured up an image in our community. He was our leader and our friend, but far more. A transparently passionate man, Gabe was an advocate, an adventurer in life, and a lover of all things Italian. By conviction he was a strategist and an obdurate proponent of letting those on the ground get on with operations. Curious and convivial by nature, he enjoyed friends, good stories and jazz and, above all, set the warm tone of any occasion. All this said, Gabe’s noon, his midnight, his talk, his song, to paraphrase W.H. Auden, were his late wife, Debra, his children and especially his treasured grandchildren. Gabe grew up in west Philadelphia in an Italian neighbourhood. His parents came from Isernia in Molise and Giulia Nuova in the Abruzzo but confessed to little affection for Italy’s Mezzogiorno. Gabe reflected on this and would often say that he was thankful to be an American with a fascinating career, but his heart was in Italy. Later in life he became an Italian citizen, a resident of Isernia.

His parents urged him to study, to have a career. To fund his university education he worked in one of ACME’s industrial bakeries. This afforded him the chance to pursue classes in engineering at Villanova University. Engineering was to be his calling, as he liked to say proudly: ordering and structuring things was the essence of his life, always seeking positive outcomes. He learnt the craft of business at Temple University, where he later joined the Board of the Business School. Gabe’s career began at General Electric (GE) who, in the early 1960s sent him to Turin. While in Turin, now in his late 20’s, he grabbed the chance to re-connect with the “Italianisms” he had grown up with, travelling to Molise and Abruzzo to search for his roots.

He loved the training and opportunities GE gave him but was soon moving onwards. Later he served as president of Sprint’s Eastern Group before joining Cable & Wireless, Inc. as president, becoming their CEO for North America. Under his leadership he led the company towards expansion, establishing and growing a global Internet infrastructure. Ever restless, Gabe next became CEO of Network Solutions, where he led the company’s initial public offering on the NASDAQ. Following this he served as president, chairman, and CEO of Talk America for six years, transforming the company from a small telecommunications provider to a profitable corporation. In 2004 Ernst & Young named Gabriel Battista the Communications Entrepreneur of the Year for the Greater Washington Area. In his late fifties Gabe felt he had spent enough time in business. It no longer held the same fascination for him. So, he retired and with the same urgency that had characterized his business career, sought out new adventures in the world of philanthropy.

Gabe took as much pleasure from philanthropy as he had from business. He believed giving back was a duty and over the last 15 years of his life gave back generously through service and financial support.

Given his personal journey, it was a natural step to join the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF). This in turn provided him with a world of friendships rooted in a heritage that resembled his own.

In 2006, through NIAF members, he was introduced to The American University of Rome, and with characteristic commitment took it to his heart. He was captivated by AUR’s Film and Digital Media program and promptly both joined the AUR Board of Trustees and funded AUR’s Media Lab (later named in his honour). Simply put from his engineering and business background: “I saw the University’s potential and believed in its development”. Gabe became chair of AUR’s finance committee. As fate would have it, as the university sought Middle States accreditation in 2009 it also faced the biggest crisis in its forty-year history and Gabe was on point to help resolve it. The university’s enrolment dropped massively after the 2008 financial crisis. This threatened AUR’s viability. The Board was divided, but the Chair trusted Gabe to find a solution and, characteristically, he did. He re-configured the university’s business plan and, despite board resignations, brought AUR’s operations onto an even keel. Later, looking back seven years, he could not help but (modestly) marvel at his own belief in AUR and the positive consequences of his critical intervention.

In 2012 he assumed the chairmanship of the trustees, and over almost two mandates, he has been a steadfast leader. He has overseen academic growth and above all the making of a genuine international university. Each year at commencement he was, as he liked to say, the cat that had found the cream: proud and genuinely thrilled for AUR’s students. Sometimes Gabe confessed to being libertarian, someone who found energy in change, yet all who knew him prized his conscious belief in order, direction and humanity. It is easy to trace these two seemingly different sides of his character back to his childhood. In an interview with AUR’s alumni magazine, Gabe recalled a telling incident. In 1944, Gabe’s mother Emma mailed a picture to her brother Joe Di Colla, who was fighting in Normandy at the time. On the back of the picture, Emma wrote “Dear Joe, you have a new nephew. His name is Gabriel.” It was in fact a picture of newborn Gabe Battista with… a rattle in the form of a telephone! Premonition or fate, the photograph captured the yet to be Gabriel Battista: a pioneer in telecommunications and software. Uncle Joe gave Gabe this picture 30 years later, and as Gabe recalled with a huge smile,“Mamma ha sempre ragione”. An Italian-American story, he leaves his heart in the Mezzogiorno of Italy and those old neighbourhoods of Philadelphia, but his head for business and for championing philanthropic causes like AUR has left an indelible mark.

To say he will be missed is simply trite: Gabe filled a room with his strong voice and laughter, with his tales and with his creative will to get things done. He has left us too soon, “at the point of inflection”, as he always said, “with the best yet to come”. The entire community of AUR took energy from this heroic spirit. His humanity, intelligence and steadfast loyalty were supreme qualities. Above all the university has benefited from his friendship, passion and unwavering integrity. 

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