Silvio Laccetti was cleaning out his office after 43 years of teaching at the Stevens Institute of Technology, a science and technology school in Hoboken, New Jersey, when he stumbled across a pile of unreturned reports, assignments and examinations from some of the thousands of students he had taught over the years.
It gave him an idea: invite some of his best former students for dinner. Not all at once, however: one at a time.
What Dr Laccetti, who taught history, called his “retirement odyssey” involved 83 dinners and lunches consumed over three and a half years with 104 of his one-time students, mostly individually but a few in small groups.
He spoke by phone with another dozen who lived too far away to meet in person.
The odyssey gave him an opportunity academics seldom get: to measure his impact on the world.
“They had listened to my advice,” Dr Laccetti, 72, said. “They maintained an interest in the humanities. They even talked about me to their kids, and taught their children some of the things that I taught them.”
Making a meal of it
By surfing the internet, combing through alumni directories and even calling parents, Dr Laccetti tracked down about 170 of the 7,200 students he estimated had taken his classes at the institution, where he started teaching in 1965.
He invited each of them, separately, to a meal.
“It was a lot of work,” he said. “I really threw myself into it.”
One of the alumni he called was Scott Woodfield, now a corporate executive.
“I hadn’t talked to him in years, but I was kind of curious,” Mr Woodfield said. “It was also a link to my younger days, to college.”
Dr Laccetti “framed it that he had something of mine, some of my old papers, an old exam”. But more importantly, Mr Woodfield added, “I guess I was also kind of surprised that he remembered me. It felt good to be remembered.”
Ken Condal received a call, too.
“I was shocked. I hadn’t seen him in 30 years or more. Then he told me I would be paying for the meal, so it started to make sense,” Mr Condal, an entrepreneur, said with a laugh.
They then had a leisurely three-hour lunch.
“We flashed back to college days and some of the things we’d done together,” he added. “He always challenged us to do things we wouldn’t even think we were capable of. And I’ve spent my life doing things that everybody around me said I couldn’t do.”
Both of these former students said the experience was as valuable for them as it was for their former tutor.
“Particularly in the teaching profession, you see so many students every year,” Mr Condal said. “Unless you don’t care about what you’ve been doing, you would have to be curious about how they turned out.”
It also gave the entrepreneur pause to wonder who he might have influenced with the speeches he has delivered at corporate conferences and in other ways, too.
“Those are things you never know. But he was in a position to ask,” Mr Condal said.
As for Mr Woodfield, he and Dr Laccetti have started to dine together regularly.
“He’s looking to find out what impact he had on us, but those of us he’s met with are better off also, because we’re finding out we made an impression, too,” Mr Woodfield said.
With so much experience, Dr Laccetti has advice for others who teach.
“In the here and now, remember that these are people who are going to have a long span in the world,” he said. “They are going in some way or another to make an impact of their own. So teach with the knowledge that your work will have an impact.”