Philip F. Napoli
A Brief Bio
(NB: This was written in 2007 for the benefit of my undergrad students, so they
could get to know me a bit. References to things like individual
students and courses therefore will not mean much to most readers.)
I was born in 1960 in London, Ontario, Canada. My father was an Italian
immigrant and my mother’s family members were Puritan migration people,
meaning they came to this country in the 1640s.
My father was a professor of medicine which meant that we moved around
a little bit when I was young. We landed in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1966
when my father took a job at a teaching hospital attached to the
University of Cincinnati. Four years later my mother began her teaching
career as a professor of sociology and social work at the university.
So it is pretty clear that I come from a family of academics.
After moving to Atlanta, Georgia for a short period, my parents split
up in 1973 and my mother, my sister and I moved back to Cincinnati. I
graduated from high school in 1978. The school is similar to Stuyvesant
or Bronx Science or one of the other specialized New York schools.
I attended McGill University in Montreal, graduating in 1982. My
undergraduate degree was in history. I came to New York in the spring
of 1983 and after initially having a tough time finding a job due to
the Reagan recession, finally landed a job at a publishing company
which paid very little. I was living with one of my best friends in a
very small tenement apartment on West 54th street, not very far from
where John lives now.
In 1985 or 1986, I can't remember which just now, I decided I wanted to
go to graduate school in history. I moved out of New York and back to
my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio for in short time while I made my
graduate school applications. I was accepted at Columbia University and
started graduate school in the fall of 1986. It took me a long time to
get my Ph.D., but I finally graduated in 1998. During those many years
I had a variety of jobs, among them was as a New York City tour guide
and a private school teacher. I spent a little more than a year
teaching high school at Dalton on the Upper East Side.
In 1995 I got a very interesting, and ultimately important part time
job. I was asked by a member of the law faculty at NYU to do oral
history interviews with most of the Americans involved in the
resolution to the 1979 – 1981 Iranian hostage crisis. That year was the
fifteenth anniversary of the ending of the crisis and a number of
lawyers involved in the process want to get together to talk about what
happened to all the money. When the hostages were released, $12 billion
changed hands in a matter of seconds. At the time it was the largest
single financial transaction in the history of the world. So I got to
talk to virtually everybody involved on the American side with the
exception of Warren Christopher and Jimmy Carter. I talked to Cyrus
Vance, Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, but sorry to say Mr. Vance
was suffering from Alzheimer’s. He didn’t know why I was there and
threw me out of his apartment! We collected about twenty oral histories
from the participants and transcribed them.
Nothing very significant was ever done with them. But that would lead
in 1998 to one of the most interesting summers of my life. Of course I
had graduated by that summer, and I was looking for work. The world of
the network anchor is relatively small. Alan Brinkley is the son of
ABC’s David Brinkley whom most of you will probably not remember. But
at one time he was one of the most important people on television.
Anyway, Alan set me up with Tom Brokaw who was at that time preparing
to write his book The Greatest Generation. One of Tom’s research
assistants was leaving to go to law school and Tom needed a
replacement. So I got to step in and do about 1/3 of the interviews for
that book. That meant that summer I interviewed, largely by telephone
people such as Julia Child, former Secretary of state George Shultz,
former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, former Oregon Senator
Mark Hatfield, who was one of the first Americans into Hiroshima after
the use of the atomic bomb, and a number of others. The most intense
part of the whole experience came when they gave me 72 hours to fact
check the 300 page manuscript. That was quite a moment. I managed to
save Tom from a couple of whoppers, but I also missed a couple as well. Mea culpa!
We fixed the ones I missed when the book went back to press. It did
that a lot. It stayed on the bestseller list as a hardcover book for
three years. I sure wish I had a piece of the profit from that!
Once I had my Ph.D., of course I went on the job market. It was a
miserable moment to be trying to find an academic job. So, my mentor
and sponsor, Alan Brinkley, now the provost of Columbia University,
helped me find a job at the Columbia University libraries. I spent
eighteen months as a curator of manuscripts within the library taking
care of a collection of papers from New York’s longest-serving
governor, Herbert Lehmann. At the same time I was teaching as an
adjunct here at Brooklyn College and other places. In 2001 a full time
line came available at Brooklyn College and I was encouraged to apply
for the position.
Frankly I was a little reluctant because a full time teaching job
literally paid less than the library job I had the time. But I made the
application and was offered and accepted the job.
In 2004 I was given $50,000 by an anonymous donor to begin an oral
history project on New York City’s relationship to the Vietnam War. It
took me a long time to gain traction within the veteran community. But
over time I built up a number of good connections and my oral history
work expanded. I have a contract for a book on the subject, and my
editor is currently tapping his fingers anxiously awaiting the
You guys know very well that it is difficult to juggle many classes at
the same time. Faculty members do exactly the same thing. So my
progress in writing has been slower than I would like. Additionally I
have had other projects to complete. One of them is an exhibition of my
oral histories at the Brooklyn Historical Society, entitled In Our Own
Words: Portraits Of Brooklyn’s Vietnam Veterans]. That exhibition took
me a full year to organize, but I had great support from my graduate
AND undergraduate students (one of whom, Nikki Lebenson, is in the
Macaulay College), and they got course credit for doing work on the
exhibition. (Stick with me and really cool things can happen. I've
taken undergraduates and grad students on research trips before, and
other interesting opportunities are always coming up!) I collected the
oral histories and most of the artifacts on display and a designer was
hired to literally put the exhibition together.
This semester I am teaching four courses, including Core 2.2, which
Alejandro knows about because he is in the class. I also teach a class
on immigration and ethnicity in the United States, this course, and a
class in oral history for veterans.
I’ve been married for twenty years and have two young children, aged
five and eight years, both girls.