For a long while, from the time he was a small boy playing the potato bug mandolin, it looked as if Dom Consolo would make music with his life. Born to Italian immigrants with little education and even less money, he unexpectedly found himself blowing into a $5 secondhand trumpet when he was assigned the instrument by a middle-school teacher. He taught himself how to play while making his way through school, graduating from high school with a Caverage. He had no thought of going to college and no money to pay for such an endeavor, so he worked alongside his parents in a tannery. But one day, Consolo found an ad placed by Miami University of Ohio seeking a student trumpet player for the school’s big band, the Campus Owls. Consolo packed his bags and headed west from his home in Ridgway, Pa. Homesickness got to him though, and he packed up again and set out to wait for a bus back to Pennsylvania. When his bandmates spotted him from the restaurant next door, they lured him back, and stationed a member at the stop each day to ensure that one of the best trumpet players they knew wouldn’t try to hightail it out of there again. Yes, it certainly looked as if music would be Consolo’s destiny.
But while serving in the World War II Army Air Corps (where he played in the band) after his freshman year, Consolo came across Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, and the world of literature opened its doors. Consolo rationed that book, hopeful he could make it last through the war. At first he read only one chapter a day; then he whittled that to just a paragraph. When he went back to school, he promptly switched his major from music to English, but never put down that trumpet, using it to land gigs—including shows with Al Hirt, Herbie Fields, and Gene Krupa—to pay for his master’s degree from Miami and his doctorate from the University of Iowa.
When he arrived at Denison in 1958, Consolo was intent on opening that world of literature to his students. He became known for doing just about anything to keep them engaged, whether that meant jumping on his desk to lecture in a booming voice, or releasing a live butterfly in the classroom to inspire discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Artist of the Beautiful, or wrapping Emily Dickinson’s poems in dandelions (as she once did) and presenting them to his students as gifts. “Protocol, decorum ... I never let anything stand in the way of teaching,” he told the Newark Advocate.
Whatever magic he brought to the classroom worked. His courses were always full, often with a wait list trailing behind them. “Over and over again, his former students would come up to him and say, 'Dr. Consolo, you changed my life.’ It was the ultimate accolade,” says Consolo’s wife, Susan Richardson, also a retired English professor.
Consolo’s gift for teaching was so memorable to one particular student, Michael Eisner ’64, former CEO of the Walt Disney Company and donor of the endowed Dominick Consolo Chair in the English Department, that it wove its way into a film Touchstone Pictures (part of the Walt Disney Company) produced called Dead Poets Society. Hints of Consolo can be seen in Robin Williams’ character, John Keating, as he uses plenty of unorthodox teaching methods to show his students the beauty of the written word. Consolo did see the movie, but was sure to let Eisner know he didn’t like the ending.
In his final years, Dom Consolo—a man in constant movement— gradually began to slow down. After some 75 years of faithful daily practice, Consolo set aside his horn. He was no longer leaping onto a desk but could be seen walking through the village as if he were on a mission. Even while his memory began to fade with age, his students’ memories didn’t, and they still tell stories of the butterfly that soared through Dom Consolo’s classroom on its way to freedom.
Consolo died on August 28 at the age of 93. In addition to his first wife, Jeanne Consolo, he was preceded in death by a brother, Sam. He is survived by Richardson; daughters, Kitty and Nancy Consolo; two grandchildren; stepchildren, Chris Klopp, Jennifer Starr Klopp, and Andrew Klopp; three step-grandchildren, and a brother, James.