By Walter Sanders
There are magical places on earth. Places that revive happy memories and help you create new ones. Places that inspire great activity and make you feel productive, welcome, and alive.
For John B. Heywood, Sun Jae Professor of Mechanical Engineering Emeritus at MIT, Tuscany is that magical place. More specifically, it’s a hilltop agriturismo hamlet just south of Siena called Montestigliano.
“This whole Italy thing began about 20 years ago, when my wife Peggy and I saw a film called Enchanted April,” John says.
“We were captivated by the movie. It portrayed how a group of British visitors were transformed during a trip to Italy,” Peggy says. “We tried to figure out how we could incorporate Italy into John’s work as well as our personal lives.”
The answer turned out to be a sabbatical.
“I did my undergraduate work at Cambridge then completed my Ph.D. at MIT in 1964,” John says. “MIT instilled the sense that academic sabbaticals are excellent opportunities to achieve serious work.”
In 1997, he chaired a conference in Naples, Italy, and afterwards scouted six properties as potential venues for an upcoming sabbatical.
“Montestigliano was the hands-down winner,” John recalls. They rented a house from mid-February until June 1998 while John worked on a text book. Soon Peggy and John were living their own Enchanted April.
“Back then, the Montestigliano office had word processing capabilities and basic computer resources, and was managed by an English woman named Susan Pennington,” John says. “The day we arrived, I was crestfallen that the work materials I had carefully shipped from Boston had not yet arrived. Susan suggested that we visit the beautiful medieval town of San Gimignano. Over the years, that has evolved into our ritual first day outing.”
The couple enjoyed living on a working farm owned by a family. “We have come to appreciate the Donatis. There’s a sense of community and a true family feeling,” Peggy says.
They were also grateful for the vast grounds. “It’s not just sound quietness, but busy quietness, too. It frees you to do what you want to do,” John says. “I was able to work hard. But I found great satisfaction in exploring the grounds and mapping hiking paths.”
“We loved the seasonal trajectory of emerging from winter into spring and early summer. We felt the weather improve and witnessed the world come to life,” Peggy says. “Those four months were the happiest of our lives.”
Within weeks, however, that glow was gone and their lives changed forever.
An ALS Diagnosis, A Different World
Shortly after they returned to Boston, the Heywood’s middle son Stephen was diagnosed with ALS. He was 29 at the time. His condition inspired brothers James and Ben, both MIT graduates, to focus upon scientific research projects to explore ways to overcome the disease. These efforts are well-documented in His Brother’s Keeper: A Story from the Edge of Medicine, written by Jonathan Weiner, and in a moving documentary film, So Much So Fast.
Within eight years Stephen died of ALS in 2006.
In 2008 John was invited to participate in a conference in Florence. Peggy and John both agreed that the conference was a must. They also felt the urge to revisit Montestigliano a week prior to the conference. But since Stephen’s illness, it was a challenging decision.
Peggy says, “It was almost like we had to come, to break the spell of not coming.”
“The moon was an orange color, the fireflies were brighter than ever, the old haunts, hiking trails, and the reunion with the Donati family were like coming home,” Peggy says. “We realized that part of our hearts were here.”
Professor Heywood retired from MIT in 2011 and has been revising his classic textbook Internal Combustion Engine Fundamentals, which is now completed.
What’s in his future? “I imagine doing more work as an artist, photographer, and writer.”
He offers a final word of advice about a sense of place. “I have an imaginary alma mater. I call Montestigliano my University of Toscana.”
He shared a PowerPoint presentation he created, spanning his academic life, as well as offering some fun graphics about the University of Toscana. He seemed to really enjoy that his colleagues at MIT were perplexed about not being aware of the “University.”
“If you have a project to do, to be inspired for, consider a long term stay at Montestigliano. It is a unique opportunity to get work done in a focused way.”
Patrizia DeBellis says
Grazie, Elena, per il complimento! So nice to share these memories that are so important to who I am now! The wonderful encouragement from friends like you is a continuation of my love for Italy and Italian! I really thank Sharon and Walter Sanders for this chance to tell everyone how much I love that country!
Helene Parnell says
Patrizia, it was wonderful to hear the story of your first visit to Italy. You are so fluent in Italian now, it’s hard to believe that you weren’t born speaking it!
Patrizia DeBellis says
Yes, Walter, these wonderful Italians and I have kept in touch since 1958! Jack and I have visited with them many times.They moved back to Messina, Sicily in 1960 and in 1961 when I attended the Universita per Stranieri in Perugia(I was beginning to fulfill my dream of becoming a foreign language teacher!), I spent Christmas with them and two months after,I left for the University of Madrid(another amazing adventure) and that summer I finished my “on the spot” language study at the Sorbonne. You see I had really learned that first summer in 1958 that the best way to learn a new language is “sur place” and so I did just that and when I started teaching here in Allentown, Pa.in 19641 I had many stories to tell my students.
Thanks for asking…so nice to remember! Abbracci, Patrizia
Walter Sanders says
What a splendid story. And what a traumatic—then wonderful—way to be introduced to Italy! Thanks so much for sharing it. Are these among the Italian people you have stayed in touch with over the years?
Patrizia DeBellis says
What a dream come true for the Heywoods! And brave and brilliant of them to go back after the truly sad loss of their son. So sorry.
I had an interesting “Italian and life-changing” experience when I was chosen to be the American Field Service (AFS) foreign exchange student from my high school in California. I was sent to a small town in Calabria called Amantea. My host family was from Messina, Sicily but were living in Amantea. The town was so small that my train from Rome didn’t even stop there so I was picked up in another town, Paola, to the north. When I descended from the train, I was anxious to greet my “Italian” family but had been told that there was only one person who had studied English and, since I had studied French my first three years of high school, I was going to be dependent on this person. “Which one of you speaks English?” I smiled in anticipation. Blank stares were returned by all. We drove, in the borrowed car, to Amantea and I dreaded the days ahead where there would be no communication…and I was supposed to be the “good will ambassador”! After a shakey evening, my “Italian sister” and I went to our room and I began to weep. She called in her parents, her three younger brothers and an aunt who’d come from Sicily to greet the “Americana”.
They all stood around the bed and pleaded with me “Non piangere, Patty!” Which of course made it worse! I did finally fall asleep. The next day, we went to the beach (Amantea lies along the beautiful Tyrhennian sea) where I was introduced to many new friends. The miracle was that we had all studied French and we were able to communicate! Soon after, my clever friends began to teach me Italian (via French!) a truly mind-blowing experience! And, as aforementionned, a life-changing one since by the time I left for home 3 months later, I was fluent in spoken Italian and I knew that I would become a teacher of foreign languages…which is what I did! What a country…viva Italia e gli Italiani!
Walter Sanders says
I agree with you. First met them when they were they hiking up the road between Montestigliano and Pipistrelli—headed for the wooded valley. They were delightful. John explained he was updating his trail maps. Peggy was radiant!
Walter Sanders says
Thanks for the kind words. The Heywoods are a remarkable couple. After we talked and laughed, Peggy invited me outside to a nearby fig tree and picked a couple. She offered me one. It was perfect.
Yes, a very interesting couple. Nice to find some of those people we seem to be short of in this world, people who attempt to solve problems instead of bitching about the injustice of it all.
June Jacobs says
What a lovely story.