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Returning home to the States in 1955, Johanna Holroyd-Piccardo traveled aboard the Queen Mary, a massive ocean liner of the Cunard Line
 

The EXPATS

At Home in the World

Johanna Holroyd-Piccardo ’54 got an early taste of world travel—and she never looked back.

 

 

Johanna Holroyd-Piccardo’s life had an international flavor from the very start. Growing up in Manhattan in the 1930s and 40s, all her friends were first generation Americans. She arrived at Pennsylvania College for Women (as it was then known) in 1950, attracted by the small, bucolic campus. And she immediately gravitated toward the international faculty. They included many Europeans, like Austrian-born artist Professor Henry Koerner and Dr. Stephen Borsody, a respected historian from Hungary. The American artist Charles LeClair was the inspiring head of the Art Department who later moved to Rome.

Johanna remembers the welcoming people and the close-knit feel of a small school combined with the cultural offerings of the big city. Unlike the decade of the 1960s that followed, the 1950s were a peaceful time at Chatham: “I absorbed that feeling… It was after the war, and people were just trying to get back on their feet and find stability. And we embraced it all—the educational rigor, the openness we found.”

By sophomore year, she had decided to follow her passion for the arts and become a Fine Arts major. The foreign professors she met had opened her mind to new ways of thinking and making— so much so, she was determined to travel abroad following graduation. She was awarded a scholarship to study at the University of London, where she found the atmosphere extremely stimulating. Johanna liked to wander the city with her notebook, making quick sketches of places like Trafalgar Square and Madame Tussauds, which she then registered with the BBC. She later moved on to Switzerland, Austria, and Italy, and settled in Florence for a time to work on a painting.

Returning home to the States in 1955, she traveled aboard the Queen Mary, a massive ocean liner of the Cunard Line. While onboard, she became friendly with a German professor named Walter and his wife, whom he was bringing to live in Washington, DC. The connection would prove fortuitous.

Johanna arrived home ready to see more of the world. She was lucky to land an interview with State Department recruiters in Pittsburgh and soon took a clerical job with the State Department in Washington, DC. There, she paid a visit to her old friend Walter and his wife. They introduced her to an Italian doctor named Giorgio who was doing research at the National Institutes of Health. And on a sailing trip on the Chesapeake Bay, she had her first date with the man who would become her husband.

By another stroke of good luck, in 1956 the State Department sent her to Rome—Giorgio’s hometown—to work in the archives at the American embassy. The two married in Rome in 1957, and in 1960 they moved to the Italian capital permanently.

Johanna remembers the Rome of the 1960s and 70s as a beautiful, exciting place—much less chaotic and crowded than today. The American embassy was a welcoming hub on the Via Veneto where you could socialize or shop at the canteen.

When her term at the embassy ended, she found a job teaching English at a linguistic high school run by German Catholic nuns. Later she moved to their elementary school, where she loved engaging the students through stories and songs.

Her passion for teaching led her to pursue a graduate degree in religious studies at the Salesian University in Rome. “I learned so much there,” she says. “The teachers and students were nuns, priests, and lay people from all over the world. It was fascinating.” An international school called Marymount Nomentana then recruited her to teach religion to middle school students—a satisfying and dynamic job she held until the age of seventy. Outside of teaching, she found fulfillment doing charity work with the American Women’s Club, which helped her keep in touch with American culture.

Chatham class of ‘54 Alumna Johanna Holroyd-Piccardo

Now retired and in her eighties, Johanna still does charity work through her neighborhood parish. She has good friends of all nationalities, many of them expats themselves. Asked whether she feels herself to be American or Italian or both, she says, “My American identity is always there—when I speak English I also channel an American way of thinking. But I have added what I’ve learned in Italy—and that includes history and art and openness to the world.”

“Home is here now,” she says of Rome. She lives with her son Francesco since her husband passed away in 2008. Still she remembers her growing up in the States and her college days: “Chatham really set me off on my path. I was able to be independent, to make my own choices, to become more mature, and to learn about the world within a safe environment. It was very character-forming.”

Sounding wistful, she adds, “I loved the school. I really grew there. So after all this time, it’s nice to be able to say thank you.”