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Obituary: Salvator Cannavo

Salvator Cannavo, a resident of Manhasset for 42 years, died of cancer on May 25, 2011. He was 89 years old. Sal was born in the small Sicilian town of Castiglione in 1921. The oldest of three children, he emigrated from Italy at age 2 with his parents Francesca, a seamstress, and Joseph, a tailor. The family lived first in Manhattan’s Little Italy and then in Brooklyn. As a child, Sal helped his family financially during the Great Depression, working at age 12 in a leather factory, playing guitar in his teens at the Concord Resort Hotel in Kiamesha Lake, New York, and working on building battleships at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

A graduate of New Utrecht High School and Brooklyn College, Sal did graduate work in physics at Princeton University, where he studied under Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Wolfgang Pauli. During World War II, he and other graduate students suspended their studies to work in defense-related industries. He worked briefly on the Manhattan Project, but quit on ethical grounds upon discovering that he was helping to develop the atom bomb. He also worked for Bell Aircraft on the design of fighter planes. After the war, Sal’s love of science and philosophy brought him back to graduate school, this time to New York University, where he earned his Ph.D. in the philosophy of science in 1955.

After doing research in physics at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Sal accepted teaching appointments at Michigan State University, Wesleyan University, the University of Florida, the University of Southern California and his alma mater, Brooklyn College, where he served on the faculty from 1956 to 1986. He also taught at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

At Brooklyn College, Sal initially joined the Physics Department and later became a Full Professor of Philosophy. He was a highly respected scholar and leader and served as Chair of the Philosophy Department. In 1974 he published Nomic Inference: An Introduction to the Logic of Scientific Inquiry. After retiring from Brooklyn College in 1986, he taught part-time at Queens College and continued to write. He published his second book, this time for a popular readership, Think to Win: The Power of Logic in Everyday Life, in 1998, and then, in 2009, returned to academic work with Quantum Theory: A Philosopher’s Overview, published by SUNY Press when he was 88 years old. He was at work on another manuscript at the time of his death.

During his 89 years, Sal saw and engaged with the great American story of the 20th and early 21st centuries and in many ways embodied the best of that story. His life was marked by idealism, a strong belief in social justice and fairness, an abhorrence of war, a faith in human reason and progress, and a powerful sense of personal moral integrity. A brilliant conversationalist and a superb listener, he was sought out by colleagues, friends, and family for his intellectual insights and wise counsel. He was a self-taught guitarist and mandolinist with a phenomenal musical ear; a terrific cook, and a highly skilled gardener who successfully raised several varieties of figs in the decidedly un-Mediterranean climate of his Manhasset backyard. His intellect was matched with a strong practical bent, as he was masterful at carpentry, masonry, landscaping, and electrical work. Most of all, he was a loving husband, devoted brother and nurturing father and grandfather, always at the ready to drop whatever he was engaged in at the moment to help with a problem or concern brought to him by his family or friends. He will always be remembered for his extreme generosity of spirit, which continued into the very last days of his life.

Sal is survived by Gaetana Cannavo, his wife of 62 years; his three children, Dr. Francesca Antognini of Lexington, Massachusetts, Dr. Joseph Cannavo of Bayside, New York and Professor Peter Cannavo of Syracuse, NY; his sister, Mary Frank, his niece, Vittoria Cannavo, and five grandchildren.