‘Academic freedom is something priceless’

Francesco Garufo - object

Francesco Garufo started his career as a house painter. He then studied at night to pass his secondary school and university exams. Now the holder of a PhD in history, he is an academic who still dons overalls in his spare time.

This content was published on November 17, 2013 minutes
Sonia Fenazzi in Neuchâtel,

“History, football and motorcycling are the great passions of my life,” says Garufo, sipping a morning coffee in his office at the University of Neuchâtel. Passion is a word one easily associates with his personality. It shows in the light shining in his expressive eyes as we talk.

His educational accomplishments show that this 41-year-old is a man of iron discipline, though it hasn’t always been that way. Born in Zurich to an Italian father and a Spanish mother, Francesco had his whole basic schooling in canton Neuchâtel, where the family moved when he was seven. First he had to learn French. Once he got over that initial obstacle, he was a good student in primary school.

Things changed in middle school. “I didn’t like being in school. I was bored, and I was very undisciplined,” he recalls. What he did like was helping his father, who had a small house-painting business. So in July 1987, as soon as he could get out of school, he started an apprenticeship as a painter with his father.

Working student

However, immersion in that world of work was “a bit of a shock, because most of the time I working on my own”. Francesco felt dissatisfied. “The first thing I always did when I got home was to pick up a book. I read until late at night, usually history books. I came to realise that that was what really interested me the most.”

So when he finished his apprenticeship, he worked for a year in a company in canton Bern and saved all the money he could so he could go to night school, which he started in 1992.

For three years, Garufo spent his mornings working in his father’s business in canton Neuchâtel, in the afternoon he studied, and in the evening he went to classes in Lausanne. He would get home at midnight and had to be on the job site at 7.30 the next morning.

“Those years were tough, but there was a lot of enthusiasm and joy there too. At night school the teachers were great, and they were highly motivated.”

In September 1995 Garufo got his secondary school leaving certificate, and the following year he went to university in Neuchâtel. He took history, archaeology and political science. At the same time, he continued to work as a house painter. He only quit the trade for good in 2000, when he started to work part-time producing teletext for Swiss television in Biel.

He kept the teletext job for several years after getting his degree in classical archaeology in 2002, but journalism did not really attract him. He preferred history, a subject that “lets you explore vanished worlds” and “makes you think about what it means to be human”.

Intellectual fulfilment

In 2003 Garufo got a job as a teaching assistant and started working on his doctoral thesis about the Swiss watchmaking industry and immigration in the period 1930-1980.

“I was interested in the links between industries and waves of migration, and how that worked: who got the people to come, how they got here, how they were recruited. Watchmaking turned out to be an interesting industry to study.”

With a scholarship from the Swiss National Science Foundation, he was able to spend a year researching in Paris at the  École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. His thesis won him a prize.

Today Francesco Garufo teaches and researches history at the University of Neuchâtel. After specialising in the area of immigration, he now works mainly on topics to do with management and the psychology of work.

Although he still has an untenured job and fairly modest pay, he remains enthusiastic. “Academic freedom is something priceless. I am able to dedicate myself completely to reading and research. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else that would be as satisfying.”

Home hobbies

This feeling of fulfilment is his reward for all the sacrifices he made. He achieved it thanks to the support of his family too – his parents and his wife, Anne. She is a “very stimulating” person, he tells me. They have been together for 21 years and have three children.

When it came to making courageous choices, Francesco was able to look to his own father for example. The elder Garufo died unexpectedly in 2010 at the age of 60, but Francesco still thinks of him all the time. “He sure had a lot of courage. He had only been in canton Neuchâtel for less than two years when he started up his business. He took night courses in French, management and bookkeeping,” Garufo recounts in a tone of admiration.

“When I left him to go and study he felt put out, because he had wanted me to take over the business from him one day. But once he realised that I was really serious about studying, he was pleased. We had so many good times together. In 2008, when I bought an old house, he helped me fix it up.”

Even now Francesco Garufo does not hesitate to pick up a brush or a paint-roller at home or at friends’ places. “I like doing it, and it gives me a bit of a break.”

Another pastime of Francesco’s is motorcycling. “I ride my motorbike just about every day between April and November.” He shows me the keys and key ring. “They belonged to my dad. When he died, I inherited his Suzuki 550 from back in the 1980s. When I hear the motor rev up, I always think of him.”

Football, on the other hand, is something he can share with his own young sons. Pablo, seven, already plays, and Tullio, at four and a half, wants to start. A staunch Juventus supporter, and a former player himself, Francesco is also trainer and manager of a football school. “It’s really relaxing. I can spend a whole morning on the football field and not think of anything else.”

It sounds just the right thing for this demanding perfectionist of a historian, who has trouble leaving his work behind at the office. “I’m always thinking about it – even at night,” he admits sheepishly.

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