Dr. Leonard Norman Primiano, professor of religious studies at Cabrini and renowned folklorist and religious studies scholar, has died on Sunday, July 25 from a rare type of neck cancer.
Primiano was a well-known and highly respected figure throughout the Cabrini community, as well as in both folklore and religious studies.
After joining the Cabrini faculty in 1993, he eventually became department chair of religious studies up until his recent retirement in 2021. Primiano co-directed Cabrini’s Honor Program and acted as the developer and curator of Cabrini’s Religious Folk, Popular, Liturgical Arts Collection.
Over the years, his teaching career and research led to being the recipient of many awards and recognitions. Primiano has also given countless presentations and written many publications.
A Life Remembered
Shortly after the news spread, a Leonard Norman Primiano Memories Facebook page was created for family, friends and loved ones with a story or memory to share pictures, videos and comments to remember him by.
Through those posts, many of Primiano’s close friends characterized him as “one of the greatest professors at Cabrini,” “a wonderful mentor” and “brilliant, kind and supportive.”
In one post, William Westerman, assistant professor department of sociology and anthropology and acting chair of world languages and cultures at New Jersey City University, described how he was “lucky
enough” to know Primiano from his graduate school days and talked about what a unique person he was.
Westerman went on to write, “The world is an emptier place without him, but all of us who were his friends, proteges and students are richer for having known him and are inspired to carry on his work. Leonard, you often used to sigh and joke, ‘I hate our human form,’ even before the trials you went through. You are up there now with the spirits of Father and Mother Divine, our intellectual mentor Don Yoder, and all the angels and folk saints and you will continue to be missed by all of us here on Earth. Peace!’”
Another post by Katie Reing, one of Primiano’s former students and Cabrini alumni, talked about “grieving the loss of my good friend and mentor” and went on to explain countless memories and characteristics of him.
In an interview with Reing, she explained how she first heard of Primiano through friends hearing them refer to him as “The Doc” and asking her if she had “Met the doc yet?” Reing said she finally “crossed paths with the impeccably dressed man outside of Widener Hall” and all her friends began acting like they were talking to a “mini-celebrity; there was excitement and obvious respect for him.”
After being introduced to Primiano, Reing said, “I was immediately charmed by his charisma, the comradery he shared with students, his distinctive greeting and departing calls of ‘Peace!,’ and, as a shiny new freshman with only a month on campus under my belt, felt flattered by his interest.”
Reing said in her facebook post, “There’s a reason he was the recipient of The Kennedy Center/ Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award–because he truly was a stalwart educator and a champion of his student. Perhaps not as glamours or prestigious, he was also the only recipient of the 141 Cammy Award for “Man of the Year.” May we all live up to his instruction and guidance.”
Dr. Nancy Watterson, friend of Primiano and Cabrini University’s first professor of social justice, said, “It’s hard to capture the many dimensions or to do justice to an individual who has lived his life so fully, so distinctively on his own terms while inspiring so many.”
Watterson used many terms to describe “Dr. P or Dr. Prim,” as she said, including friend, exceptional teacher, prodigious scholar and patron of so many arts. She talked about the “inspiration” Primiano was to her and his audience of grad-students, early-career professionals and professors through his many seminars.
Watterson said after many conversations with former students, Primiano’s name was a recurrent theme when it came to “their reflections on coming into confidence of their own critical thinking and researching abilities.”
“Leonard always took great care to nurture our own undergraduates,” Watterson said. “Of the many qualities that characterize the impact of Leonard’s research, it is this compassion, caring, and collaborative approach that stands out as a hallmark of his legacy. It is precisely because Leonard is not only an accomplished scholar, but also a highly skilled teacher that he was so sought after mentor and collaborator for diverse research projects that span our discipline.”
A Mentor and Inspiration to Many
Watterson said a recent example of Primiano’s effect on others is Cabrini alumni, Ben Danner.
Danner was Primiano’s student and teaching assistant from 2009-2013, back when Cabrini was only a college.
He described his first encounter with “Dr. P” was during his evening class, Search for Meaning. Danner remembers Primiano walking into class with his “familiar greeting ‘Peace everyone!’”
Danner said that Primiano’s approach from a religious studies and folklore background were “two areas completely alien to me at the time, but I grew to love.”
“Primiano’s passion for teaching and learning was infectious,” Danner said. He described the numerous trips Primiano took his students on and his “erudite knowledge” of every building and statue around him and his “willingness and risk” to take undergraduate students to his research fieldwork site.
“Dr. P significantly impacted my life trajectory as he did many students and faculty members,” Danner said.
Danner went to Cabrini as a biology major with plans to become a physician and ended up also majoring in religious studies due to Primiano’s inspiration. He then encouraged Danner to apply to his alma mater, Harvard Divinity School, where Danner was accepted and followed in his professor’s footsteps receiving a masters degree in theological studies followed by attending Indiana University for a doctorate in folklore.
“To say that Primiano had an impact on my academic career is an understatement,” Danner said. “I must admit that I’ve never had a professor so dedicated to spending time with their class. He really took us under his wing and made us felt like we were his children. In fact, it was him who taught me how to tie a bowtie for the first time.”
Danner described Primiano’s “impeccable style” and how he would walk around campus with large canvas bags filled with students’ papers and bluebooks, dressed in Brooks Brother’s suit, a bowtie or tie and fedora or baseball cap.
“Aside from the academics, Dr. Primiano was my friend, and I will miss our often-late night phone calls that used to last at least 2-3 hours, our trips to Foltz pottery and folk art stores in and around Philadelphia, our mall excursions, late night Minella’s diner visits, our discussions in his office that was filled with books and artwork to the point of where you couldn’t even walk or sit down, and our trips to the Peace Mission,” Danner said. “Most of all I will miss his laugh, humor, and candor. He was so much more than a professor to me.”
Reing’s also talked about Primiano’s office remembering her first meeting with him in it to attempt to get into his already filled Search for Meaning course. She said when she arrived for her meeting she “became utterly overwhelmed and astounded by the magical space that was his office. How could so many books, papers, shelves, files, VHS tapes, framed posters, and religious statues fit into so small a space? It was like opening a door to a mystical world — a place where the Virgin Mary felt at home next to a postcard of Ganesh, which was stuck on the filing cabinet with a ‘Jesus loves you, but everyone else thinks you’re an asshole’ magnet. Everywhere you looked there was something new and wondrous to see.”
Another example of Primiano’s effect on others that Watterson described was of adjunct instructor of Cabrini’s English department, Allison Clark Doyle, whose married to fellow honors program student, Matt Doyle.
“They met in Leonard’s honor’s class and Leonard loved that story,” Watterson said.
Allison Clark Doyle said she first met Primiano during his Religion in America course in 2011, the same course she met her now husband, Matt Doyle. “Dr. Primiano affectionately called himself our academic matchmaker and we had a lot of laughs about that,” Doyle said.
Doyle said Primiano was “one of the most engaging teachers I have ever had the pleasure of learning from” and taught his students to “demand excellence not just from ourselves, but from our educators as well.”
Doyle described the days during the last few years of working as an adjunct at Cabrini and having the pleasure of teaching next to the classroom where Primiano first taught her and her husband, while he teaches a “new generation of religious studies scholars.”
“Leonard was generous with his wealth of knowledge, and unforgiving with his expectations – a dichotomy that led to inevitable success,” Doyle said. “For many of us, the academic world is a little less without him in it. I loved Dr. Primiano, and I owed him much. I only hope I can make him proud.”
Another recent alumni he helped go from Cabrini to Harvard’s master’s program was Anthony Lauder, Watterson said.
Lauder met Primiano in his second year at Cabrini College while he was a manager at the Ralph Lauren luxury store in the King of Prussia Mall. “Everyone who knows Dr. Primiano knows that he loves clothing and getting the best deal possible,” Lauder said.
After suggesting to meet for dinner and four hours of conversation later, Primiano knew Lauder’s life story.
“From that moment on, Dr. Primiano had, and will continue to have, an immense impact on my life,” Lauder said. “He is the reason I stayed at Cabrini College; he is the reason I went to Harvard for my master’s degree; and he is the reason why I am attending Temple Law School.”
Lauder said that after that meeting, Primiano became a member of his family and they would talk on the phone until early hours in the morning, attend classical events together and even showed him around Harvard’s campus, while reminiscing on his graduate days.
“While I can go on about all the memories I have of Dr. Primiano, I am going to miss his phone calls or text messages about everything from world news to current deals at Bloomingdales,” Lauder said. “I have never met anyone like Dr. Primiano, and I can say with absolute certainty that I will never meet anyone who has had a greater impact on my life and the lives of so many others.”
A Life Well Lived
“Leonard deftly balanced all components—his own well-regarded research, his teaching of undergraduates, and his mentorship and promotion of graduate students’ research—it’s truly remarkable,” Watterson said. “Leonard’s legacy at Cabrini can be found in art-work around campus, alumni, staff, adjuncts influenced by his teaching, and in the hearts and minds of friends, dear students and colleagues spanning not only our campus, but the entire world.”
“His lectures were creative, extensively planned, and tactile thanks to the various religious objects and art from his collection he would pass around,” Reing said. “He encouraged curiosity, for his own curiosity was endless. His brilliant mind would avalanche around him in what would appear to be a mess of books, papers, notes and odd objects; but his close students knew it was not a mess at all, but a carefully curated collection of items and texts that fascinated him paired with mementos and his own intense scholarly work.”
“Where would we Cabrini kids be without him,?” Reing said in her Facebook post. “It’s impossible to imagine being on Cabrini’s campus and not seeing him chatting with students or hearing his ‘Peace!’ ring out from his distinctive voice. I’ve learned so much from his and was blessed to be his student. He pushed me to go to graduate school and encouraged me in my career. I was honored to have assisted him in a few of his scholarly works, and have been asked to guest lecture in his classes. I’m better for having known him, and am grateful for his friendship, his kindness and the tenacity he showed these last 14 years.”
“I miss and love our funny, wonderful, clever friend.”
Leonard Primiano’s service will be held in Daylesford Abbey in Chester County with more information to come.
There will also be an on-campus Mass held in memory of Primiano, followed by a Celebration of Life, in the fall semester. Additional information will be provided in the future.
To read more about Leonard Primiano’s life, visit Cabrini’s web tribute sent out by President Donald Taylor through email. Taylor also encourages anyone who would wish to “share acts of peace, in honor of Dr. Primiano’s ‘Peace!’ call, on social media” to use #PeaceforPrimiano.