Koch was first chair of French & Italian languages department

Philip Koch, first chair of the Department of French & Italian Languages & Literatures (1965-72) and professor emeritus in French, died Oct. 19, 2021.

Born Dec. 31, 1927, in the Bronx, N.Y., he was raised in Queens and Brooklyn and graduated from Harvard College in 1949 with an AB magna cum laude in Romance Languages and Literatures, earning his Ph.D. there as well, in French. 

Shortly after marrying Frances A. (Bonanno) Koch in 1952, he was awarded a pre-doctoral Fulbright scholarship for research in Naples (1953-54), and a Fulbright Research Travel Grant a decade later for research in Paris, and took two subsequent trips to France to further projects on 18th-century French literature.  

He began his academic teaching career as an instructor at Northwestern in 1955 and moved to Bryn Mawr College the next year, earning the assistant professor rank in 1958. Koch joined the Pitt faculty in 1961, quickly moving to professor in 1966 and remaining here until his retirement in 1992.

At Pitt, he oversaw the completion of many doctoral dissertations, was a member of the University Senate Council and Faculty Assembly and was active on committees in his school and department. He contributed to many journals and books during his years, while lecturing throughout the world.

Francesca Savoia, professor emerita in Italian, worked alongside Koch in his last decade as a faculty member. “We shared (and often discussed) our research interest in the European 18th century,” Savoia recalled, “and especially the theater of the time (including the influence that Commedia dell'Arte had in France and … that French classical tragedy had in Italy).”

He also recruited her to join the committee he chaired organizing an annual American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference in Pittsburgh in 1991, one year before his retirement.

She remembered fondly the hospitality of Koch and his wife when she first arrived in Pittsburgh “and the friendship they demonstrated to me and my family” throughout the years.

Koch helped to hire Benjamin Hicks, now an emeritus faculty member in French. “At the interview,” Hicks said, “I remember thinking he’d be a very good colleague, and he was. I was very impressed” by his demeanor and interest.

His former students spoke of his influence — and style:

“I took a class on 18th century French literature with Dr. Koch in his last semester before retirement, which was my first year of graduate school,” said Aparna Nayak, now a faculty member at California State–Long Beach. “Even at the end of his career, he remained an engaged and committed educator. His deep and harmonious voice was perfect for theater and it remains etched in my mind.”

“Professor Koch’s impeccable French and beautifully crafted lectures were a privilege,” said another former graduate student, Rajeshwari S. Vallury — now a French faculty member at the University of New Mexico. “His classroom presence and delivery remain a timeless model for university professors and a personal inspiration. He exercised his profession with grace and intelligence. No one could carry off his elegant full suits, complete with waistcoat and pocket watch!

“Till today, every time I teach “Madame Bovary by Flaubert or “L’étranger” by Camus, I recall my afternoons in the French Room at the Cathedral of Learning, and Professor Koch’s incisive remarks on a passage or moment in the narrative. Getting an A from him on my term paper was one of the proudest moments of that first year at Pitt. Here is to a life well-lived.”

Koch and his wife retired to Maine in 1995.

He is survived by two sons, Philip S. Koch and Erec R. Koch; two daughters-in-law, Faith Curtin Koch and Joaniko Kohchi; and four grandchildren, Larissa Koch Ursprung and Andrei, Nicole and Antonia Koch.

— Marty Levine