Life Lessons in Music and Computer Science: A Chat with Tom Calabrese

A screenshot of Professor Tom Calabrese, Ph.D., in one of his computer science videos.

01/23/2020 | Turning 60 is a big deal, and Professor Tom Calabrese, Ph.D., memorialized this milestone by getting his first tattoo. Encouraged by his family, and inspired by his deep love for music, he designed it himself: a red, white and yellow electric guitar with wings and the words ‘Long Live Rock ‘n Roll 1959’ written on a scroll over its neck.

“I’ve always wanted a tattoo,” says Calabrese. “And I wanted this one, so my wife and kids bought it for my birthday.”

Calabrese put a lot of thought into the tattoo he wanted.

And as if that present wasn’t special enough, JWU gave him another gift earlier in the year, naming him chair for the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering & Design. “I’m still getting used to it, but I’m enjoying it,” he says.  

“Over the last few years I’ve worked really closely with Jim [Sheusi] while he was the department chair, so this wasn’t as big a transition for me. We have similar ideas on what to do [for the department], so I think we’re going to try to maintain that trend and trajectory,” he says.  

To build on Sheusi’s work, Calabrese says he’ll continue to focus on developing the computer science core. “We’ve been doing so many things that we started with Jim, that we want to continue working on,” he says. “For one, we need to reinforce our commitment to the core computer science education that’s offered during the first two years of the program. We want to make sure that students are getting the absolute best education [in that time], because everything they do after that requires those things to be solid.”  

The ultimate goal is to improve the reputation of our computer science programs around the country.

For that, Calabrese says in the short term the department has been reviewing courses on a one-by-one basis to make them more robust and effective. Other areas of focus include such long-term goals as growing the number of students enrolling in each of the department’s major to 80–100 students, hiring additional faculty members, and adding specializations to give students the ability to customize their computer science degree.

“The ultimate goal is to improve the reputation of our computer science programs around the country and especially in areas where the computer savvy population is already high. Students will know the need to study computer science, and why they should do it at JWU. They’ll know this because they can already see [how important it is] because it’s what their parents or neighbors are doing.”

Calabrese’s interest in expanding computer science’s reach doesn’t end with the work he’s doing with the department. Since 2018, he’s been working on a computer science video series, found on YouTube under the name “Insights into Computer Science with Dr. Tom Calabrese,” where he explores different topics in depth. “We’re making videos to support the learning that we can’t find out there. So far, we have 13 and there’s more in the works,” he says.

He also has a new textbook in the works, Hidden Writings: The Secrets of Cryptography, which he anticipates will go into production later this year. It follows his 2004 publication of Information Security Intelligence: Cryptographic Principles & Applications. For JWU students, his expertise has been beneficial from day one.

Curiosity Leads to JWU
Calabrese came to Johnson & Wales 19 years ago, when out of curiosity he looked up the university online and found there was a job opening for a professor in what was then known as the School of Technology. “I worked for a company [in Providence] and just by coincidence my office was on Dorrance Street, right next to [the JWU] library. I used to walk past it every day thinking, ‘Boy, it would be nice to teach.’ I followed up on it, and I’ve been here ever since,” he says.

Boy, it would be nice to teach.

During his time at JWU, Calabrese has taught 28 (and counting) different courses at various class levels, with a primary focus on computer science. Working closely with now retired faculty members Al Benoit and Everett Zurlinden, he developed a rhythm for his teaching approach, but it took a little bit of time to get the hang of things.

“I’ve done a lot of growing and changed in many ways,” says Calabrese. Coming from a corporate engineering background, he says that transitioning to teaching wasn’t always easy. “The first thing you have to learn when you become a professor is that your students are trying their best, but their best may not always be up to your standards. And so, you have to temper your enthusiasm and meet them where they are. I like to share stories of my own experiences with the students to show them where I come from.”

In one of his computer science videos, Calabrese mentions that he started his career as an engineer designing and building networking products like multiplexes, bridges and routers. His experience ranges from working as a software engineer for Timeplex Corporation in New Jersey, to serving as the director of technology consulting for the Northeast and Canada regions with AT&T. He was also director of security consulting for Bridge Technical until June of 2018.

“I’ve had good mentors here, people that offered me their support over the years,” he says. They were very good at providing me with materials to lecture on or even picking courses that I could do. And then little by little, I just got comfortable teaching.”

Calabrese is paying it forward, helping his students in and out of the classroom. He serves as the faculty adviser for the university’s programming team, as well as for the JWU chapters of the Association for Computing & Machinery (ACM) and Upsilon Pi Epsilon (UPE). And when one of the clubs needs to raise funds for a competition, he even gets the doughnuts.

“My neighbor owns the Krispy Kreme store at Mohegan Sun, so when the students want to do a fundraiser, they call him and place an order, and then I go pick it up. Then I have to ride up here, and I’m a diabetic, with hundreds of boxes of doughnuts in the car — it’s very difficult,” he adds, laughing.

I don’t actually ever refer to this as a job. It’s kind of been like a family for me.

That’s the type of person Calabrese is and what his students have come to love. “I don’t actually ever refer to this as a job, because for me everything I do here is just part of my life. It’s what I do and I like it a lot. But I think that’s just part of the Johnson & Wales culture; it’s kind of been like a family for me,” he says. He adds that when he started working here, his three kids were little and now the twins, Allison and Peter, are both seniors at JWU.

Calabrese is a guitar player, with an impressive guitar collection, and a recording studio in his home.

But there’s more to Calabrese outside of JWU. For starters, he’s a guitar player, with an impressive guitar collection, and a recording studio in his home — he even played in a band when he was younger. He started playing when he was six, right after his dad died.

“My father died when I was six, and that was the worst moment of my life; it was hard and there was a lot I didn’t understand,” he says. “But you know, back then we didn’t have a lot of counseling and stuff, but a doctor said to my mother, ‘Maybe you should teach him to play an instrument; it’ll give him something to do.’ And that’s how I got started, and I just kept doing it, and it worked. I think it has therapeutic value.”

He adds that he took 17 years of guitar lessons, and through the years he just kept at it because it was fun. “I play all genres of music, but mostly rock and roll. I can play a lot of acoustic stuff, and that’s interesting, but now I’m at the point where if I hear something, I can play it,” he says.

Music, just like computer science, has been a constant in his life and today it continues to evoke memories that he holds close to his heart. In particular he remembers when he turned 25, and for his birthday, his mom gave him a silver necklace with a guitar pick charm on it. “This is one of the last meaningful things she ever gave me,” he says, adding that he never takes it off. She suffers from Alzheimer’s now and he likes to remember the good times he had with her then.

“Music is my thing; that’s why for my birthday my kids decided [getting a tattoo] to show it, was the appropriate thing to do. Now all I have to do is join a motorcycle gang and I’ll be all set.”