CORTONA, ITALY—Tom Ross, soon to be former University of North Carolina system president, remembered how it had all begun so abruptly just a few days ago. Sitting across from two close friends, still visibly shaken after being asked to resign, he had clinked champagne glasses and attempted to smile.
“To freedom,” his close friend Mitch McGinty had said. “It’s time to move on. The BOG was cheating on you with Art Pope, who needs them!?”
Ross sighed now as he did then. Thinking of Pope still upset him.
“And we’ve got just the way to do it,” McGinty continued, “a 10-day tour through romantic Tuscany!”
What began there, around a table at 411 West, ended here, as Ross looked upon a dilapidated villa in the small town of Cortona which he now owned and was attempting to reconstruct.
“I needed this,” said Ross, thinking back on the two-hour closed door session with the board of governors, where they had laid out how they had been with Art Pope for so many years without his knowledge. He took his anger against the paint he was attempting to remove.
“It’s time to stop blaming myself, and move on,” he concluded.
Ross originally intended to travel only a few weeks before returning to finish his term as president of the UNC system, but, as Ross said, “life got in the way.”
“I was feeling free in Italy, free in a way I had not felt in years. Not constantly doubting myself, or wondering if what I do really matters. I am just me here, comfortable in my own skin,” Ross explained. “Then, as I was walking through the plaza of Cortona, this beautiful, rustic town in the Tuscan countryside, I saw a sign for a villa on sale just outside the town. When I realized that I was actually thinking about buying it, I knew I couldn’t go back.”
The house is not in great condition, and Ross, 64, has spent the past few days trying his hand at remodeling.
“I bit off a little more than I can chew,” Ross said, dusty from work on the tile floors, “but it’s exhilarating to work with your hands, doing as much as you can and no more, not worrying about satisfying anyone but yourself. I think restoring this house will be my life’s great work.”
Ross has already befriended many of the locals, nurturing a romance between a village girl and a young, polish man Ross employs to help with the construction.
“There’s nothing sweeter than young love,” Ross mused, “compared to this, all of my concerns seem trivial.”
Ross himself has not escaped the romantic power of Tuscany. In the week since his arrival in Cortona, Ross has begun a tryst with an older British actress who, like Ross, sought refuge in the Italian countryside.
“Unthinkably good things can happen,” said Ross, “even late in the game.”