Recollections of Yale, across the decades. Send your own memories to be considered for posting to, with subject line “For Memories.”
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Memorable mentoring (Mar. 1993)

Memories of great Yale teachers gleam through the decades, “stars of the summer night,” as we used to sing, and now “far down yon azure deep” in time.

Each era has its pantheon, but let this one alumnus recall for you how it was in that brief span from 1945 through 1948, a golden time of victory in world war and of limitless American expectations.

Look with me down into the well of the great lecture hall on Prospect Street. During his course on applied physiology (invariably known to students as “Sex 63”), the heavyset Doctor Howard Haggard props hand on vest-hip: “If someone tells you he got syphilis from a toilet seat, you tell him: “That’s a hell of a place to take a girl!” (Laughter.)

The engaging Dr. Haggard taught young men (only) to enjoy both their health and the learning of it. Today, the professor’s attitudes are as outdated as his medicine. To be sure, sex itself had been invented, if fairly recently, but such concepts as “male chauvinism” and “sexism” all lay ahead, as did our re-education.

A few hundred yards from Haggard’s lecture hall, we can climb to the tiny windowed atelier at the top of Sprague Hall, where, in July of 1945, a dozen freshmen began a course in music composition, Elementary Theory (10a). At the piano a short man, bald and natty, began with no introduction, his accent heavily German. (Who is this guy?)

We neophytes soon learned. We were studying simple chord structure with Paul Hindemith, then perhaps the greatest of modern German composers. His perfect pitch allowed him to correct a student misplaying a chord from across the room—“Not A-major subdominant. B major!”—or to strike barely a note on that classroom piano and say it needed tuning.

Hindemith was (and needed to be) a teacher of patience as well as music. His great gift was to take one of our pedestrian lessons and show how a change, often slight, could let it leap into creativity.

Among many others, the composer had fled wartime Europe for the United States and, ultimately, New Haven. At the time, Yale course books gave subjects but no meeting rooms or professors’ names; many teachers and students were fresh from the war.

Music was one thing that brought this townie, green as the elms above, to Yale in that summer of 1945. I found my way as a freshman into the Glee Club under Marshall Bartholomew, ’07, dean of American choral conducting. “Barty,” agleam in white tie and tails, his mop of white hair flying, drove us fortissimo—then agonizedly shushed us to ppp—in the ringing songs of the male chorus, many of them his own arrangements. I often sang next to slender Fenno Heath. Soon, he would succeed Barty and begin his own long Glee Club era.

For an English major, it was a halcyon time. Professor Norman Pearson was newly returned from a different sort of war. Though bent by spinal disease, he had brought his brilliance to the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (for which, among his other duties, he recruited Yale students).

Outside the classroom, he told of a wartime OSS station in Lisbon, its headquarters a hotel room directly across the hall from German intelligence. At Pearson’s approach each morning, a uniformed Nazi guard snapped to heel-click, rifle-attention. Everybody knew everybody—it was right out of Casablanca.

Pearson was an intimate of makers of American literature—of Thomas Wolfe, Auden, and others. He had collaborated with William Rose Benét on the textbook we used, and always seemed to have just spent a few vacation weeks with someone whose name passed before us in his big, crowded lectures, English 56 and 57.

Norman Pearson’s classroom gift was to create sweep, color, and connectivity—the “whiteness of The Whale” swimming at Ahab; the white sails of Melville’s “topgallant delight”; the “whited air” of Emerson’s snowstorm; and trout rising in the “white” of Hemingway’s Spanish streams rushing out of his most American writings.

Alexander Witherspoon was another familiar of a time past. His departure points were 17th-century literature, English 35, and Milton, English 36. Witherspoon’s lectures were studies in lean, learned accretion, of Heaven and Hell and places betwixt, caught within worn binders, and neverendingly updated. His bachelor quarters in south Berkeley displayed the binders in ranks: 36 for a thrice-weekly, 12-week course, each pulled as its day came around again.

I eventually became a journalist, but I first understood something of the meaning and source of the First Amendment on a day Witherspoon departed from his lecture to read aloud from the Areopagitica in his tidy buzzing voice: “Give me liberty to know, to utter, to argue freely and according to conscience above all liberties.…” He clapped the book shut and said, “Well.” That habit of his meant both “Mark that,” and “Let’s get back to the order of things.” He then resumed his lecture.

Almost Miltonic himself, Witherspoon ranged across his subject and connected others to it (connectivity again, that mark of great teaching). The two greatest writers of our language lived in London, Witherspoon reminded us. John Milton was born in 1608. That small boy, Witherspoon said—as close to excitement as he ever got—John Milton, walking London’s crowded streets, could have, may have, brushed past William Shakespeare, who lived until 1616.

Bernard Bloch, memorable, enthusiastic teacher of Linguistics 20ab, opened our first class with a tour of the family names of his 30 or so students. He spoke each name, shared it with us all, and here and there noted a derivation. I still see him savoring each one, rolling it in his head: “Is that right? Is that just the way you say it, Mr. Chavchavadze?”

Wordstruck Bernard Bloch built me an expansible, retrievable, indispensable base for a life’s work with language, its origins, and its uses and consequences.

Breath, he said, varied sound with “stops, spirants, nasals, laterals, trills” that are placed in mouth and throatas “labial, apical, frontal, dorsal, glottal.” Lovely lists. (Experimenters should know that not all combinations are feasible.)

Too much and too many crowd in to remember. Richard Sewall deepened our young lives in his course on Tragedy, English 61. We elementally learned not to trivialize that word to mean simple misfortune. “The proper theme of tragedy”—Gilbert Murray’s defining statement, still in memory—“is the defeat of a great soul, the undeserved ruin of one who, whatever his faults, establishes a claim upon the heart and the imagination.” I think of it every time a news report calls some two-bit bus crash a “tragedy.”

Samuel Hemingway, then the master of Berkeley College, walked us easily out of his study through the 16th-century mind, and into the streets, souls, stabbings, and genius of the time. In that quiet, journeying course, “Shakespeare and His Contemporaries,” Sam Hemingway made room for a few of us on his small, high plateau of learning.

René Wellek’s formidable intellect and critical mastery offered virtually an entire term on War and Peace to a lecture hall full of young Pierre Bezulchovs on their own beginning journeys.

“Nangle and Noyes”—(Benjamin and Edward) memorably opened the curtains on “The Augustan Age” (English 44). We breathed deeply of an 18th-century world of fops, fools, wits, and roundelay infidelity, of larger plays and dictionaries, along with (I came to believe) lesser poetry.

Nangle also imposed the quotidian discipline, and conferred the pungent critiques (“All rules are void if it succeeds”) of “Daily Themes.” What goes around comes around: A few years ago, as guest lecturer in the same course, I found it plain eerie to relive a long-ago college course in reverse.

To look back at those Yale masters from the vantage point of our maturity is to increase their value to us. They taught us more than we (sometimes they) knew, as they found ways to be both universal and completely individual.

Retrospection restates the inevitability of change, of the need to adapt it, and adapt to it. So it is that true learning never simply collects and recycles history but finds uses of the past as passage to the future, there to breed knowledge and to prevail. Yale revisited, then, speaks to the world’s greatnesses rooted in unique teachings at unique places.

Rooted there, yes, but as to the blossom, I still hear Alexander Witherspoon, nearly five decades gone, voicing for us now the great lifelong thing, the only other thing, the irreducible thing: “Education must be self-inflicted.”

Emerson Stone ’48, a former member of this magazine’s board of directors, in 35 years at CBS News rose from copy boy to senior officer.

Filed under 1940s
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