Our sure-to-be-periodically-interrupted Professor Style Week has reminded me that in my biographical storytelling for Ivy Style I have dropped little clues to the identity of my alma mater. That school is the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. The name is either immediately known or not, something alumni secretly relish.
Wooster is among a cadre of small liberal arts colleges in Ohio that include Kenyon, Denison, Wittenberg, Ohio Wesleyan and Oberlin. Wooster was founded by Presbyterians and enterprising merchants in 1866, and, according to “Cradles of Conscience: Ohio’s Independent Colleges and Universities,” it sought to be a center of learning like Oxford and Cambridge. The first faculty envisioned Wooster has the “Princeton of the west.”
The student body is perpetually kept small — under 2,000 — which makes one feel a connection to all other alumni. I discovered this too keenly the evening I approached a woman wearing a Wooster sweatshirt at a minor league ball game. We were in the middle of animated trip down memory lane, not paying attention to the game, when a foul ball grazed my temple, knocking me nearly unconscious and necessitating a trip to the emergency room. Such is the price of colligate felicity.
The school’s black and gold color scheme is omnipresent. Students are quickly indoctrinated in the imagery of Scottie dogs, fighting scots and random bovines for the acronym COW. I delighted in the fact the college appropriated — or misappropriated — The MacLeod of Lewis tartan, and that it was the only college in the county that offers bagpipe scholarships. The band has even become famous for its random acts of piping.
In addressing the style of my professors, I’m well aware I am going to neglect Professors Cropp, Bean, Grace, and my devoted tutor Royana Schultz, individuals who showed a tremendous amount of interest in my growth and development and whose character trumped the stereotypical dress we celebrate and that is the scope of this remembrance. That stereotypical professor style was significantly diminished during the time between Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the end of the Tet Offensive. Its shadow on my ’80s campus was like the black squirrels in the Oak Grove. Wildlife biologists say only one in 10,000 gray squirrels are black, but after you see one that is all you see.
There were a handful of individual I would single out for having trad professor style. The first was Amos Kiewe who favored Joseph A. Banks, which at the time was Brooks Brothers for the budget-minded. I recall flipping through his catalogs on the nights he would host a small group of students for dessert and discussion. At Syracuse University now, he is still a leading academic in the field of presidential rhetoric.
The second was Paul Christiansen. As superficial as it sounds to this day, all the positive feelings I had for him were confirmed the day I stood behind him in line at the grocery store and watched him open his wallet to reveal a blue Brooks Brothers charge card. He wore tweed jackets, knit ties, and rounded eyeglass frames, looking every part of the expert on the medieval British book trade that he was. He also authored “The Riverside Gardens of Thomas Moore’s London,” which was published by Yale. His voice was mellifluous, resembling that of an anglophilic Garrison Keillor. He was in my rotation of professors to call upon during office hours, and I will always remember how on every visit I had the sense that I had aborted a schoolboy’s surreptitious smoke. My knock followed by a scurry of activity behind the door before the command to enter was given. Sitting in his office, I would smell Virginia bright leaf and feared his desk drawer would burst into flames from the hastily stashed ashtray.
In some ways I felt we were simpatico because we both wore manual wristwatches. I recall one conversation in which I confessed I was distracted by his wristwatch. He was surprised that anyone would pay the slightest attention to it, but he confirmed it was an Elgin and I pulled up my shirt sleeve to reveal my Hamilton.
I recall two bow tie wearers, one a professor in the Economics Department and the other a visiting professor in the Classical Studies Department. I took Greek Art and Archeology from this professor, who shall remain nameless. I recall tedious hours of slide shows in which Late Minoan III B pottery was compared to other classical detritus. It was over my head, and I hoped that a paper on the Niobid Painter would pull my grade up. The professor did not share my enthusiasm for the work and the blow of the C- almost made me swear off bow ties forever.
The last was Lowell Coolidge. He kept a well groomed mustache and was always dressed in flannel trousers, herringbone jacket, and foulard necktie. He was born circa 1907 in Massachusetts and taught English for 46 years at the college, becoming a renowned expert on Milton. He spent 18 years at the library, but it would be derisive to say he retired there. I thought of his style as a less-formal, more free-flowing form of teaching, a walking lecture among the stacks. The overscheduled, time-management junkie type of student avoided him, while I purposely sought him out.
Somehow I knew it was more than just the ephemeral factoid that I was seeking, and I was willing to take the guided journey. Five years after I graduated I heard that Professor Coolidge had died at the age of 88. I can still hear his sturdy brogues echoing on that Indiana limestone floor. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP