Sitting in the Front Row Could Be Dangerous

Alumni recall their favorite teachers across more than half a century


Thomas Johnston

'I could never thank him enough'

Professor Thomas JohnstonThomas Johnston, my freshman English professor, was the most influential faculty member at Hamilton to me. Coming from a good prep school in New Jersey, Newark Academy, and having written for the paper and yearbook there, my self-regard for my writing ability was superior, to say the least. Johnston marked my first paper "Not passing — see me!" Over the rest of that year he taught me how to organize my thoughts and how to get them in logical order on paper. When I think of how I might have gone on without his tutelage, committing my disorganized words and sentences to my work, largely without parenthetical thinking, I shudder. His effect on my power of expression was so profound, I could never thank him enough. Even though he's long gone, his spirit is always with me whenever I write anything, either in personal letters or back in my career of sales and marketing in household textiles. I hope that Hamilton has someone of that quality on today's faculty.

— Richard A. Grimley '50

John Ulreich

'One of those rare, humane teachers'

Nearly all of the teachers I encountered at Hamilton were exemplary in one way or another, but I'd like to make particular mention of John Ulreich, from whom I took a course in metaphysical poetry. Once, when some late-teenage problem had kept me sleepless for many nights, Ulreich suggested a shot of scotch before bed (those were the days before they raised the drinking age) — salutary advice, as it turned out. Blond-bearded, rosy-faced (even in winter), and limitlessly good-natured, Ulreich looked barely older than his students. Perhaps it was his youth that allowed him to understand and forgive my literary shortcomings and to listen sympathetically to my problems with Donne and Marvell and with college life. But I prefer to think that he was (and undoubtedly still is) one of those rare, humane teachers who can guide without judging.

— Mike Sullivan '72

Sidney Wertimer

'I wish I'd paid more attention'

Sidney WertimerSidney Wertimer was the most influential, not only as advisor for Delta Kappa Epsilon but as our economics teacher. I wish I'd paid more attention. At the end of his teaching days he presented one of the most valuable lessons of his career. Simply stated, he advised that the purpose of required science, foreign language, speaking and literature [courses] was not to prepare us to become educators but to help us solve the many problems we would face in postgraduate days. When I asked him before his retirement why he hadn't given us that advice as students, he answered that we were too busy with sports and girls to pay attention. He was 100 percent correct and has helped me deal with those nasty situations generally with ease. And subliminally, I did learn something about economics.

— Robert C. Mongeau '59

Sam Pellman

'Amazing knowledge and passion'

Sam Pellman is by far one of my favorite teachers from my time on the Hill. He was a teacher, father figure and goofy big brother all rolled into one. He had a quick smile and an even quicker wit. My friend Jess Foote and I started a tradition called The Book of Pellman, a page in our notebooks dedicated solely to amusing quotes uttered by Sam during class. There were bombs in pianos, chord progressions that mysteriously morphed into the theme from Love Story, and a fictitious 400-level course called The Philosophy of the Fugue. Sam made music theory, which can be utterly dry and boring in the wrong hands, extremely entertaining. In his Music for Contemporary Media class, he showed us how technology can transform a mediocre singer into a superstar vocalist, and warned us not to touch "that button while standing in a pool of water." Sam's office was always open for music majors to pop in (if you could find a place to stand amid the piles of books, papers and CDs). To have been taught by someone with such amazing knowledge and passion for his subject was truly an honor. I am in my sixth year as a music teacher now, and I can only hope that one day my students remember me as fondly as I remember Sam.

— Erin Foley '01

Bev Edmonds

How to teach Pavlov

My first year I took Psych 101 with Bev Edmonds. My favorite memory of Bev was the day of the Pavlov lecture. On the way into class, she handed each of us a Dixie Cup with yellow powder in it. We sat in our seats and looked confused for several minutes. When class began, she explained that the powder was lemonade Kool-Aid powder and that while she lectured, whenever she said the word "Pavlov," she wanted us to lick our index finger, stick it in the powder, and eat a bit. We played along for the hour. Finally, at the end of class, she said the magic word for the last time and held up her hand. "Don't do it this time. Wait and notice." We did. We were salivating just like Pavlov's dogs! The expectation of the tart lemon powder had conditioned us to salivate at the name Pavlov — and (scarily enough!) I still do to this day.

— Erin Foley '01

Esther Kanipe

'Taught me the essence of critical thinking'

Esther KanipeEsther Kanipe's soft Texas drawl, "just a minute and then I'll shut up" usually indicated that class would be running until the last minute — again. Forever pushing so that class time was filled and fulfilling, Kanipe's classes were everything I thought college should be. Her command of her subject, her passion for teaching, her enthusiasm for critical thinking defined my college experience. I recall feeling challenged and somewhat intimidated by the subject of French colonial history, but I also recall feeling encouraged — even provoked — to explore, analyze, synthesize and articulate my thoughts. Kanipe taught me the essence of critical thinking.

If one sign of a good piece of performing art is that the audience cares about the characters, then the sign of a good teacher is one who makes the student care about the subject. If the artist cares, the audience can care; Esther Kanipe cared, and I cared.

Perhaps most telling about my view of Kanipe is that she was not the teacher who gave me my best grades, just the one who taught me best. The best grade I ever got with Kanipe was a B+; the education I received was an A+.

— Thomas M. Doolittle '79

David Miller

He brought the Reformation to life

The absolute best teacher I had at Hamilton was a Kirkland College professor, David Miller. He taught, among other things, a course in the Reformation. He would come to class and speak, without notes, on Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and their contemporaries. He could make those old theologians seem like the most exciting and colorful characters in history; he made them come alive. He also challenged the students to think, to analyze, to go beyond the obvious, to understand not only what he said, but what the theologians themselves said, what they meant and what they believed. By far, the most interesting and challenging professor of my time on the Hill.

— Peter Lotto '75

James Bradfield

'Connecting with the student' comes first

Without a doubt, the best teacher on the Hill is James Bradfield, the Elias W. Leavenworth Professor of Economics, more because of his contributions as a person than any educator could give. As my classmates would agree, Bradfield's relationship with his students extends far beyond the classroom walls. He would frequently join in lunch at Commons, show up at sporting events, even going as far as taking time out of his trip to England to visit one former student. Bradfield's philosophy puts connecting with the student as a person before anything else. What he did best was make any individual who crossed his path feel like the most important person in the world to him at that very moment. In the busyness that engulfs our lives now, every minute is valuable; to give as unselfishly as he has, Bradfield imparted the most important piece of knowledge that I would ever learn at Hamilton. As an officer in the United States Air Force, I have been told time and again that your people are your most valuable asset; thankfully, I can agree with them and say to myself, "I learned this first and foremost from Professor Bradfield."

— Pete Dowling '05

Richard Werner, Doug Ambrose, Kevin Grant

'What a trio'

Werner, Ambrose and Grant. Not a law firm; they were my three advisors. Do you know them? What a trio. In the fall of 1996, before Hamilton's current open curriculum, there existed a freshman seminar called Hiroshima and the 50 Years After. During the first week of class, Professor Werner literally kicked me out of the classroom when I admitted to not doing the reading. I didn't know people were serious when they told me that the reading was the homework. Ambrose? One class with him might be worth $50,000 a year. Who else teaches, literally, in your face? This is especially impressive when you're sitting in the back row of the Red Pit! I handed my history thesis to Professor Grant as we shared a pint of Guinness at The Little Pub. I didn't mind that he gave me a B. Despite weekly meetings, countless drafts, and 60 pages, I learned that "an A for effort" was a false expectation on my part. I'll never forget the sense of satisfaction I felt when I glanced and saw that B. All I wanted to do was buy him another beer. After 60 pages of my writing, he earned it!

— Art McCann '00

Paul Parker

'Has affected my life nearly every day'

Paul Parker's quiet exposure to beauty has affected my life nearly every day since his first slide presentation (The Birth of Venus by ­Botticelli) in my sophomore year, 1949.

— John R. "Jack" Banks '52

Russell Blackwood

'He blew open my mind'

Always affable, always impish, always deft, Russell Blackwood is my image of philosophy as a lofty, bemused speculation on things human. When I took Philosophy 11, we had weekly writing assignments (there must have been 50 of us in the class, so I am in awe of the quantities of grading he must have done). On each, with bold flourishes, he penned questions that kindly indicated how far my thinking had yet to go. He blew open my mind. One day he grandly connected the archê of Greek philosophy with the archê of John 1:1, and I realized I could never consider the Bible a hermetically sealed world of ultimate meaning again.

It was his style of sheer openness that I appreciated most. When I was struggling to publish 20 years later, he offered his counsel — no qualifiers, no suggestions, just an offer of help. Years later I approached him with another project, and he did offer an idea — a marvelous paper on the condemnation of usury in Islam, and I suddenly learned of his long interest in Pakistan. Then we traded syllabi, and I was impressed to learn he had his students read the entire Qur'an and situate themselves within the Muslim calendar.

Go not fearfully into this new world, remains his message. Yes, he taught critical thinking; yes, he opened up the durable questions of Western civilization to my jejune gaze. But with Blackwood there was a further lesson. Along with the Socrates of the Apology and the Crito, he exemplified a life where there really was no need, let alone room, for undignified angst. A calm, quizzical human reason, he seemed to imply in every conversation we had, is the humble bridge across every crevasse that yawns beneath our feet. He seemed to me the embodiment of J. Robert Oppenheimer's graceful observation: "It is style which is the deference that action pays to uncertainty; it is above all style through which power defers to reason."

I miss that style.

— Stewart W. Herman '70

Bonnie Urciuoli

'One of Hamilton's greatest assets'

Bonnie UrciuoliMy curriculum at Hamilton included a number of classes with Professor Bonnie Urciuoli, who, in my mind, is one of Hamilton's greatest assets. Her classes in anthropology taught me not only how to study a culture, but also how to interpret social interactions, to structure persuasive arguments and to communicate the oral and written word effectively. I still use these lessons today in both my academic and professional careers. I did not appreciate the greatest gift that she bestowed upon me, however, until just this past year.

During my sophomore year, Bonnie urged me to write a term paper about my father, who overcame a poor upbringing in India to immigrate to the United States and become a renowned biochemist. She found his testimony in that paper to be such a powerful embodiment of the American Dream that she then compelled him to write his own set of memoirs. My father did just that, and those memoirs exist today as an eloquent and impressive portrayal of his life. Sadly, my Dad passed away last year after a valiant battle with lung cancer. At his funeral, we displayed the term paper I had written for Bonnie's ethnography class alongside my father's memoirs. More than a few guests mentioned how meaningful it was to have that lasting memory of him.  Those memoirs will be an eternal tribute that I can show my children and grandchildren about the power of hard work, hope and the written word. Thank you, Bonnie.

— David Kerwar '00

Edwin Lee

A gracious invitation recalled

Edwin LeeI was not a history major, but Professor Edwin Lee got my attention. Tall, angular, and possessed of a deceptively genteel Southern manner, he demanded a high quality of analytical thinking. His History 11-12 was brutal enough, but somehow I talked my way into a senior research seminar where majors were introduced to historiography and revisionary thinking by contrarians in the field. Between the philosophy of Dilthey and robust attacks on comfortable assumptions about British history, I was reeling. But Ed Lee never flagged, and at the end, he informed me — again, in a courtly way — that never again would he admit a nonmajor to this gantlet of scholarly inquiry. To me, this was a discomfiting reminder that a scholarly identity must be earned, but that the rewards are there for one who puts in the effort.

Ed Lee's specialty was Tokugawa Japan. Alas, I never had a course on Asian history from him, but two years after graduation I looked him up during my first postgraduate jaunt to the Hill. It had only been a few months since I returned from two years of humanitarian work in war-torn Vietnam. Those two years had ground me down, as only a civil war can, and I was trying to regain a sense of direction in my life. I recalled that Ed had a habit of taking students in, even for months at a time. He graciously invited me to visit, cooked up a splendid stir-fry, and listened as I bled war stories onto the carpet. Then he called around to colleagues on the faculty and arranged for me to show some slides that I had taken. That small gesture of interest was no doubt quickly forgotten by all those invited, but to me it was priceless. I think Ed recognized that this badly bedraggled student sorely needed to talk about how psychologically shattering the war was, even for civilian volunteers. He kindly provided me that opportunity.

— Stewart W. Herman '70

Bill Salzillo, Fred Wagner

Most influential, most entertaining

Perhaps the professor who influenced me the most and the professor whose classes were my favorite were different. Bill Salzillo taught color theory and design, a class in which I enrolled to meet the opposite sex. The class ended up being incredibly challenging and time-consuming. Who knew that my exposure to color and its effects would end up being so useful in my adult life? The understanding of color has always helped me in having pleasant living spaces in living color and huge fondness for paint decks of all the colors. Fred Wagner taught all my favorite classes. His dry sense of humor and his chuckle still reverberate in my mind. My fondness for American literature was enhanced in his lectures and tested in his seminars. My exposure to Faulkner has always caused me to dub unruly neighbors the Snopeses.

— Marc S. Komisarow '78

Frank Hamlin, David Birnbaum

Personal commitment mattered

I know it is a cliché, but Frank Hamlin helped make French "alive." He was such a nice person that I wanted to learn from him. He integrated us into French culture during our Winter Study in Paris, starting out each morning at a different café.

David Birnbaum made me aware of the actuarial profession (which I chose) and worked with me one-on-one to help prepare me for my exams, via independent study.

— David Lipkin '77

John Crossett

He 'opened a universe'

I had one great teacher — John Crossett, the Socratic master of seminar English, which I took in 1960-61. It was a revelation, and like most revelations, beyond me. Crossett never lectured, seldom used a declarative sentence, and opened a universe. I am not certain that the echoes heard by Arno Penzias were beyond Crossett's ken. En archê ên ho logos. And, as he taught, attend to the fact that gnôthi in gnôthi seauton is the aorist imperative.

— Bill Goodman '64

John Crossett

'The closest thing to Socrates'

John Crossett was my first professor of English composition during my freshman year in 1959. He was and is the ugliest human being I have ever seen. His large teeth were greenish, his glasses dulled by grime, and grease obscured his eyes. He was tall, angular, clothed in loose blue shining suits. The class was scared to death by rumors of his stern discipline and by the actuality of his presence.

His first words to us ring in my ears to this day. He said, "Socrates was the greatest man who ever lived. And I am the closest thing to Socrates you will ever meet."

These were the days of the "yes" theme. We were required to write three in-class "yes" themes and one outside-class "yes" theme. It was a torture that all Hamilton students willingly subjected themselves to in their freshman year. Crossett drilled us and grilled us and toasted us until we were capable of handling that momentous feat. He dazzled us with the Dialogues of Plato, thrilled us with Herodotus, stretched us with unyielding demand.

He owned a small private press. He let me write a poem to be published by his press. It was eight lines long. I wrote it approximately one thousand times. Finally, it was a "yes." I keep it in a special place in my safe. Years later I wrote for newspapers, television, advertising, motion pictures and magazines. The deadlines were unyielding. But I never feared. I was a Hamilton graduate with "yes" themes to my credit. And I had one treasured "yes" poem thanks to Crossett.

I learned to love this ugly man. Today, he seems beautiful to me.

— Sean Kevin Fitzpatrick '63

Robert Simon

'Unfailing enthusiasm, encouraging discussion'

Professor Robert Simon was my favorite Hamilton teacher. He was my freshman advisor, and I had him for Intro to Philosophy as well as for a January term Seminar in Justice, my favorite course at Hamilton. Simon spoke with unfailing enthusiasm for his subjects, always encouraging discussion and drawing opinions out from each of his students. He clarified issues with examples from his family life as well as with outrageous and picturesque anecdotes.

I enrolled in the Seminar in Justice with some trepidation (I was pre-med and not a philosophy major), and chose to take it pass-fail. As it turned out, I had a solid A going into the final paper. I was co-chairman of the student curriculum committee, and Bob Simon was a member of the faculty curriculum committee. I had earlier campaigned unsuccessfully to extend the deadline for choosing to take a course pass-fail until later in the term (Hamilton's policy was more restrictive than at comparable schools). I labored to write as "bad" a paper as I could while still coherently making my argument that students in this position had no motivation to put out effort. Bob Simon's comment at the end of the paper was "You convinced me. (Almost.)" He gave me an A for the paper. The deadline for choosing pass-fail remained unchanged.

Professor Simon strengthened my interest in ethics and strengthened my ability to argue intelligently. I remember him and his classes fondly.

— Michael Margolin '78

Edwin Barrett

Words that 'became a kind of beacon'

Edwin BarrettI entered Hamilton in 1967 as a political and emotional conservative. Afraid of people and ideas I didn't understand, I managed my anxiety by convincing myself that I pretty much had all the answers. Fortunately, courses with professors such as Russell Blackwood, Sidney Wertimer and Robert Simon began to loosen the grip of my insular ideology. However, it took Edwin Barrett to really get through to me.

It was my second literature class with him. He had mainly given me C's and D's for papers blithely dismissing author after author as too negative or relativistic. Yet for some reason I had started to admire him, despite his obvious liberalism! Then he assigned a paper on "How Jane Austen Defines and Limits the World of Emma." In writing it, I somehow grasped the idea that a work of art should be judged not by external standards but by the values within the work itself. I don't think I realized what a breakthrough this was for me, but Barrett did. He gave me an A-, but what mattered more was the summary comment he wrote on the title page: "Tom, this is your best vein: sympathetic, precise and undogmatic. If you could do this kind of work consistently, I think you would find yourself as a student, and to some degree as a person."

There were many other influences on me in those years, but nothing helped me see myself as clearly as that one comment. It became a kind of beacon guiding me to a more liberal and compassionate philosophy of life. Without it, I might not have become a teacher myself and might never have become the man who won the heart of my wonderful wife. I still think of Barrett's words often, especially as I spend my evenings writing comments on the papers of my students, hoping I can be anywhere near as inspiring to them as he was to me.

— Tom Reid '71

Doug Ambrose

'Sitting in the front row could be dangerous'

Professor Ambrose gave me some of the lowest grades of my college career, but that did not keep me from taking a class with him each semester. Receiving those low marks forced me to improve my writing skills and learn how to read and analyze texts effectively. As I wrote better papers, he continually raised the bar, knowing I could take my ideas further and develop more in-depth conclusions.

He put so much energy into each class he taught, from compiling packets of primary documents — cost-free to students — to leaping on desks and yelling with excitement during a lecture. Sitting in the front row could be dangerous at times. His animated storytelling, carefully told in fill-in-the-blank style, actively engaged his students, as opposed to reciting from notes for the duration of the lecture. Ambrose made the deadest, dullest history come to life for students in all majors. I would have understood if professors from other departments secretly resented his teaching talent, because in every conversation, intimately exposed to his contagious enthusiasm, a student risked switching majors.

Ambrose put just as much energy into his students outside the classroom as he did in class. Students regularly kept him after office hours, and he ended every semester by inviting every one of his students to a meal with his family at his home in Utica. He made the effort to get to know every one of his students well, and he usually knew all about their outside activities. His dual love of student and subject made him the quintessential Hamilton professor.

— Peter Kopp '07

Otto Liedke

'Otto listened to my whistling'

Herr Liedke was a true Berliner. His speech lacked the "whininess" and gram-matical errors characteristic of the local brogue, but his snappy, even biting wit was 100 percent Prussian. "Some gets the Wissen and some gets the schaft!" he told a recalcitrant sophomore who had cut class or come late once too often. When asked if the anecdote were true, he replied, "Yes, unfortunately." That was in the winter of 1962, and I was an official Underachiever with C's in the first three semesters of German.

At the time, John Baldwin was rehearsing Brahms' Deutsches Requiem with the choir. As the strange yet familiar texts wound around in my head, I accompa-nied them by whistling the melodies on my way across campus. One morning as I was leaving German class, Otto took me aside and said, "I gather you are fond of Brahms' Requiem. You should be doing better..." That afternoon, he gave me a novella by C. F. Meyer, Gustav Adolfs Page and said, "Read that. If you can pass an oral exam on it, you can get a B in German."

Because Otto listened to my whistling, I am today an authority on the greatest Berlin novelist, Theodor Fontane. My books were done by traditional publishers and my articles appear in the best German journals. For money, I translate books on technology, mostly plastics, into English.

Russell Blackwood

'Struck by lightning' in a senior seminar

The senior philosophy seminar revolved around Brand Blanchard's kaleidoscopic review of basic philosophy. I cannot remember its title (and prefer to forget my labored senior thesis). By May 1964 we had zeroed in on the nature of thought and language, but I felt like the Stones' biggest hit, until, in the last minutes of the last meeting, Russell remarked, in answer to a forgotten question, "Well, Wittgen-stein says in his later book that the nature of language is the game."

Not one to remain silent when struck by lightning, I exclaimed, "That's it!" Russell felt my outburst required further comment, but all I can remember is that he complained about the quality of Wittgenstein's translations.

By 1974 at Indiana, I had worked out a theory for applying Wittgenstein's philosophy of language to literary interpretation. My doctoral advisor would not accept the dissertation with the theory in it. Six years later, it appeared in German in my first article and has been cited, even plagiarized, more often than I can count. If I live long enough, I would like to do better translations of Wittgenstein.

You might say that, when I left Hamilton, I took the Hill with me. My choir voice is down to less than a octave, but I still whistle pretty good.

— Paul Anderson '64

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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