Memorable moments with professors

Illustrations by Stephen Collins


Now There was a Guy

“Now here’s a guy, this guy John Donne, and he writes poetry. But why poetry?”

Setting down his mug of coffee, Professor Bob Blackmore lit up another cigarette to replace the few he’d lit minutes earlier. He’d barely puffed on them before tossing them to the floor and stomping out the smoldering Luckys. I watched all of this from the front row of a Lawrence Hall classroom in the fall of 1963.

Illustration of Professor Douglas lecturing, smoking a cigarette, with his pant leg on fire.Professor Blackmore was the nicest guy in the world and often had noteworthy things to say about our readings in English literature. In those days, smoking was allowed in class, and he could sometimes barely be seen behind the nicotine haze of the cigarettes burning in his hand, or balanced on the ashtray, or smoldering on the linoleum beneath his feet — or all of those at once. Sitting in the front row, I was fascinated by his dexterity, by how he could have so many cigarettes glowing at the same time.

One nippy November day, with the smell of winter in the air, Professor Blackmore came into class, looking spiffy as could be in his sports coat and woolen slacks, complete with stylish deep cuffs…

“Now here’s a guy named Milton, a blind guy who could see better than anyone, but why poetry? Why?” This was his eternal question about all the poets we read. Out came the weeds by the dozen and down to the floor they went. The amiable, bespectacled Bob Blackmore chatted on in the haze, even as a still-flaming cig fell like a firecracker into the furry ashtray of one of his cuffs.

My friend Bill Wilson ’66 was sitting next to me, and we elbowed each other simultaneously, amazed at what we’d just seen, and what we were about to. My eyes were on that cuff, but sweet Bob seemed oblivious, until his tweedy gray wool began to smolder. He started looking around and sniffing the air as if someone were singeing pin feathers in the room. Smoke billowing from his britches, up he leapt from his chair and was out of there, “Why poetry?” be damned.

Over the many years later, I told my own students this little story to explain why they should always sit in the front row. Then, with Professor Blackmore eternally puffing cumulous clouds in heaven, we’d set out together to answer that unfathomable question, “Why poetry?”

Bruce Guernsey ’66 is a distinguished professor emeritus at Eastern Illinois University and a poet who has published seven collections and several chapbooks.

My Teacher

I drove to Hamilton, N.Y., in December 2014 to take part in the funeral service for the Rev. Coleman Brown. Coleman had the most profound impact of all my teachers on my education. I took seven courses in religion as an undergraduate. He taught six of them. But his teaching extended far beyond the classroom. The classroom was where he lit the spark.

He was brilliant and slightly eccentric. Concerned one winter day that the heating system in Lawrence Hall was making us students too comfortable and complacent, he opened the windows, sending blasts of snow into the room as we sat huddled in our jackets. He had a habit of repeatedly circling words on the blackboard with chalk, leaving behind series of massive white rings and faint white streaks on his face (he ran his index and middle fingers down his cheek as he spoke). His worn tweed coats seemed to always have a soft coating of chalk dust.

“But his teaching extended far beyond the classroom. The classroom was where he lit the spark.” 
Chris Hedges ’79

He was loved, often adored, by most of his students, whom he looked upon as an extended family. His office hours were packed. He regularly brought groups of students home for meals and evenings with him and his wife, Irene, and their four children. Three decades later, some of the most vivid memories I have of Colgate are of doggedly following him out of the classroom to continue the conversation he had begun in class, of meeting him weekly in his office, of listening to his sermons on Sunday mornings in the chapel, of dinners at his house, and, finally, after my graduation, of bursting into tears in front of my parents as I said goodbye to him.

Education is not only about knowledge. It is about inspiration. It is about passion. It is about the belief that what we do in life matters. It is about moral choice. It is about taking nothing for granted. It is about challenging assumptions and suppositions. It is about truth and justice. It is about learning how to think. It is about, as James Baldwin wrote, the ability to drive “to the heart of every matter and expose the question the answer hides.” And, as Baldwin further noted, it is about making the world “a more human dwelling place.”

Excerpted from an essay by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Chris Hedges ’79 that was originally published on

She Beat Them at Their Own Game

Martha Brill Olcott, an expert on Central Asia and former Soviet Union ethnic minorities, was my political science professor in 1990, the fall of my junior year. It was an important time: the Soviet Union was breaking apart, and there was little mainstream knowledge about Central Asian regional security. We were fortunate that Colgate happened to have among its professors a global expert on this topic.

Illustration of Martha Brill Olcott recording notes while a Soviet official has fallen drunkenly out of his chair.

Professor Olcott was often interviewed by “20/20” or NBC Nightly News, so we watched her videotaped appearances during class. We also had plenty of in-person time with her and heard some amazing stories. During her extensive travels in past years, she was able to gather otherwise unattainable classified information from high-level Soviet officials. One of my favorite stories is how her father taught her to eat a full meal before meeting government officials for dinner, at which they typically drank a lot. She followed her father’s advice before going shot for shot with government officials. While they thought they were drinking a young, American woman under the table, she was gathering nuggets of useful information. She played them at their own game. Priceless and empowering.

Mishka Kohli Cira ’92 majored in Russian studies and is now a public health specialist whose work focuses on Africa.

The Art Of Being Bold

As a quiet student, too shy to speak up and too timid to make use of professors’ office hours, it wasn’t until taking Visual Rhetorics with Professor Meg Worley that I felt comfortable coming out of that shell. Professor Worley’s sense of humor was immediately likeable and relatable. And it was easy to chat with her because she made it clear that she respected and understood that different students learn in different ways. For example, we had to complete a project at the end of each unit, and everything was encouraged. I created an experimental web comic that I still show in my portfolio.

Her ability to make comics and medieval marginalia equally fascinating is just what Professor Worley does. She also marks papers with stunning legibility, and in signature Professor Worley fashion, with brightly colored pens.

Alyson Chu ’13 was an art and art history major who now works for an e-commerce business in Edinburgh, Scotland.

A Lesson in Silence

There are cycles. Memories form, ripen, and sometimes fade. Lest that befall us, a memory from an era now daily receding is archived here.

I entered Colgate in 1958. Its 40-course load was festooned with 11 required Core courses. In fall ’59, I took a section of Core-22, the English literature course that featured War and Peace. In the front of the room stood the always understated master, Professor Russell Speirs.

Speirs’s “reign” at Colgate began in 1922, and he was adviser to the Dramatic Society. Speirs stood about 5 foot, 10 inches, was soft-spoken, mentally sharp, and he was complete with Ivy tweed and Friar Tuck tonsorial. Confident and relaxed, his ancestry was depicted by the bust of the Bard, which sat on his office desk wearing a football helmet! He never referred to it but knowing smiles crossed the faces of those who saw it. Book lessons abounded but Speirs added a special touch, perhaps one that only a drama adviser could provide. Withal, his standout point that taught many lessons simultaneously was his recital of a party weekend experience that he had at the Colgate Inn.

“Book lessons abounded but Speirs added a special touch, perhaps one that only a drama adviser could provide.” 
Gordon D. Miller ’62

By custom, on Saturday evenings, the inn laid out a spectacular smorgasbord in its interior romantically lit dining room. Speirs, a bachelor, sat alone. He observed a Colgate fellow and his date enter and take their places. The voice level carried from their table but not individual words. As Speirs later told us, time seemed to pass slowly and the male voice was not interrupted. Twenty minutes passed, 30 minutes passed slowly, and still the male voice was all Speirs heard. Forty-five minutes; no female voice was heard. Then the woman rose gracefully and headed toward the powder room. Now alone, the swain leaned toward Speirs and said “Isn’t she wonderful!”

He recounted the story to our class three days later. Speirs remained stoic and expressionless. After reciting the swain’s question, Speirs picked that exact pivotal moment to stop cold. He let the question hang in the air. He said nothing, did not smile, gesture, or give any cue to the class. It was not necessary. The class got it and erupted in laughter. Speirs let the laughter wane and then began the day’s lesson.

Speirs loved Colgate, the students, and teaching. More than 10 years later, he was still at it. From New York City, I had the thrill of inviting him to come to the Colgate Alumni Club to meet the alumni and say a few words. He came, saw, and conquered. Not so long later, the magical inn tale could not be told again by its witness. Speirs was gone. I miss him.

Gordon D. Miller ’62

Welcoming Bears and Aliens Alike

As an avid teddy bear collector, I arrived at Professor Anthony Aveni’s office early in my sophomore year with a rather special bear in tow, fit for his Astronomy in Culture class. Professor Aveni opened the door and immediately exclaimed over my bear, who is white with a bright green alien face. He asked me all about Bailey the alien bear, where in the universe he was from, and if he was near any of the constellations we were studying.
Illustration of a stuffed alien teddy bear in a messenger backpack.

“It set a kinder tone for an interaction I was nervous about.” 
Michelle Cohen ’15

It set a kinder tone for an interaction I was nervous about — namely, asking for help after a difficult test. After this initial meeting, Professor Aveni told me that Bailey was welcome to come to our classes and evening study sessions, and my bear was soon a frequent visitor of the Ho Tung Visualization Lab. Bailey was even allowed to make an appearance during the final exam, when he poked his head out of my purse across the room (while wearing a tin foil hat, of course, which Professor Aveni knew would dampen any potential cheating powers). Even during the hardest test of the semester, Professor Aveni made a point of making me laugh and feel comfortable.

Michelle Cohen ’15 was an English major who is now managing editor of HAKOL, the Jewish newspaper of the Lehigh Valley (Pa.)

Famous Last Words

The last time I spoke with former Chaplain Robert V. Smith by telephone before he died, I asked him how he was feeling. “Not too good,” he said. I said, “You will be completely healed in heaven and Steve Hartshorne (former philosophy and religion department chair) will be there, and you will get along with each other.”

They used to disagree on many issues. In fact, Bob Smith disagreed with much of what anyone did or said; it was not malicious but rather like Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, and Jesus disagreeing with people to make them think and improve their moral character.

In response to my statement, Bob Smith said, predictably, “That is eschatological theology, which is beyond my ability to comprehend!”

Ed O’Donnell ’70

The Book Club

At our five-year reunion, Professor Ray Douglas biked over to a group of us lounging under the shady trees by Whitnall Field to say hello.

Illustration of Colgate Professor showing up for book club at the Colgate Inn on a late winter night.

He’d just published Orderly and Humane, a thorough examination of the expulsion of ethnic Germans from eastern Europe after World War II. It was a book we all wanted to read, especially because he had been doing the research and writing while we were his students. We wanted to read it together — not only did the subject matter warrant discussion but, if we were being honest with ourselves, life, work, and Netflix can sometimes get in the way of academic pursuits, and we wanted to make sure someone else was holding us accountable for our reading.

After Professor Douglas biked away, Jill Ferris said, “We should start a book club.” And so we did.

We started our first chunk of reading and picked a night to call each other. We e-mailed Professor Douglas to let him know our plan. He decided to join us that night and gave us great perspective on the subject matter. Finally, after about two hours, he said he had to get to bed because he had class in a few hours. We then found out that he was leading the Geneva Study Group and it was 4 a.m. in Switzerland.

Although we thought Professor Douglas was a one-night guest of our book club, he turned into a core member. Whether he was at his home in Hamilton, N.Y., his apartment in Geneva, his car, or in Prague doing research, Professor Douglas joined us month after month on Google Hangout at all hours of the day and night.

When we finished his book, we started another. And then another. And yet another. We have read, learned about, and discussed the 1918 influenza epidemic, slavery in New York City, the secret relationship between Mussolini and Pope Pius XI, the Taiping Civil War, the fight for independence of the African nation of Katanga, and most recently, the history and expansion of cotton as it impacted the world economies.

“Whether he was at his home in Hamilton, N.Y., his apartment in Geneva, his car, or in Prague doing research, Professor Douglas joined us month after month.” 
Class of 2008 alumnae

After five years, seven books, two marriages, 2.5 kids, and numerous promotions and job changes, our book club is still going strong. This past June, during our 10th Reunion, it culminated in our first in-person meeting at the Colgate Inn. Professor Douglas came after landing in Syracuse only a few hours earlier; he’d just hiked the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain.

Ever the educator, Professor Douglas’s boundaries to educate extend beyond the classroom, beyond geographic divides, beyond the waves of the Internet. Ten years since our graduation, he encompasses what it really means to get a liberal arts education in today’s world. During our time at Colgate, he was our academic adviser, but he has continued to show his interest in and commitment to our lives, well-being, knowledge, and education beyond our time on the Hill. Even though we are not technically his students anymore, he continues to engage, challenge, and support our academic pursuits.

Next up? The Spectacle of Flight by Robert Wohl.

Emily (Good) Pettit ’08, Nicole Carlino ’08, Sarah Hale ’08, Maria Concilio ’08, Amelie Lipman ’08, Jill Ferris ’08

Just Think About It

I was privileged to take Professor Jerry Balmuth’s Core course in philosophy and religion as a freshman in the spring of 1957. I consider Jerry one of the most influential teachers I ever had.

This “Jerry experience” has guided my thought processes for more than 60 years:

“I don’t care WHAT you think!” was the loud, exasperated exclamation of a 33-year-old Colgate professor of philosophy and religion, addressing a freshman. It was a warm day. The windows of Jerry Balmuth’s classroom on the first floor of Lawrence Hall were open. Jerry was in full swing, pacing back and forth in front of the blackboard.

Professor Balmuth was delivering his lecture in his usual dramatic fashion. He would pause, scribble something on the blackboard, then pound on it with the chalk, as if to drive his point home. (The chalk would inevitably shatter!) Then, he’d stop to catch his breath, and entertain response from the class.

One smart-alec freshman kept breaking into the discussion; prefacing every utterance with, “I think…” He kept at it, boring the class with his pretentious, incessant, “I think…”

“We didn’t know it at the time, but the young Professor Balmuth had just articulated not only his job description and his mission, but also what would become his lifelong passion: To teach people how to think.” 
John S. Newton ’60

Finally, Professor Balmuth had enough. He brought his fist down on the desk, glowered at the miscreant, and yelled, “I don’t care what you think! I care how you think … and that needs work!”

The class sat in stunned silence. Then Jerry backed off slightly, and continued… “It’s my job to teach you how to think. Once you learn to think with some clarity, I will listen to your thoughts.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but the young Professor Balmuth had just articulated not only his job description and his mission, but also what would become his lifelong passion: To teach people how to think.

His method was simple, but masterfully executed: Once we were fully immersed in the thesis and brilliantly developed concepts of the philosopher du jour, Jerry would challenge us with equally plausible counter-arguments, which he adroitly drew from the teachings of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kierkegaard, et al!

Ideas we thought were absolutes, truths we thought were immutable, conclusions we thought were flawless quickly crumbled under Jerry’s intellectual onslaught. It left us feeling confused, insecure in our ability to discern the truth. That was precisely Jerry’s intent. He used our discomfort to inspire us to critically examine classical, conventional, and popular thought, including our own.

Jerry cautioned that whenever we became totally convinced, and absolutely sure, we must take a step back and examine how we came to that position. Was it because “everyone else” agreed with us? Was it because it fit comfortably into our personal or group ideology, prejudice, preconception, or agenda?

Jerry never told us what to think. His precious gift to his students was a discipline in how to recognize and strip away the noise that corrupts our thoughts, in order that we may arrive at honest conclusions and productive action, no matter what challenges confront us in life. His message rings true today.

I can envision Jerry walking the streets of heaven, greeting his dear friends Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and earnestly asking each, “What do you think?”

And then, with the true clarity that only comes in knowing God face-to-face, Jerry understands it all.

May you rest in peace, Jerry Balmuth.

John S. Newton ’60

Wake-Up Call

It was 1956, my freshman year, and I was taking the legendary Earl Daniels’s English 101 at the outrageous time of 8 a.m. Like everyone else, I staggered across the Quad to Lawrence Hall and found my seat.

Illustration of Earl Daniels pointing his finger out the door at a student who had fallen asleep in class.

I believe Professor Daniels had us sit in alphabetical order. At some point in the class, he burst out, “Greenbaum! Strike that man!” Next to me, blissfully in dreamland, was Larry Goodman ’60. I obediently nudged Larry awake. Professor glowered at him, pointed to the door, and shouted, “Out!” And out Larry went. Needless to say, the rest of us stayed wide awake for the remainder of the class.

On the serious side, Professor Daniels taught us the proper way to read poetry, meticulous examination of novels as well as scrupulous editing of our writing. He showed us that a college class was in a different league from high school — and we had better step up our game. Tough medicine, but well worth it.

Steve Greenbaum ’60 was an English major who retired from teaching in 2000 after a 38-year career with the Los Angeles Unified School District. He’s now in real estate sales with his wife, Ruth.

Making Connections

My thesis adviser, Maureen Hays-Mitchell, was so very influential in helping me blast off out of Colgate into the real world. When I shared with her that I wanted to work in international development after Colgate, Professor Hays-Mitchell went above and beyond to set me up for success. She helped me start to build a network of supportive women that has made all the difference as I’ve navigated my career over the last 10 years. Professor Hays-Mitchell initially connected me with a wonderful woman, Sandra Butler, a former advisee of Professor Hays-Mitchell’s who lived in D.C. and worked in international development.

“This is just one example of a Colgate woman who has made all the difference in my life.” 
Jane Phelan ’07

When I moved to D.C. with no job and no prospects, Sandra met with me to help me understand the career landscape and how I could jump in. She was so patient, kind, and enthusiastic. She went above and beyond to help a clueless but well-intentioned college graduate understand life in Washington. She even got me an interview at her firm. Although the job with Sandra did not work out, I ended up landing a job in international development after providing my prospective employers a copy of my Colgate honors thesis.

I still keep in touch with Sandra. She connected me with another incredible woman she knows when I was traveling to Tanzania, and we sung her praises together over wine at a restaurant in Dar es Salaam.

This is just one example of a Colgate woman who has made all the difference in my life. I often talk about how I have a secret network of incredible women in my corner. Thanks to Professor Hays-Mitchell’s caring, I have many more!

Jane Phelan ’07