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A letter from an alum about the Graduate School

June 19, 2004

Although I have had affiliations with Rutgers, Williams, UCLA, and the University of Pittsburgh, and have been a professor, department head, and dean, I think of my five years at Princeton, as a graduate student, teacher, and assistant to Secretary of the University Alexander Leitch ’24, as the best in my academic life.

A half century ago, when I lived at the Graduate College, the undergrads called it Goon Hill, and we were “geeks.” The curriculum followed the old Germanic premise that you couldn’t master the language and literature of your own time unless you had traced them from their beginnings. Thus, we studied Old English to read Beowulf and Middle English to read Chaucer. I can still see Professor D.W. Robertson writing Old English conjugations on the board with his right hand while erasing them with his left, to make room for the rest.

After getting the M.A degree, I expected to have a couple of years to write a doctoral dissertation — but it was not to be. A faculty member had died on the Friday before fall classes began, and, as the required freshman course was Shakespeare, whose work I knew well, and it was too late to get a proper replacement, I was appointed assistant instructor and given two sections of the freshmen Class of 1956. 1 think now of the great 19th?]century Harvard biologist, Professor Agassi, who recalled that, on his very first day, “I spent the first 20 minutes telling them everything I knew about biology, the second 20 minutes everything I knew about life, and for the rest of the hour repeated myself.” My students were a good bunch, but, of course, were always looking for weak spots, which I generously supplied. They were also generous when I scored one back. After walking them carefully through a difficult passage in Shakespeare, a student said, “That was brilliant, Mr. Evert, but do you think an ordinary person would understand it?” And I replied, “Perhaps not, but I thought you had come to Princeton so you wouldn’t be an ordinary person.” This begat a great drumming of feet on the floor, which was then a mode of approval.

I remember the Class of 1956 with affection, and I still have their grade sheets in my files — but I won’t tell. I always read the class column in PAW — though a bit unnerved that so many are now retiring from their working careers. In any case, my original impetus for writing this was to say how much, even as an ex?]geek, I enjoy reading PAW.

Walter H. Evert *60
Pittsburgh, Pa.

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