One of my two favorite professors in my college days was a wiry little old Texan named Professor Charles Froehlich. With him I studied three years of Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament), a year of Latin, a history course called “The Classical World,” and Greek & Roman mythology. His influence on me would be difficult to overestimate. I’ve never known a more diligent, dedicated, skillful, and knowledgeable teacher. He remains one of the most awesome human beings I’ve ever brushed shoulders with, and yet he is certainly one of the most humble. Let me tell you some quick Froehlich stories. University teachers are, in a way, public figures, so I feel I have the right.
At graduation ceremonies, professors typically deck themselves out in the fine robes and splendid colors that they’ve earned through rigorous study. Different academic disciplines are represented by different colors, and professors can add ribbons and medals on top of that to reflect their august distinctions. Those ceremonies were always something to see, and I don’t fault the profs who dressed in their hard-earned finery. I learned somewhere along the line that Froehlich had a whole armload of master’s degrees, but I never learned that from him. At graduations, Froehlich would wear a simple, drab, brownish-black robe without ornamentation. In it, among all the peacocks, he looked like a crow. But I couldn’t help thinking of martial arts masters. The ones who are true masters never wear anything flashy, do they? That’s the sort of man he is. (He’s long retired, but still in very good health by recent accounts.)
In yearbook faculty pictures, in which the theology department would be sitting in a group, Froehlich would typically be way in the back, just inside the door, looking windblown, as if he’d ducked in for the photo and in another five seconds would be out the door again, off to more important things.
He would pass you like a speeding train on campus. Usually his necktie would be over his shoulder, blown back by the speed of his gait. But he’d raise a hand as he zoomed past you and call out a cheery “HEL-lo!” But lest you get the wrong impression from that: he was the most available prof on campus. He lived alone in a tiny college-owned house across the street from the campus. But nearly any given evening you could call his extension or knock on his office door, and he’d be there, and he’d always be glad to see you. In his book-filled office, he kept a little folding cot. I suspect there were many nights he didn’t make it back to his house at all. It was always comforting to me to be able to walk across campus at night and see the light glowing in his office window — the one lighted window in the building.
And if any prof should have kept plenty of office hours, it was he: Greek wasn’t easy. Many were the times we pre-seminary students would find ourselves baffled at some late hour, and not to have our homework done for the next day was unthinkable. So we were always popping in on him, and he’d guide us through the tangles with a quick, efficient explanation.
I remember one evening when it took him all of about ten seconds to clear up the mystery I’d been struggling over. With his half-smile, he said, “Fred, if you’d just picked up the phone, you could have saved yourself the walk over here.” But the point was, I never wanted to save myself that walk. When you’re holed up in your room studying declension charts for hours on end, you need to get out. You need the night air, the walk, and the sight of a welcoming light burning ahead of you.
When he was angry at us for being too lazy or slack, I’ve seen him break chalk against the ceiling; but far worse was simply his Look. To know you had displeased and disappointed him was in itself the worst punishment. You just couldn’t be lazy or unprepared in his presence: it wasn’t allowed. I still shudder to recall the guy who showed up on one of the first days of class wearing a hat, chewing gum, and who put his feet up onto the chair in front of him. [Shivery moment of silence.]
Professor Froehlich had a unique way of passing back papers. First, he’d staple the stack together to carry it to and from his office. When he’d hand them back, he’d pry out the staple with a little tool carried, and he’d fling the staple in the direction of the distant wastebasket. Then he’d call out our last names one by one and throw each paper sort-of-toward its owner. We’d be diving and scrambling to retrieve the gliding sheets. It’s probably hard for you to understand this if you weren’t there. Oddly, the way he did it never seemed rude. It was simply Froehlich handing back papers.
He was a great recycler. Koine Greek doesn’t change from year to year, so once he developed good quizzes and tests, he could use them perennially. We’d receive photocopied tests with things like this written at the top (in his handwriting): October 5, 1982 October 3, 1983 October 6, 1984 October 5, 1985 October 4, 1986 October 3, 1987.
And he encouraged us to re-use papers until every bit of both sides was filled up.
It amazed us how he knew exactly where everything was in the Bible and exactly where everything was in our textbook. In answer to someone’s question, he’d say (off the top of his head): “I think if you’ll look at page 142, in the lower left-hand corner of the page, you’ll find the answer to that.” (And he’d also explain the answer.) He always said “I think,” but we all knew perfectly well he knew precisely what he was talking about. Moreover, he had every lesson for the entire course firmly fixed in his head. He’d very frequently say things like, “I know we are glossing over the details of that right now, but if you’ll be patient, on November the twenty-first, in about the last fifteen minutes of class, we’ll be taking that up again in a little more detail, when I’ll tell you about. . . .”
One of my favorite quotes from him is, “One of the best things about getting old is that you can blame your ineptitude on your age.” Heh, heh! As if he ever had an ounce of ineptitude in him! But it’s a comforting quote for the rest of us.
In print, it’s hard to capture the Texas-ness of his speech. We tend to stereotype Texans as cowboys, airline pilots, or oil tycoons. Imagine a Texas voice talking about Hadrian’s Wall or Pontius Pilate or deponent future (“dep fut”) verbs. Who can forget his rant about how the Huns weren’t Germans? It went something like: “Everybody thinks the Huns were Germans. They weren’t Germans! The Huns were not Germans. They weren’t Germans. The Huns were NOT GERMANS.” (That’s just the beginning, but you get the idea.)
Harper Lee tells us it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. Watching Froehlich, we learned that it’s a sin to waste even a second of our God-given time. He treated seconds as precious things. If he kept us forty seconds past the end of class one day, he’d make it up four days later, when he had gotten through enough material to let us go forty seconds early.
When we had a three-day weekend, he’d say, “That should allow you to have several parties between now and Tuesday. When you come back well-rested, we will talk about. . . .”
I still remember one late night before exams, when my friend John D. and I were burning the midnight oil in the snack bar area of the community center, studying our Greek. Like clockwork, Froehlich would dash through there at a certain time of an evening, his tie streaming back over his shoulder, to buy a cup of coffee. As he passed us and we called our greetings, he grinned back at us and said, “Don’t worry; just work.”
I hope you’re getting the picture that he was a truly inspirational mentor. He insisted that you do your very best, and as you strove for that, you realized your best was far better than you’d thought it could be.
Here’s the countdown of the three highest praises I remember getting from him (the kind that you remember and treasure forever after):
#3: “Durbin’s not a genius. He gets these high scores because he pays attention to the textbook.” (Egad, for sure, I’m no more a genius than the Huns were Germans!)
#2: One time I set an “all-time high score” on one of his Latin tests — and he would know, because he archived everything and loved statistics.
#1: The best ever was his compliment on my “Herculean Labor” (what he called our Class Projects) in Greek & Roman mythology. He said something like, “In Greek, there’s a degree of adjectives beyond the superlative. Your classmates feel your Labor should be described with such. I concur.” Flow moment! Soli Deo gloria!
Anyway, to the business at hand! At the beginning of every single class day during the mythology course, he would make us say the following all together:
“Mythology is alive. Mythology is ubiquitous.”
The point was that names and characters and events from the classical myths are all around us in our daily lives, even all these thousands of years later. They run through our literature, our movies, our popular culture. Today I set out to prove that this is true, even in Niigata, Japan in the fall of 2009. I expanded my quest just slightly to include ancient Japanese folklore as well — but the myths of the Greeks and Romans are well represented. And mind you, this was all done on a bicycle ride that took me about half an hour. If I’d searched intensely all day, I think I could have added considerably to this list. But anyway, take a look:
So here’s your assignment for this week: notice the references to mythology and folklore around you as you go through each day. When you open your eyes, you’ll see they’re everywhere. I won’t limit you to Greek and Roman myth. You can find elves and unicorns, too — any name, any creature from the myths or folklore of any culture is fair game. Places are good, too, such as if you pass through Troy, Illinois. The deadline? Let’s say midnight on October 1st, U.S. time. If anyone cares to keep a list and submit it by the end of next Thursday, you’re in the contest. The rule is that these have to be references you actually see — you have to spot them on signs, on TV, in newspapers, etc. — or hear them. The person who puts together the longest list is the winner.
The prize. . . . Hmm. The prize is that (aside from the prestigious honor) you get to assign the topic of the next blog post. Be as creative as you know how! [I reserve the right to refuse or modify your idea; but I will do my absolute best to accommodate your request.] Sound like a deal?
Okay. One more thing: today I discovered what might be of interest to some readers. We’ve been searching for the way a reader can become a “follower” of this blog — a way that an ordinary citizen can receive an e-mail message when the blog is updated. Here’s one way. There’s a free service called “Feed My Inbox.” http://www.feedmyinbox.com This is extremely easy to use: you enter the address of my blog <fredericsdurbin.wordpress.com> and your e-mail address. Supposedly, the service will send you notices of any updates (though I’m not clear on just what constitutes an “update” — it may or may not include comments, but I’m pretty positive it would include new posts). It only sends an update once a day (IF there’s anything new that day), so as not to fill up your inbox with bunches of announcements. If you use the service, you can enter any number of sites/blogs/addresses that you want updates on. If it actually works [I discovered it on the World Fantasy Convention’s site — they were endorsing it, so it should be legitimate], it seems like the solution for us Internetally-challenged people who are overwhelmed by the whole deal about RSS feeds. This is just a simple message that comes to your e-mail’s in-box.
All right, I’ll stop there. Look around yourself! Mythology is alive!