oberlin alumni magazine  
In Memory of Andrew Bongiorno
A godson's tribute offers an intimate look at life and lessons with this beloved Oberlin professor. by Andrew Ward '68 / photo by Aaron Levin '68


andrew bongiornoHe could be hard on writers and their airs. Though humble to a fault, he was never reverent nor pious about great writers. He sought in literature not necessarily the truth of human experience, but the means by which we might ourselves move toward it. It was literature's ability to illuminate the reader's own experience that interested him most. He deplored the romanticizing of art. He believed with Coomeraraswamy that "every man and woman is a special kind of artist." At the beginning of his class in literary criticism he used to ask his students to write down whatever came into their heads on the subject of art.

"I was not surprised to learn," he sadly recalled, "that they thought of art not as making and of the artist not as a maker of things. To nearly all of them," he said, "art was expression," a notion he denounced as the "supreme silliness."

Though Andrew and his father had little time for each other, it was not for nothing that he was born a plasterer's son. Like my grandfather, his dear friend, he saw art through the eyes of an artisan. He wrote approvingly of Renaissance Florence, where fine painters were regarded as fine craftsmen, like skilled cabinet makers, masons, and boat-builders. He admired most the artists who worked within an imposed structure. "Those who plan carefully before they write," he assured me, "or who write in fixed, conventional patterns can, if they have the genius, avoid frigidity and never sacrifice spontaneity." He believed with the Frenchman Bourdelle that "harmonious construction is the secret of everything; faulty proportions can never be redeemed by details," a quotation that rang in my ears whenever I felt tempted to stray from the sturdy outline I had constructed for my novel.

I am the proud possessor of a complete set of the mimeographed quotations he handed out during his many years of teaching. He began to send them to me when I started writing my India novel. It was the first time someone quoted chapter and verse to me without oppressing me. Another kind of pedagogue might say, "Ah, yes, well, Hegel put it best, I think, and certainly better than you have, when he said..." But Andrew's quotes made me feel that though I may have been preceded, I had not been negated. "I think great ideas have been repeated many times," he told me. "I tried to show that on these sheets, in hopes a student would reabsorb them."

His quotations suggested that I was a part, however unwitting, of a continuum. He seemed to understand that what a writer needs almost more than anything else is audacity. And so he managed to convey the notion that I was free to argue or agree with the great writers and thinkers of the past, that they were all the greater for being mere and fellow mortals.

Andrew was very old when he died, of course, but he looked no older in 1998 than he had in 1964. His handwriting was as minute and steady as ever. His hands were hardly speckled. His face was eerily devoid of creases. And though he audibly creaked when he rose from his chair, he still stepped lightly as he made his progress down Kendal's halls.

I remember that after helping him move in to Kendal, I strolled with him to the dining hall for his first residential supper. Here and there along the fluorescent maze of hallways someone looking infinitely older and feebler than Andrew would pause and gape up from a wheelchair and say, in a voice like crisps, "Professor Bongiorno?"

He would stop, of course, and extend his hand, but had to confess that he did not remember who they were.

"Oh," came the reply, "I'm so-and-so. You taught me English literature back in 1941."

"I have apparently committed a great sin," he told me sadly as we sat down to dinner. "I have outlived my students."

I think he envisioned his move to Kendal as a kind of monastic retreat. He intended not to bring any of his pictures with him, nor more than a dozen books. Everything else he would send to his relatives, give to the college, or sell. I almost had to tie him to a chair to make him choose pictures for his walls and select something more than the tiny library he had kept for himself. Paul Arnold built a bookshelf for him which rapidly filled with books and letters and bric-a-brac. But somehow his beloved eleventh edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica did not make it to Kendal. So I sent him a set that had been languishing in my attic which he received with almost childish glee. He embarked on a program of reading one biographical entry every 24 hours. "Today," he once declared, "I am reacquainting myself with Ruskin."

As a young student and teacher at Oberlin, Andrew was mentored by the Italiophiliac Professor Charles Henry Adams Wager--up to the time of his death Andrew kept a portrait of him by his mirror. In fact he modeled his dress, his manner, even his speech after Professors Wager and Mack. But he refused, as he put it, to "cultivate" his students. "In a way it was a matter of principle," he told me once, "because students are flattered by teachers' attentions, and they may find themselves attached to a person who isn't quite to their liking. I have always received any sign of affection or friendship from my students, but on the other hand I never tried to make a friend of them."

If that were so, hundreds of students befriended Andrew, and he never lost his empathy for them. Just after Laurine died I accompanied him to Wilder Hall to sit among a smattering of retired faculty and teaching assistants and hear President Starr wax subjunctive about Russia. Suddenly, in the middle of his talk, an echelon of students entered the room and lined themselves along the walls until, with locked arms, they had the president and his audience completely surrounded.

I looked over at Andrew. The last Oberlin demonstration I could remember hearing about was the time protesters surrounded a corps of military recruiters and, as Andrew's friend Recha Jaszi indignantly put it, "would not even let the poor men urinate."

Had it come to this? I wondered: that after 20 years I now have to break through a cordon of student demonstrators so my poor widowered godfather can pee?

Giving off a peculiar whiff of righteousness and narcissism that took me back to my freshman year, a young man stepped forward to declare that he and his comrades had come as representatives of every minority group on campus to confront Starr with reports of a rash of racist incidents.

Starr agreed to hear them out on condition they permit him the courtesy of finishing his remarks and allow whoever wished to leave to do so. The young man agreed, and Starr hastily brought his talk to a conclusion.

I rose to escort Andrew out of the hall.

"No," he whispered. "I should like to stay."

"Are you sure?" I asked.

"Yes, yes," he said.

So I slowly settled back down, and we sat together as one after another student went to the lectern to report racist epithets on campus buildings, racist incidents on campus grounds. As the night deepened around us, Andrew looked gloomier and gloomier, and when it was over, and I was helping him to navigate the rows of folding chairs, I said, "Well, there'll always be an Oberlin."

"I was shocked," Andrew said with a scowl.

I thought, yes, well, Andrew would be shocked by this breach of decorum, this interruption of a talk he had been enjoying by a man he respected.

But not at all.

"Why," he continued, "I had no idea that such things were possible at Oberlin. No student should have to endure such treatment. And what admirable young people!" he exclaimed. "So poised. So upstanding. I thought they were tremendous!"

If humility were a sin, we should pray for Andrew's immortal soul. Once at a dinner party at our house he sat next to a professor of English from somewhere who happened to have a PhD. Afterwards Andrew took my mother aside to express his astonishment that he had treated Andrew as his equal.

"Why," he said, "that man is a scholar."

"But so are you, Andrew," my mother insisted.

"Oh, no," he said gravely. "I am no scholar. He is a scholar."

W e could not for the life of us convince him to accept an honorary degree. Oberlin's trustees were twice lined up to confer one on him. My father worked on him, and I remember I spent part of my last visit with Andrew standing in his little room at Kendal and working myself up into a rage about it.

I told him that he owed it not only to himself and the students who revered him, but to the endangered vocation of teaching itself. It would at least throw a wrench into the new Oberlin that would never have hired Andrew, let alone given him tenure, because he tended to teach rather than publish and lacked a PhD. Here, I told him, was a chance for Oberlin to exalt as pure and noble and abiding a teacher as ever graced its classrooms.

Andrew obviously enjoyed my harangue, listening with his eyes twinkling beneath his dark sprays of eyebrow.

"But you're not going to do it, are you?" I said.

"No, my dear boy," he told me, "and for the simple reason that I would not offer myself an honorary degree, and therefore could not accept one. They should be reserved for scholars," he said sternly. "I am not a scholar. I am merely very old."

On every visit but the last I would drive Andrew to the florist, and we would buy a bouquet to set on his beloved Laurine's grave. The gravestone had been prepared to accommodate both of their names, indeed his own entry was nearly complete: Andrew Bongiorno: 1900 to 19-blank.

"You better hurry up, Andrew," I used to kid him as the 21st century approached, "or they're going to have to cut a whole new stone for you."

It is perfectly conceivable that in his humility and kindness Andrew passed on when he did so as not to trouble the stone cutter. I think we would have gladly paid the difference if he had chosen instead to see us into the new millennium. But it is hard to begrudge his taking leave of us at the age of 98, and, not to press the argument too far, if God is, as I suspect, not all powerful, only just, He is going to need my godfather.
Andrew Ward is a writer in Seattle, Washington.


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