Oberlin Blogs

8 questions for 8 Oberlin alums - part 1

February 23, 2009

What's better than a Brendan Fraser/Christopher Walken film named Blast From the Past? A blog post that features 8 blasts from the past! Honestly, this one will be better. Guaranteed.

Diary - Feb. 15, AD 2009. 12:00 PM - Sitting in dorm room, reading, writing, eating. Settling in to write a blog post for the enlightenment of thousands of prospies, father, sisters, and smattering of friends who actually read blog. Had nothing, so played Minesweeper for a half hour.

12:35 PM - Sitting.

1:00 PM - Beginning to get despondent. What do I know anyway? I've been on campus for a semester and two weeks. Who decided I was so qualified to teach 3 million people about Oberlin? (have to check, but pretty sure our readership is up around 3 million now)

1:30 PM - Decided I'm not qualified. But gonna keep tryin'. Develop real Teddy Roosevelt attitude for 20 minutes, eat bagel with my shirt off, and even do ten push-ups.

1:55 PM - Listen to wise B.B. King, decide thrill is gone. Decide also to find some people who really will be able to give something to floundering masses of high school seniors and others. Spend next three hours getting kimonos and pipes ready for cocktails with President Krislov. Need virgin daiquiri and wisdom badly.

The following is part 1 of a treasure trove of Oberlinian anecdotes, lessons, and experiences from those who have spent a lot of time here, Oberlin alums. These alumni all happen to be professors at Oberlin, just by coincidence. I thought it would be cool to ask them the same 7 or 8 questions about their life at Oberlin to share with you lovely people. The lineup:

  • William Patrick Day '71, English Professor & Department Chair, Cinema Studies Professor
  • Bill Friedman '72, Professor of Psychology
  • Wendy Kozol '80, Professor of Comparative American Studies
  • Amy Margaris '96, Assistant Professor of Anthropology
  • Booker Peek '66 (MA), Assistant Professor of African American Studies
  • John Petersen '88, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies
  • Bruce Richards '61, Emeritus Professor of Physics
  • Leonard Smith '80, Frederick B. Artz Professor of History

1. How did you end up at Oberlin the first time?

  • "My parents and my grandparents on my father's side are Oberlin alums (there is a scholarship named for my grandparents). So, when I was considering colleges it was natural to put Oberlin on the list. I grew up in a rural town with fairly unchallenging schools, and one of my teachers suggested that I might go to college after my junior year of high school. My parents discussed this idea with administrators they knew at Oberlin, and before I knew it I was admitted to Oberlin and arrived to start my first year at the age of 16." (Bruce Richards '61)
  • "I had a high school girlfriend in Schenectady, NY, who came to Oberlin a year before I did (1975). We parted ways before I got there, but I never regretted going to Oberlin." (Leonard Smith '80)
  • "I grew up in Boston and wanted to go to a school with a progressive tradition. Oberlin was also the farthest west of Boston that my mother would agree to." (Wendy Kozol '80)
  • "My high school math teacher spent a summer in a 1956 math institute and she enjoyed Oberlin immensely. She and I were living in the segregated South at the time, and she talked about Oberlin as if it were such an ideal place for blacks. When I finished the then all-black college of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, I saw a poster announcing a Master's Degree program at Oberlin College. I had long forgotten about my teacher's experiences, but everything came back to me once I saw that poster. I applied and found that she had been about right in her description of Oberlin, but I would hasten to add that it is a rather ideal place for anybody, not just for blacks from a segregated South."(Booker Peek '66)
  • "Oberlin's lack of fraternities and sororities, academic strength, and the fact that it was one of the few coed. liberal arts colleges at the time!" (Bill Friedman '72)
  • "When I came to visit Oberlin I had already essentially made up my mind to attend a different school, but thought I would at least visit Oberlin before making a final decision. As soon as I got here I knew this was the place for me. The degree of sincere intellectual engagement with both classes and with real-world activism was incredibly exciting to me. The student cooperatives seemed like a unique cultural and political experience (and turned out to be so). I recall a real 'aha' moment when, as a prospective student, I wandered into the library on a Friday night and there were lots of students studying. Now  to be fair, I discovered students doing lots of other things perhaps more typical of what one might expect on a Friday night on a college campus as well. But the fact that there were students so excited about what was going on in their classes that they would choose to be in the library, and that they did not appear to feel self-conscious about this choice, spoke volumes to me about the nature of the community. This really turned out to be a place where students respect each other for being who they want to be." (John Petersen '88)
  • "I first got interested because of a girl in my high school who applied here but who ended up going to the University of Wisconsin. But I really liked it and came here anyway. I liked the lack of requirements, the lack of fraternities, and the general atmosphere." (William Patrick Day '71)
  • "Oberlin was my first choice for college, and I applied here early-decision. My father had taught here briefly in the 1950s in the Mathematics department, and often remarked that the smartest and most creative students he ever had were at Oberlin. When I visited the campus as a prospective student, my campus tour was led by an English major who gave such a glowing and detailed description of a centrifuge housed in a lab in Kettering, the old Chemistry building, that I decided this was the place for me - a school where students were well-rounded enough to enjoy Bardic tights and white lab coats." (Amy Margaris '96)

2. Is there a professor you had while here that particularly sticks in your mind?

  • "I was an art history major and Richard Spear was my advisor. He taught Baroque art history and was also the director of the art museum. Everyone was intimidated by Richard including me, but I learned so much from him, especially about how to analyze visual images." (Wendy Kozol '80)
  • "Nate Greenberg, professor of Classics. I took Greek & Roman lit in translation with him my freshman year. Greatest teacher I ever had (a lot of people think this). I still think about teaching by asking myself--what would Nate Greenberg do in a situation like this?" (William Patrick Day '71)
  • "Robert Neil got me interested in European history, James Hepokoski (Music History in the Conservatory) taught me a commitment to serious scholarship." (Leonard Smith '80)
  • "Obviously none of the professors I took classes with in the late 1950s are still teaching. But I remember all the faculty in physics, my major department - Howe, Manning, Tucker, Anderson, Hawkins, Weinstock. A couple of outstanding professors from my era are still living at Kendal (the town of Oberlin's retirement community - ed. note) - Arnold in Art, and Yinger in Sociology." (Bruce Richards '61)
  • "I had many exceptional professors. Quite honestly, it was my experience with the student communities that I engaged with that was most important to me." (John Petersen '88)
  • "No one individual. I had lots of support from the psychology faculty and had great courses in a wide range of areas. They confirmed my love of learning." (Bill Friedman '72)
  • "Honestly, all of them stand out, for they were brilliant, demanding, and very supportive. In particular, emeriti Professors Frank Laycock, Ira Steinberg, and Mathis Szykowski offered me the incredible support I needed to be successful. I remain eternally grateful to them." (Booker Peek '66)


3. What would you say was the most memorable national or global event that happened while you were at Oberlin?


  • "The movement to end apartheid in South Africa." (Wendy Kozol '80)
  • "I was here during the summer of 1964 when the Civil Rights Bill passed. I had left a segregated South, but I returned to a very changed, somewhat integrated South. And the South has not stopped progressing since that time." (Booker Peek '66)
  • "The shootings of student protesters at Kent State. We were embroiled in issues surrounding the Vietnam war and the end of segregation." (Bill Friedman '72)
  • "President Ronald Reagan overwhelmingly trounced Walter Mondale. That was one of the darkest days I can recall on this campus." (John Petersen '88)
  • "After consulting Google and Wikipedia, I found lots of events that happened while I was a student at Oberlin. The U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as states. Early civil rights protests and sit-ins were taking place in the South - President Eisenhower sent U.S. troops to Arkansas to escort nine black students to Little Rock High School. A Boeing 707 jet airliner flew for the first time. Castro took over Cuba. Kennedy was elected president. The Peace Corps was established. The first U.S. soldiers were sent to Viet Nam. Take your pick." (Bruce Richards '61)
  • "The election of Jimmy Carter (Fall 1976, my first year), and the Iranian hostage crisis (1979)." (Leonard Smith '80)
  • "The Viet Nam War generally--specifically the shootings at Kent State." (William Patrick Day '71)

Next time, these Obies on email, graduate school, and getting a job (yuck!)

Part 2!
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