November 24, 2015
Communications Staff
Photo credit: James Helm

The following remembrance was submitted by James (Jim) Helm, emeritus professor of classics.

Nathan (Nate) Greenberg, a professor of classics for more than 40 years, died November 15, 2015, at the age of 87. Consistently a first-rate teacher—whether as lecturer, discussion leader, or counselor—his classes were ever-popular. A representative student evaluation asserted, "This is definitely one of the best classes I have had while at Oberlin. Mr. Greenberg's excitement for the classics definitely rubbed off on me; he made me get excited for the classics as well." Students and colleagues alike recognized the winning mixture of intelligence and humor that made him so interesting. His departmental colleagues benefited in significant ways from his paradigm.

Never dogmatic, Nate maintained a bemused distance from his subject matter and preferred giving alternative interpretations of material to providing "answers." One student wrote: "I came to Oberlin looking for answers. You taught me to ask questions and be more patient about growing into the answers." Yet he took his discipline seriously and teased out deeper meaning from even the most unpromising material. His knack of turning any discussion to a significant topic had a major impact on generations of students as well as his colleagues. The right question, the critical comment, the wrinkled nose, all nudged those about him to think more deeply about important matters. And he thought everybody should know a little Latin, a little Greek, and a little computer.

Nate was a friend and mentor to countless younger scholars who traveled through the department in visiting positions. He was always willing to sit and talk about literature, scholarship, or teaching. He kept a separate file in his cabinet of his most negative student evaluations—rare though they were—so that when distraught colleagues came to him, upset about a recent evaluation or two, he could pull out his file with a reassuring wink and say, “Eh, that’s nothing. Have a look at this.” Always gentle and understated, he expressed disagreement with an idea by saying that he “wasn’t so sure about that.” If he approved of a book, article, or lecture, he would declare that it was “pretty good stuff.” Colleagues and students alike knew they had achieved something of real value if it was, in Nate’s view, pretty good stuff.

Nate published 27 articles during his career. A pioneer in the use of the computer in the field of classics, he demonstrated how to do quantitative analysis of literature and opened up countless possibilities for future generations of scholars. His article Aspects of Alliteration: a Statistical Study was indicative of his keen analysis (and cleverness in devising titles). Despite the difficulty of the material, Nate's style of presentation did much to make quantitative methods accessible to ordinary mortals. He also published important articles on Greek philosophy, Greek Tragedy, Roman Comedy, the History of Scholarship, and other fields. His book on Philodemus was well received and demonstrated Nate's prescience in identifying a hot topic. Thus, he became a "guru" in two quite different fields: Philodemus and quantitative literary study.

As chair of the Martin Lectures Committee for many years, Nate maintained a very high level of lecturers and saw the publication of a number of important volumes in the Martin Lectures series. Even at Kendal at Oberlin his humor shone through in his annual introduction to the lectures, and once in his invitation to members to attend a meeting of the Martini Lectures Committee, initiated with a pitcher of martinis.

Though the consummate professional, Nate was also a devoted family man. He loved his wife and children and they loved him. They remember that he always made himself available to talk, play a game, or watch TV with the family, and he especially loved to share stories and ideas. As an inspiring teacher, perceptive scholar, and generous friend, he was a model for us all.

On Nathan Greenberg's passing, President Marvin Krislov said, “Professor Greenberg was always upbeat and positive, a legendary teacher, great Oberlinian, and mentor and friend to so many. He will be greatly missed."

Nate is survived by his children David Kaftan, Judith Kaftan, and Lisa Greenberg; his daughter-in-law, Kristin Marra; his exchange-student son, Henk van't Hull; his grandchildren, Natalie, Molly, Rachel, Brendan, and Emma; and his large and loving extended family. Preceding him in death were his beloved wife of sixty years, Eva; his siblings, Si, Nocky, and Bushy; and their spouses. He was the last of a great generation.

There will be a graveside service at Westwood Cemetery in Oberlin Saturday, June 25, 2016, at 10:30 a.m. and a memorial celebration of his life at Kendal at Oberlin on Sunday, June 26, 2016, at 2 p.m. Arrangements are in care of Dicken Funeral Home and Cremation Service, Elyria. For online condolences, visit www.dickenfuneralhome.com. Donations can be made to the charitable organization of your choice.

For more on the life of Nathan Greenberg, visit the Dicken Funeral Home and Cremation Service website.

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