May 4, 2004

A tribute to Jock Weintraub: University of Chicago legend

We do not write requiems for the dead. It is rather for the living that we write of those who have left us, for perhaps the only way to overcome our grief is in an act of making, a poetic expression for our own catharsis. So one could justly call this piece a self-indulgent act. But I would rather consider it a memorial to someone whom I loved, and an act of remembrance for myself and for others who knew him and might see bits and pieces of their own lives passing by in these words.

I came to know Jock Weintraub in the winter of his years. His legend had loomed large above the University of Chicago when I entered in the autumn of 1998, but what could I know of that? A young man, the first in his family to go to college, filled with the naïveté of having lived all eighteen years of his life in rural Michigan—what could that man, really still a boy, know of the tradition into which he was to be initiated? I soon learned of Weintraub's reputation as an outstanding teacher through my concentration in fundamentals, and with the help of another teacher, I was able to enter his Western civilization class in the winter quarter of my third year. I hadn't even taken the first section of the sequence ("Remarkably stupid of you, Mr. Glaza!" he was always quick to remind me), and I had no idea what to expect. I'll never forget the first few classes, cowering (and I am a large man—cowering does not come naturally to me) in my seat as he fired off questions about the reading, slapping down answers with a simple "No!" or, worse, a "Shut up and learn something!" I always left his class exhausted but exhilarated, aware, but not yet fully appreciative of how unique an experience I was having. Along with my classes with Leon and Amy Kass, his ranks among the finest I have ever known, and I doubt I will ever have any like it again.

What distinguished Weintraub from the many other fine teachers at Chicago was his remarkable ability to consistently raise the right question at the right time. He shattered your complacency and demanded that you resist facile interpretations. Poor reading was never tolerated, and through his enormously high standards, you learned to raise your own—indeed, were forced to raise your own. Anything less was unworthy of his attention. Add this to his amazing warmth and generosity, his deep commitment to helping his students develop intellectually, and his immense learning, and you have that rarest of people: a teacher in the fullest sense of the word, one whose efforts were devoted to helping you become your own teacher. His complete dedication to his classes and students, in particular to the Western civilization sequence (of which he was truly the patriarch), should stand as an example to which any teacher ought to aspire—the example to which I, at least, will always aspire in my own teaching.

His lectures were amazing as well. Who, having taken Western Civ with him, could forget the great lectures that began each quarter? Or the lecture comparing the "Grand Inquisitor" chapter of The Brothers Karamazov to the Gospel of Matthew? Or the Erasmus lecture, in which he read parts of "Julius Excluded from Heaven" out loud and in full character? He knew how to blend humor with wisdom like no other I've ever known. Who could forget his "teas" as he called them, where he invited his students to his apartment for discussions, plying cookies on us like a favorite uncle while regaling us with tales of his life? Who among those brave enough to visit him in his office could forget the private conversations he would share with us? I recall the first time I made the trek to the top of Weiboldt, an experience doubtless similar to many others who did so. It took me until the end of the quarter to build up the courage, and on a typical Chicago morning in March, with a cold, dreary rain falling out of a perpetually gray sky, I found myself standing in his office. It was immense and very dark; a small lamp cast a bright circle around him as he sat reading, pipe dangling from his lips, the very image of the towering professor. During the course of the conversation, I mentioned that I was the first in my family to attend college, hoping to impress him. "Well you'd better do something important," he responded with a half laugh. The command is forever etched in my memory.

As the course progressed, it became evident that he was ill, yet there were still many bright spots: I recall a panel discussion sponsored by the group of students attempting to save the Western civilization sequence from elimination (an unspeakable cruelty to Weintraub, and indicative of not only a department, but a University that has lost all sense of its identity). A speaker at that discussion, Professor James Redfield, said something to the effect of, "May we all thank God for Jock." The long, heartfelt applause prompted Weintraub to declare, in a voice choked with barely suppressed tears, that he wasn't "going to say anything." As he walked out of the room at the end of the discussion, however, he nearly slipped, and with my own barely suppressed tears, I watched his wife help him away.

But I prefer to remember him as he was: one of the finest teachers and scholars we have ever known, a man who embodied everything that was best about Chicago. His example is one of the chief reasons I am becoming a teacher (joining the company of many others who he inspired to become teachers), and when I sit in my classroom, his memory will always loom behind me, much as his physical presence did when he would stand up and wander his own classroom. In becoming a teacher, I hope to fulfill his imperative to do something important with my life, and to honor his memory.

After Athens executed Socrates, Plato devoted himself to writing dialogues of his teacher in which we meet a Socrates made young and beautiful by his student—a fine way to remember the dead, as another teacher of mine once said, even if we never knew them when they were young. Even if we never knew them when they were beautiful. Indeed, if, as Plato writes in the Hippias Major, it is beautiful for a man "to be nobly and magnificently laid to rest by his children," then we—all of us children, in a way, of Weintraub—while keeping him forever young and beautiful in our hearts, may lay him magnificently to rest by perpetuating his love of teaching and learning in our own lives.