I have altered a few details and, regrettably, the names, though the originals seem to convey wonderfully apt impressions of their bearers. In spite of what may seem a corrupt taste for oddity, I have no wish to discomfit these men should they go innocently googling themselves. I respected them all for their learning and I owe to them any modest competence of my own. The most unlikely name, though, that of Prof. Oliver, is genuine and has long been on the public record.
I studied Greek in college with the intention of reading the ancient poets, but along the way I also came to know the extraordinary world of classical scholars. Departments of Greek and Latin Classics are now out-of-the-way corners of academia, yet the surviving programs maintain rigorous standards nonetheless and a blissful conviction that historical philology is a promising route to enlightenment. Students of the history of higher education will know that, whereas Latin and Greek constituted for centuries the central core of the European curriculum, such studies are rapidly vanishing from even some first-rate universities. The textbook I used – Allen’s from 1916 – was the first American beginning Ancient Greek book for college students. The introduction bemoans the fact that, “regrettable as it may seem,” increasing numbers of students come to university without any Greek whatever.
My first Greek professor, J. R. H. Ayckbourn, was a sober man. His sole eccentricity consisted in buttoning only the lowest button of his suit jacket. Since he had an exceedingly tall and slender figure with a billiard ball head, this lent him the appearance of always falling forward, but in fact he managed to remain upright better than some colleagues.
Another professor in the University of Illinois Classics Department was Revilo Oliver, whose name is a palindrome. Despite this peculiarity, Oliver had a distinguished early career, including a dissertation on a Sanskrit text and a Guggenheim fellowship, but he then came out as what can fairly be called a Nazi. A founder of the John Birch Society (though he was later expelled, probably the only person the group ever found too reactionary), along with his scholarly work, he produced dozens of polemical books with titles like Our Jewdicial System. During my freshman year he embarrassed the university by expressing satisfaction at Kennedy’s assassination, thus obliging civil libertarians to support him in the cause of academic freedom when critics called for his dismissal.
In those days, the department at Illinois also included Prof. Scheetz whose taste for gay s/m activities led a student who frequented the same social circles to retail the following anecdote: “You know that wild thunderstorm the other night, lightning flashing, high winds, a real downpour. Right in the middle of it I ran into Prof. Scheetz, dashing down the street in his bare feet. I said, ‘Sir, whatever are you doing out on a night like this?’ He gazed back with wild enthusiasm: ‘Looking for a downed wire.’”
Prof. Seneca Biblonides of the University of X was an enormous albino, maybe 6’6” and 300 pounds, who paced about holding his Greek text an inch from his face as he taught. It was Prof. Biblonides who, when I gave him some of my Sappho translations to review, told me that he really had neither interest nor knowledge about literature. I could only contemplate the lifelong dedication to the study of Greek and Latin by one with so little curiosity about what was actually written in those languages.
Henri “Bobo” Laurent with whom I studied for years with one other scholar, went through mysterious phases in which he would gain and lose hundreds of pounds. When he was relatively thin, he would park his Harley outside and come to class in black t-shirts and jeans; when he was heavy, he invariably appeared in suit and tie. When not engaged in research -- Laurent had a book about classical influences on Jerry Siegel, the writer of Superman comics -- he liked to paint lovingly detailed pictures of Superman in full regalia.
The students, too, were a colorful crew, though with no place here, apart from what this account, I suppose, implies of at least one whimsical temperament.