Coming Home Late—Bert Stern H’62
Back on the Wabash campus to be named an honorary alumnus, Milligan Professor of English Emeritus Bert Stern returned to Center Hall for a welcoming reception and to read from his latest book, Winter in China: An American Life. See photos here, then read the citation below:
Herbert J. Stern ’62
Presented at the 2014 Homecoming Alumni Chapel
Herbert J. Stern, ragpicker’s grandson, Milligan Professor of English Emeritus, poet, scholar, biographer—your teaching and writing, your voice and your life, have been dedicated to bridging disparate worlds. You have done so splendidly, and you have left a formidable imprint upon generations of Wabash men.
You arrived at Wabash in 1958 as a self-proclaimed “Easterner in the Midwest, a progressive person in a very conservative school.” You embraced being an “outsider,” and for 39 years you made your “otherness” the catalyst for connections and dialogue with more than 4,600 students.
Let the words of some of those students serve as testimony:
“Being taught by Bert Stern has been the single most dangerous fact of my life,” says Auburn University English Professor Jim McKelly ’81. “He showed me that the American classroom must always contain moral challenge, that teaching is art, that the line between faith and doubt can only be danced.”
Hugo Award-winning author Dan Simmons ’70 recalls, “’Bert was the first writer to tell me I was a writer.”
And Dennis Kennedy ’80 expressed a sentiment that so many of your students would echo: “I did most of my best work for Bert, although it was usually on the second try.”
Students from the early 1960s remember you knowing the coolest folk songs; those in the late 1960s and 70s recall a social activist protesting the war in Vietnam. Others remember your homestead on Sugar Creek, your commitment to the environment, your travels to teach in Greece and China, your LaFollette Lecture on Wallace Stevens. Some heard you revving up your motorcycle on the Mall, while others your return to your Jewish faith as documented in your second LaFollette Lecture.
But whether their Bert Stern sported button-down shirts and skinny ties or wore a full beard and the Greek fisherman’s cap, all of your students remember you as a master teacher whose explorations enriched the classroom and their own lives. As our own Susan Cantrell wrote, “Professor Stern is not a chameleon shedding one skin for another, but a rock adding layer upon layer until its shape is something firm and true.”
You once told Susan, “There’s a sweetness to our students that has always drawn me. They’re less jaded than students you’d expect to find in big universities. There’s a kind of openness. I can’t tell you how much I love them, and how much I want for them ….”
The affection was mutual: Dozens of your former students sent their messages for a book your daughter, Anna, put together to celebrate your 80th birthday.
Your vast group of admirers extends to your colleagues. Professor Warren Rosenberg called you the Department’s “enforcer of excellence,” and “our model of the best—the best scholar, poet, teacher, activist, intellectual, critic.” Professor Tobey Herzog wrote that your “voice has been like a father’s, which has provided us with a sense of compassion and guidance for those of us who must carry on without him.”
Yet without us, you have been carrying on just fine, continuing to build bridges between different worlds.
You helped a group of Vietnam War veterans working with Vietnamese poets. With your wife and fellow poet, Tam Lin Neville, you teach people on probation in the Changing Lives Through Literature program; also with Tam, you co-founded Off the Grid Press, publishing books by accomplished poets over 60. And with Dr. Hilton Hudson ’80, you co-authored The African American’s Guide to Heart Disease, Heart Treatment, and Heart Wellness.
You once said, “Life finally becomes a question of whether you’re living in a book that somebody else wrote for you, or whether you struggle, with God’s help, to write your own book.”
Two of your own books—and their subjects—serve as bookends to your remarkable Wabash career.
Soon after you arrived at the College you embarked on an exploration of the art of the poet Wallace Stevens, who himself navigated between two worlds—his “day job” as a lawyer and insurance executive, and his life of imagination as one of the Twentieth Century’s most important poets. The final words of your 1966 volume Wallace Stevens: Art of Uncertainty might equally be written about “Easterner in the Midwest” Bert Stern: “He would remain the master of two styles, and the uneasy lover of two worlds—the one that is and the one that might come to be.”
Your just-published book on Robert Winter, Wabash Class of 1909, returns you to research that you started in the 1980s. Winter was the College’s oldest alumnus when you first met with him in China in 1984, and then returned for his 100th birthday celebration in 1987. In Winter in China: An American Life, you have honestly told the story of a man you call a “Hoosier in Exile,” a Crawfordsville native who—in your words—“wished to devote his life to bridging the cultures of the West and that of the East,” and who did so as an educator in China for over 60 years even at considerable personal costs. With the publication of Winter in China, you have fulfilled an implicit promise made to this singular Wabash man on his deathbed, and, as his friend and Harvard historian John Fairbank said, succeeded in “bringing Bob Winter back into the world.”
You left the Wabash classroom 16 years ago, but you never stopped teaching, showing us how to grow older with hope and imagination, embodying the Wabash mission statement that your friend and fellow professor Donald W. Baker H’57 wrote, “living humanely in a difficult world.” You’ve shown us that these can be the years we learn the most, give the best, and come to truly love those we’ve been given to love. You bring to mind words Baker wrote in his own later years: “I am in it with all my heart.”
In “Coming Home Late,” your final Lafollette Lecture, you called yourself an exile here in Crawfordsville. Today, we honor, cherish, and embrace that outsider’s perspective—a vantage point that brought other worlds and ways of thinking to thousands of Wabash students—by inviting you, Bert Stern, teacher of men, to come be at home with us, your fellow travelers. You made Wabash the place of your calling, and by doing so you helped make it home for so many. Wabash is grateful indeed that Bert Stern chose to serve almost 40 years of voluntary exile here.
And, because attaching your name to the phrase gives it meaning in a way that will make your fellow teachers and students, from Baker to Bill Placher, smile, we say this with pride and deep affection: Bert Stern—you are Some Little Giant.