Since 1969, Ronald Herzman has examined culture, the arts and humanity across the world and through time. Students and colleagues say the voyages they have taken have been transformative.
On a Wednesday in early April, Ronald Herzman, Distinguished Teaching Professor of English, Geneseo faculty member since 1969 and international scholar, now in the last month before his retirement, walks down University Drive on his way to his 8:30 a.m. class, a tote bag in one hand counter-balancing the briefcase in another.
Herzman walks up by the library and into Newton 206. The room is dark, the 24 or so students nearly hidden. He goes to the front and the lights come on, revealing a wedge-shaped, plain classroom.
Herzman likes the room because it’s free of distractions, making it easier to keep the focus on the readings. The course is Western Humanities I, an offering Herzman and some of his colleagues brought to Geneseo decades ago. The students are studying St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” a coming-of-age work written in Latin about 400 years after the birth of Christ.
Leaning on the podium — a podium he soon abandons to sit on a desk — Herzman looks up and speaks. “What happens when educated folks become Christians,” he asks. “Do they throw away all of their classical learning?”
It’s a tough question and the students seem hesitant at first, but then the discussion, guided by Herzman, gains momentum as it zig-zags from Plato to Thales, to Augustine, to the Bible, to Dante, to Aeneas, to Dido, from Rome, to Istanbul to Carthage, to, well, Geneseo. Everything old is new again.
Inspiring college students in the year 2018 to explore the work of St. Augustine and convey its relevancy is easy for Herzman: He has years of scholarship, decades of teaching, infinite patience, passion, a sense of humor, perfect timing and a willingness to treat students as scholars.
And, boy, do those scholars appreciate Herzman, even years after they’ve said goodbye to Geneseo.
A week and a half after this class, two days on campus are devoted to Herzman to honor his career and acknowledge his legacy. In 2017, Herzman was the first-ever recipient of the Geneseo Faculty Lifetime Achievement Award.
“It’s really powerful, the impact that one individual can have,” says President Denise A. Battles in addressing a crowd that filled the Big Tree Inn on April 14 for a party in celebration of Herzman’s time at Geneseo.
The crowd includes two of Battles’ predecessors, Carol Harter, president from 1989 to 1995, and Christopher C. Dahl, president from 1996 to 2014.
“I can think of no Geneseo professor who has had a more wide-reaching and positive influence on the lives and careers of our graduates,” says Dahl. “Ron is a master teacher and scholar who has introduced countless undergraduates to the joys of the great text of Western literature.”
Anne Clark Bartlett ’79, the dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Tacoma, is one of the many former students who returned to the campus for the Herzman festivities. Herzman, she says, inspired her to become a teacher.
“He had a lot of work to do with me,” Bartlett says. “I was sort of a feral reader. He introduced me to interpretive reading, the joy of the pursuit of meaning, and multiple meanings. He created an addictive world in which anything could mean anything.”
There are other students, and more memories. Hannah Schmidt ’12, who works in research development at the University of Tennessee, honored Herzman with a poem.
“He’s clever, like that Midsummer elf,” wrote Schmidt, in one stanza. “Ron loves these texts, and his teaching is sage/He knows, better than us, when you turn the page, You may just happen to find yourself.”
Schmidt’s friend and classmate Elizabeth Barber ’12, a writer and fact checker at The New Yorker magazine, did find herself while studying with Herzman, and getting to know him and his wife, Ellen.
“He and Ellen used to take Hannah and me to Ember, the restaurant, on some weekends,” Barber says. “We felt like daughters in a family that would always care for us. He’d tell us about Brooklyn and falling in love with the wise, radiant Ellen and summers in Italy and departmental drama and his children’s good and less than good phrases when they were growing up and his sweet grandchildren. … And he believed that I would be a writer, and he helped me believe it, too. I truly think that his belief, that I could do it, made it so.”
Ronald B. Herzman, 74, came to Geneseo in 1969, a Chaucer expert who had done his undergraduate work at Manhattan College and his graduate studies at the University of Delaware. He quickly established a reputation on campus as a teacher, a colleague and a mentor.
And, thanks to his publications and the lectures he has given throughout the world and his work with the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington in the 1980s, he became known throughout the academic world.
Now Herzman’s turning the page, moving on. He’s going to spend more time in Brooklyn adding to his list of 100-plus favorite restaurants. He and Ellen have two grown children, Suzanne and Edward, to visit, and there are grandchildren, too. No doubt, Herzman will present papers, give talks, and maybe even come back to Geneseo to co-teach with his friend, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mathematics Gary Towsley.
But, let’s face it, Herzman is saying so long. It’s the end of an era.
There are hugs, kind words, ceremony and tears. Three-hundred-plus people attend Herzman’s farewell lecture on April 13. The talk is titled “Dancing with the Stars. ” It is part waltz, part swing, part boogie, as Herzman thanks his colleagues and his students and makes a loving case for the relevance of Dante Alighieri, the 13th-century Italian poet who has been the subject of his scholarship for years.
George Goga ’17 is given the daunting task of introducing Herzman, who had been his instructor in several courses. Going to a primary source, Goga quotes from the Herzman syllabus for the introductory course in Shakespeare:
“I am going to push hard, and at times this will also prove to be frustrating,” Herzman wrote. “But if you play through it, there should be moments of genuine delight in discovery, and genuine satisfaction in pushing farther than you previously had.”
Goga, who is now an English teacher himself, then gives his own read on his former teacher: “It is — and I think you’ll all agree — Dr. Herzman who embodies, more than anything else, what Geneseo is all about.”
And what that might be?
To Herzman, Geneseo is, among other things, about getting out of Geneseo and seeing the world.
He and his friend and longtime colleague, the historian and Distinguished Teaching Professor of History Emeritus Bill Cook, started teaching a summer course in England in the ’70s. It was one of the first Geneseo courses taught abroad.
“I think the impetus for going abroad for both Cook and me was the sense we had that we had learned a lot that way,” Herzman says. “I had never studied abroad formally, but my early trips to Europe were absolutely formative in my take on the Middle Ages, and so there was a desire on both our parts to share the wealth.”
Their courses abroad caught on and expanded to Italy, where they studied Dante.
A. David Scoones ’75, an associate vice president with the financial firm of Stifel, Nicolaus &Company, Inc., was on the first trip to Italy with Herzman and Cook.
“What I learned, the places we went, and the people I met have stayed with me my entire life,” he says. “Of course, the success of the experience is entirely attributable to Ron and Bill.”
Herzman and Cook paved the way for other professors to offer study abroad courses. Nearly 40 percent of Geneseo students will study abroad before they graduate, a tribute in part to Herzman. For years, Herzman has also shared his love of immersion learning with others outside of Geneseo, offering National Endowment for the Humanities summer courses in Italy for high school teachers.
To continue his legacy, the College has created The Ronald Herzman Study Abroad Endowment Fund in Herzman’s honor to help students who might not be able to afford to study and travel away from Geneseo.
This will offer them a transformational experience, Herzman suggests, citing the words of a former student. Herzman says the student told him, “Growing up in a small town in Western New York, I thought there was only one way. When I went to Italy I discovered there were many ways.’”
To Herzman, whether on campus or abroad, Geneseo is also about collaboration, co-teaching and such combining for a greater outcome.
One plus one is always more than two, he suggests in his farewell lecture April 13, noting, by way of example, that co-teaching with Distinguished Teaching Professor of English Beth McCoy, an expert on African-American literature, had given him a new lens through which to understand Dante. Similarly, linking with Cook provided him an appreciation for the historical context of the literature he taught.
Through the years, members of the Geneseo family have known Herzman and Cook. Cook and Herzman. How did that all begin?
Sitting in the Geneseo Family Restaurant, sipping a Pepsi, Cook credits Kalamazoo, Mich., with getting the dynamic duo together.
Cook arrived on campus in 1970, a year after Herzman. They didn’t really know each other until they shared a ride to the annual medievalist conference in Kalamazoo. “Medical doctors meet in Honolulu,” Cook said by way of clarification. “Medievalists meet in Kalamazoo.”
“By the time we got home, we had planned to co-teach,” Cook continued. The course, first offered in 1973, was on the age of Chaucer, with Cook doing the history, and Herzman the literature. They later taught “The Age of Dante” and “The Age of Francis of Assisi.” Their co-written book, “The Medieval World View,” (Oxford University Press), is now in its third edition.
Herzman and Cook have team-taught a course on Dante in the Attica Correctional Facility. They’ve also done a series of audio courses for The Teaching Company that have drawn impressive audiences. “These texts have put Geneseo of the map,” says Dahl.
There’s strength in numbers, and Cook and Herzman were joined by emeriti professors Jerry Reber and the late Bill Edgar and the late Rose Alent, in starting Geneseo’s Humanities offerings. (All five of these teachers would come to hold the rank of Distinguished Teaching Professor.) Interdepartmental and required, the Humanities courses would become Geneseo’s signature offerings.
Though the years, Herzman hasn’t just taught students; he’s also taught teachers, mentoring his colleagues in the art of teaching Humanities I. They join him in co-teaching the class; he’ll propose strategies and gives them advice, and shares his syllabus. Quite often, he, and they, take part in the Geneseo equivalent of analyzing game film, talking shop at the Big Tree Inn.
All of Herzman’s contributions are made clear throughout the retirement celebration weekend on campus: His teaching, his mentoring, his devotion to his students, and his ability to make connections across the campus.
Finally, on Saturday night, he gets the last word.
“I’m moved to tears,” he tells those who gather at the Big Tree. “I thank all of you. I could not have had a better ride.”
Two days later, he’s walking to Humanities I. He enters Newton 206. It’s time for class. The light goes on.