I made a post on April 29 about a professor of mine that I didn’t like. This is about one of my favorites.
William De Witt Snodgrass (1926 – 2009), one of the foremost American Poets of the 20th Century, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and numerous other prestigious honors was my English Literature professor. When I read his obituary in the Miami Herald early last year, many wonderful memories of that long ago class flooded my mind.
He had a rather unusual appearance. He always looked as if he had just come from the wardrobe room on the set of a movie taking place in one of those ancient snobbish upper class British boarding schools. Think of Peter O’Toole in the modern version of ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’. In addition his hair was long, bushy and wild – it looked like you see in cartoons where a character sticks his finger in an electric socket. This was years before the Afro came into vogue. And he had an equally wild and bushy mustache.
He also bicycled to school. Many a morning I would look out the window of my bus and see him furiously peddling away towards campus in his tweed suit and dress shoes. Not the normal professor’s manner of commute.
He had a great enthusiasm for the writings we covered and it came through strongly in his lectures. He could make even boring put-one-to-sleep writings such as Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ interesting and exciting. He had a wicked sense of humor – the sophisticated academic kind – and he thoroughly enjoyed his own wit. His eyes would twinkle and his deep rumbling laugh was infectious. I always left his classroom feeling that I had not only learned something but that I had been thoroughly entertained.
One morning he was not in the classroom for the start of our 9 AM class, which had never happened before. He had still not showed up by 9:15, the point when we were authorized to leave. While we were all headed down the stairway to leave the building we were met by a very bedraggled Professor Snodgrass coming up. His face dirty and hair even more unkempt than usual. His suit was rumpled and torn in spots. There were areas that looked like they had been rubbed in dirt. One trouser leg was torn to shreds below the calf. He laughingly explained to us as we headed back to the classroom, that his trouser leg had got caught in the bicycle chain and he had taken a spectacular spill.
At the time of his death I Googled him, and found a series of videos from an interview he gave in 2004, when he was 78. I was sort of shocked by his appearance. He didn’t look very much like the 31 year old professor I remembered. Odd, isn’t it? His hair was white and receding, his mustache white and trimmed. He was no longer slim. But the voice was familiar and the first time he laughed, eyes sparkling, I knew it was him.
I took the following screen capture from one of the videos.