June 25, 2018
By Ross Doughty ’68 and Herb Smith ’68
Chalk, blackboard, and add some Ursinus professors into the mix. Those were the ingredients back in the 1960s. Old school indeed.
We completed the assigned papers and filled bluebook after bluebook until our hands were cramped and our arms felt numb. In the process, we learned: how to research, how to write, and how to think beyond the confines of established convention. We graduated in that tumultuous year of 1968 and went our separate ways.
Ross went north to Harvard, and Herb moved south to Johns Hopkins, both following the daunting academic path that lead to what some consider the academic holy grail, and others believe is an elevated trade union card of respective Ph.Ds. Ross returned to Collegeville and has anchored the Ursinus history program since 1975. Herb stayed in Maryland and found his political science station at then Western Maryland, now McDaniel College in 1973. Tenure came to both us and promotion to that penultimate stage, full professor.
We teach, we mentor, we write, we comment, and gather the culminating semesters one by one. Now, after eighty some years of cumulative professing, it’s time for some thanks to those Ursinus professors who guided us on our way, a remembrance of sorts of mentors past. Ursinus was and remains a liberal arts college. In the scheme of academe, it is surely a decentralized organization; but it is still a hierarchy and as all hierarchies, those at the top matter most. Presidents and provosts, trustee chairs and benefactors have portraits sprinkled campus wide. Bomberger and Patterson still hang in chapel, their 19th century presence a testament to their institutional contributions of merit and renown. Yet ask the students who they remember from their greens-warded years; and it’s those who stood at the front of the classrooms, who lectured, who responded, who graded, who recommended, who instructed. And so it is with us. We remain eternal students who sat in the classroom of Ursinus’ true masters, the professors who taught us so much. Despite our differences in disciplines, temperaments, and possibly, study skills, our choices closely paralleled: Miller, Armstrong, Jones, and Zucker were the most influential and memorable.
Let us roll the decades back to the mid-1960s. The course was Comparative Government under the instruction of Dr. Eugene Miller. Energetic and devoted, his energy transformed his Bomberger classroom into a southeastern Pennsylvania version of the Socratic Lyceum. One crisp autumnal morning, apropos to nothing at all, Miller riffed on the joys of professordom. He spoke of walking to campus and whistling “Hi, ho, hi ho, it’s off to work I go,” an old tune from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Miller was happy with his students and his classroom world was good, even if it meant living in perpetual “genteel poverty,” for the professorial wage was far from exorbitant. Yet, his description of a scholarly life in the liberal arts glowed that day and warms us still. For Herb, it was a transcendent moment of clarity. It marked the day his life ambition pivoted from law to graduate school and that’s made all the difference.
For Ross, it was Dr. Maurice Armstrong, a professor of history, who made the difference. A Harvard Ph.D. and ordained Presbyterian minister, Armstrong conveyed the drama of history and instilled in Ross a passion for the past and a life-long recognition of its constant influence upon the present. Armstrong was witty, warm, and empathic with wide ranging interests and expertise and he gave his time generously to students who sought his counsel. Ross credits the beloved “Dr. A.” with graduate school guidance and the recommendation letter that ultimately opened the door to an academic life. Dr. Armstrong’s Ursinus career was tragically cut short by his untimely death in the fall of our senior year. One of his former colleagues spoke for us all when he wrote in the Ursinus Weekly “In Memoriam” of Dr. Armstrong: “a teacher whose students could not have loved him more than he loved them.”
Writing with style and verve distinguishes the Ursinus education then and now. In the sixties, two semesters of English composition were part of our freshman rite of passage, and no professor was more strict and demanding than H. Lloyd Jones. An Anglophile’s Anglophile, Jones’ reverence for the mother tongue was the stuff of legend. Each weekly essay was graded with precision and constructive criticism. For Professor Jones, perfection was not really the enemy of the good, perfection was the issue. One spelling error and your paper grade was docked ten points, and in an age before spellcheck, this instilled very real proof-reading skills. It was in Jones’ classroom that we both really learned to write by recognizing the magic of the second, third, and sometimes, fourth draft.Good writing is not an exercise in immediate gratification but a prize wrested in effort and hard work.
Professor Donald Zucker was razor-thin thin with a mind honed to razor-edge. One of few outspoken Democrats on the faculty; he lectured with a passion for American idealism and justice. His turf was a combination of the real and the ideal. He taught American politics as well as classical and modern political theory. Dr. Zucker’s forte was the assignment that made sense. His exams were structured and demanding. In political theory courses, he would select ten representative quotations sans author. The students’ responsibilities were to identify the appropriate author and explain why the quote was illustrative and consequential. In the end, you knew political theory. In addition, the Zuckerian research papers were also exercises that rewarded creativity grounded in practical applications. One was simply “Construct your own Utopia,” a challenge that stretched both mind and fortitude to a 15-page length. Sustained analysis, logical consistency, and deep research were all amply rewarded, skills we still endorse in our 21st century classrooms.
In Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do (2004) a common theme emerges. The best classroom instructors demonstrate, consistently and persistently, a personal investment, an intense professorial commitment to their students. In short, they are passionate about what and how they teach. Students sense the authentic and respond. Our professors, Armstrong, Jones, Miller, and Zucker established that selfsame devotion to us and our education. Each day, when we walk into our Collegeville or Westminster classrooms, we try convey those gifts to yet another generation of Ursinus students. And for that, we join in a sincere and heartfelt thank you.
Ross Doughty ’68 is a retired professor of history at Ursinus College. Herb Smith ’68 is a professor of political science and director of government relations at McDaniel College.