To this day, I’m not sure how I was able to do it. But there I was, standing alongside him. I knew I had about thirty seconds to say something. It didn’t have to be profound. Yet I was scared because I knew I would never get this chance again. The light would turn green. The mass of college students leaving their classes would shove us across the street whether we wanted to move or not. Then there would be no chance to talk. A conversation would be impossible among a hundred jostling students intent on reaching their cars and buses as soon as possible.
I could say hello but what would I say after that? Three ancient history courses with this professor and I had never once talked with him in or out of class. The most I could muster was a nod toward him as we passed in the hallway. He would return my acknowledgement with a glance but not a smile. What did he think of me? I wasn’t sure he even knew who I was.
He was so different from anyone I had ever encountered. Men in my neighborhood made their living in factories and wore blue work shirts and heavy khaki pants. The local businessmen and shop owners dressed with a shirt and tie but their clothes were simple. He came to every class in a sport coat, a tie, and a shirt with cufflinks. Cufflinks! The only time I ever wore them was when I was in a wedding party and everything I wore was on loan. He said things in class that surprised me, which sometimes I didn’t quite understand but that many of the other students found fist-pounding hilarious. One comment he had said that I still thought about was, “Lyndon Johnson shouldn’t be in the White House, he should be home in Texas eating an orange.” He had a gift. He could make history come alive like scenes from a film. His classes overflowed with students sitting in window wells and quoting him over lunch and in their other classes. After President Kennedy was shot, he talked with us about the assassination of Julius Caesar. He explained how the Romans heard the news, panicked with fear and grief, and formed a vengeful mob causing the assassins to flee rather than bask in their liberation of Rome from a tyrant as powerful as Caesar. Who was Cassius today? Watch for Marc Antony. He will arrive, if not now, soon.
The light was still red. I took a breath, turned toward him and, as calmly as I possibly could, said, “Hello Dr. Hooper.”
He turned, gently smiled and said, “Oh, hello Mr. Wlodkowski. Good to see you.”
A pivotal moment with words coming from me that I would not have expected, “I’m not sure if you have the time, but would you like to get a cup of coffee? We could talk a bit. There’s a lot from our courses I still think about.” I had no idea what the last sentence meant but it seemed right and it held his gaze. Then the light changed and we were moving across Woodward Avenue. He looked down as we walked and I’m sure he was judging the wisdom of accepting my invitation. A few steps after we were beyond the intersection with the crowd dispersing he stopped and asked, “Where did you have in mind?”
I had nowhere in mind. But as Dr. Hooper would surely have approved, the gods were with me and when I looked up the street, I saw a local diner I had been to once before. I pointed it out, “Harry’s might be a good spot. It’s pretty quiet about now and the coffee’s not bad.”
“Okay, but I only have about a half an hour.”
The half an hour turned into two hours. We talked easily, at first about the courses and his grading policy. Although his classes were filled to maximum enrollment, sixty students, he announced on the first day of each course that he gave only three A’s. He said, “Excellence by nature and throughout history is sparse. I follow this maxim as well.” As a student taking his first course, Hellenistic History, I was intimidated by such a standard. I received a B. By the second course, Roman History, I was challenged by his perspective and received a B+. There was only one course left, an elective, History of Greece. I took it, telling myself I wasn’t trying for a better grade, but for the illumination and transformation his courses offered. But when I received an A, I kissed the page it was written on.
Our conversation took unexpected turns, from a discussion of Rome’s wasteful, far-flung wars across the European continent to the U. S.’s growing involvement in Viet Nam. When I told him I had received my draft number, he told me he had been in the army.
“I was not a good soldier. I questioned everything, all the time. Can you imagine me marching in step with everyone else?” he laughed. “I’m lucky there’s a university. I wouldn’t fit in many other places. But I still believe in duty. It’s what kept me going.”
Then he asked me about myself and my family. I told him about my father, his immigration to the United States and his kidnapping by the Russian army during World War I. When I told him I once asked my father what surprised him most when he first came to this country and he answered, “Eating a banana,” we both laughed. After Dr. Hooper asked me to call him Finley, I realized we had crossed another personal terrain, the possibility of friendship.
I found out he was born in Ontario, Canada. A few comments later and we were talking hockey. He was an avid fan of the game. That’s when I took another risk, but a far better bet than my first one. My girlfriend’s aunt was the ticket manager for the Detroit Red Wings and I knew I could get a couple of first-rate seats for a game. I told him about my good fortune and asked him if he would be my guest. He answered, “Only on one condition, you allow me to take you to dinner before the game.”
I accepted, not realizing my entry into a culture of manners and ideas radically different from my own had already begun.