Our Intellectual Inheritance
By Patrick Henry ’08
Toward the end of Virginia Woolf ’s To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe, a painter, reflects on a dinner party that occurred more than a decade earlier. It was before the sudden death of Mrs. Ramsay. Lily ponders how Mrs. Ramsay influenced so many of the novel’s characters, and these considerations empower Lily, allowing her to touch brush to can- vas and to fulfill her artistic vision. As Lily mulls over Mrs. Ramsay’s role, Woolf writes that Lily “was not inventing; she was only trying to smooth out something she had been given years ago folded up; something she had seen.”
Daily, Susquehanna alumni unfold the lessons and values we observed during our college years—an intellectual inheritance, like Mrs. Ramsay’s ability to motivate Lily beyond death. I returned to campus the last weekend of April for an event that celebrates this tradition, the Gene R. Urey Scholarship Competition. The competition recalls the sharp intellect and altruism of the late Gene Urey, professor of political science from 1965 to 1999. Two current students, selected from Associate Professor of Political Science Michele DeMary’s constitutional law classes, present oral arguments on a current Supreme Court case to a panel of judges consisting of Professor Urey’s former students.
During the dinner following this year’s competition, several alumni related anecdotes about how Urey influenced their lives. Bill Lewis ’68 related how Urey fielded students’ reactions to jurists’ written opinions on Supreme Court cases. Students vocalized their positions, and Urey interrogated them on the nuances of their statements, forcing them to stake out stances and avoid waffling interpretations. Urey’s protégés concurred that they each carried this invaluable lesson with them, into their careers and into their lives.
Yet the stories of Urey transcend the limitations of a student-teacher relationship. His former students commented at length about his generosity and willingness to assist his students outside of class—advising them on classes, law school and their lives. This compassion is the soul of Susquehanna, and our education in those hallowed red brick buildings is an academic metempsychosis, infusing us with that spirit.
It begins with the people. Jim Blessing ’63, professor of political science emeritus, who passed in January, was one of those iconic individuals for generations of Susquehanna students. He became notorious for the difficulty of his written exercises and his legendary chalkboard diagrams—scrawl enclosed in blocks, tethered together with straggling lines, the yarn-nettled mess outlining the complexity of the European Union. During the three years I spent as a student worker for the political science department, Blessing revealed the method behind his rapidly rendered charts: He drew them to slow himself down, so that his students could take his lectures in stride. It was not enough for him that we simply know the information; we needed to grapple with the practicalities of a Marxist solution or consider whether human beings, as John Locke contended, are actually rational creatures.
His concern for students, though, was a humanism beyond any of the political philosophies he taught. While my oldest brother, a Marine, was serving in Iraq, Blessing listened as I voiced my concerns, my fears and my worries. He critiqued the succession of deathtrap cars I was driving, and he advised me to buy a cap for the winter months—an accessory that has since become part of my personal cliché. As he connected many of my peers with alumni, he proved one of his adages for students— “There’s life after Susquehanna.”
Like many of Blessing’s former students, I could easily compile an anthology of his antics, witty turns of phrase and compassionate gestures. But I could assemble a similar codex of generosity from my relationships with other faculty members—from my work under Professor of English Laurence Roth on Modern Language Studies and teaching assistantships with creative writing professors Gary Fincke and Tom Bailey for the Summer Advanced Writers Workshop, to research assistantships on state supreme courts and the Centralia mine fire under Michele DeMary, and a British literature reading group with Associate Professor of English Susan Bowers and two fellow students, Lisa Shaffer ’08 and Ross Winegardner ’09.
The air at Susquehanna contains something that infuses our lungs, warms us and tells us to pay this kindness forward. Teaching in the writing program at Rutgers-Newark, I channel these examples, prioritizing students’ readings of texts in the classroom while opening my office door and offering my services as a mentor and guide to the freshmen’s tumultuous shift to college life. Lending my ear and my advice is a small service, hardly one that will shift the world, but it is homage to those who have influenced me.
Though there is, as Blessing adamantly asserted, life after Susquehanna, that existence began with a Susquehanna education. And unlike Lily Briscoe’s ruminations on Mrs. Ramsay, I didn’t require a decade to discover that generosity and compassion are the Susquehanna spirit. I see it in emails with my mentors, and I observe its reenactment during events such as the Urey competition. Like Lily Briscoe, though, I am not inventing; I am merely unfolding these memories so that, like so many thoughts written down, they can be smoothed out and passed on to others. For as long as this generosity circulates, Susquehanna and its compassionate soul will spirit across generations.