Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Eulogy for a Professor: Richard C. Tobias

A couple of years ago, I fell out of touch with a professor of English Literature I had as an undergraduate, Richard C. Tobias. I've been reticent to look him up because I feared for the worst, and I'm angry at myself for exhibiting such cowardice. But I think about him frequently, so I finally did some google searching, only to discover that he passed away on September 12, 2006 at the age of 81. This comes a year-and-a-half too late, but I wanted to honor him with a few words.

My first interaction with Tobias (or "Tob" as he liked to be called) was over the phone in 1993, while I croaked away at him with laryngitis trying to ask him questions about our upcoming semester abroad in London, for which he was teaching "Shakespeare and His Plays." The only thing I seem to remember was that after he heard my voice he kept saying, "Poor baby."

The semester in London was one of the most important times in my life and for the first time, I was able to connect with a larger sense of humanity due to the age of what I was seeing all around me. As I was embracing our great chain of being in the abstract, I suspect that this time was critical for Tobias as well, but for much more difficult and personal reasons: shortly before our trip, his wife Barbara passed away from a brain aneurysm. I remember him telling us the story of how he was holding her on the couch. She had a headache, got up to get an aspirin, and never returned.

At the time, due to my lack of life experience, I was not able to strongly empathize with the grief he must have endured (much to my shame), but I admire that he kept moving forward with his life and held on to London and teaching and found a connection to his love and his past at every turn, pointing out flowers that Barbara knew and liked. He loved his family very much and was quite proud of them. I remember him discussing one of his daughter's weddings. He said of his daughter and her husband, "He didn't choose her. She didn't choose him. They chose each other." That always stayed with me as an ideal of an egalitarian romance.

I also can't help but remember him on a tour bus ride through the Cotswolds jumping up down, pointing and shouting, "Gypsy camp! Gypsy camp!" as we passed by a series of tents. That always makes me smile.

He was a tall and slim man who often wore a Captain's hat. He wasn't ostentatious, but I remember the fancy sequined vest he bought himself in London, as well as the convertible Saab he bought with his inheritance from his aunt.

Of course I took more classes with him once we returned. Every time he'd see me around campus, he'd nearly sing, "There she is...Miss America!" I never understood why, although I suppose I did sort of exude a kind of squeaky-clean Americanism. I also suspect it was because he liked tall women.

In his Modernist Poetry class, I was mistaken for his mistress. I arrived late the first day, and the only seat left open was one directly next to him (he liked to arrange his class in a circle). People tended to select the same seats every week, thus I found myself next to him most every class. Whenever we'd read something by Pound or Eliot that referenced something in London, he would excitedly grab my arm or my hand and say, "Remember when WE SAW THAT!?!" This went on for weeks, and I was eventually confronted by two other students who point-blank asked me if I was having an affair with him. I wasn't. He was just a truly enthusiastic and high-energy person.

I was the leader of a particular student group in the English department as well as the acting president of another group for whom Tob was the faculty advisor, so we collaborated closely. When my parents came to an honors ceremony, Tobias said of me, "Your daughter is like a brick...filling in where needed." I'd never before or since been compared to a brick, and it became something of a joke within my family.

Once, we invited him over to our home for dinner. My mother served him a meal of stuffed pork chops and mashed potatoes. He gave it the highest compliment: "It tastes like Ohio [his home state]." (This always stuck with me, but really hit home when I recently watched Ratatouille and saw that the antagonist was won over with cuisine from his working-class youth. My mother was savvy enough to suspect her food would have that effect.)

As for my academic work, he helped me craft some of my "objective" reporting habits acquired from a brief stint in journalism school into a style that better fit literary criticism.

We hand-wrote our essays on our London trip, and he responded with type-written notes, all of which I've kept. And, I'll always keep a copy of his letter of recommendation for me for graduate school, which was full of wonderful things, although no one really wants to see their love of musicals emphasized or the words, "Andrew Lloyd Webber" in such a document.

He was partly an absent-minded professor, partly an on-campus political activist, and overall a kind and caring man. With his diverse interests, Dr. Richard Tobias was most certainly a Major Generalist. I can see, especially now, how much he influenced me in that regard. Much love to you, Tob. I'm so glad I knew you.

UPDATE! 5/1/2011
The English Department at Pitt has further eulogized Professor Tobias. Be sure to read more:

Dean of the Universe
The English Department Remembers Richard Tobias

Our Mutual Friend by Jeff Aziz


jami said...

Sounds like you had a really neat relationship with him. I was never that close to a professor. Really nice tribute!

Major Generalist said...

Thanks so much for your comments. Tob was a great guy. I was pretty nerdy, unsurprisingly, so I tended to make friends with my profs.

shantielise said...

this was lovely to read. glad you had that experience.

Major Generalist said...

Thank you, Shanti.

Anonymous said...

Tob was my grandfather. I stumbled on this entry a few months ago while missing him, and I found it very comforting. I've been meaning to write and thank you. You have captured him beautifully.

Major Generalist said...

Dear Anonymous,
I am so glad you found my eulogy for your grandfather and that it brought you comfort. Your message to me made me cry. He was a great and affable man, and I'm so glad I knew him. I wish you all the best life has to offer.

Anonymous said...

Once a student of Richard Tobias, I am now a professor of English Literature who . . . arranges her classroom in a circle. :) A medievalist by specialization, I have been roped into doing the Victorians to the Twentieth Century, and it will be the second volume of the Norton I marked up for his class on the Romantics through the Victorians that I will use as a starting point for my lectures. Tobe Tobias was a fine man and a good soul. May God bless him as he has blessed us, his students (and now mine, too).

Amanda said...

I, too, loved Tob and consider him my mentor: on his recommendation, I am working on my PhD. He was so warm, enthusiastic, funny, inspiring. Thank you for your lovely eulogy. I miss him.