Dr. Herbert Lipscomb, my college Latin professor, was a rara avis, a real charmer!
I kind of inherited him in high school. My Latin teacher, Mary Lee Tillette, had been one of his star pupils at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. She often sang his praises, on the same level with Cicero, Ovid and Virgil. I revered the guy before I ever met him.
So, when I entered that college it was destined that I would major in Latin and become one of the Great One's girls. I soon learned that only the really favored ones were called by their first name in his class. You had to be "Miss Straw" until that magical moment when he would say, "Miss Thelma, will you please translate for us."
Finally, that moment did arrive. I could scarcely speak. Every eye in the class was on me, some with envy, others now including me in their sacred club.
It was a school tradition that when you arrived your friends took you out to dinner at the local inn, The Columns. (Steak was about $1.50!)
Dr. Lipscomb was a fastidious bachelor who loved the adulation of his pupils. When we invited him to dine with us, he always brought a bunch of flowers from his own garden. He wore a signet ring on his pinkie that rumor said was given to him by his lover Edna St. Vincent Millay.
The summer after my sophomore year I got a job up north - as a counselor at the Henry St. Settlement House Camp. It was such an enlightening experience, I decided to go into social work and change my major to Sociology. After all, Latin was a dead language.
Quaking in my saddle shoes, I entered the Great Man's office to break the news. You'd have thought I was confessing to murder or grand larceny.
He listened, his noble face a doleful study.
Finally, the majestic, sonorous voice began. "Miss Thelma," (my courage began to unravel)... "If you want to help a mother who has just lost her child, you need to understand her. To have a deep feeling for her life, her loss, her misfortune.
"Only if you have read the noble words in Seneca's Trojan Women can you feel the pain of Hecuba, who lost her husband, most of her beloved children. Or mothers today, and the children who are victims, the deaths, murders, betrayals, the ageless themes - the callowness of those in power. Only after you have lived through the pages of these noble souls will you have the strength and compassion to feel what people today are suffering.
"This century's unspeakable evils, the Holocaust, the Gulags, the bombs of Hiroshima. If you have lived - line by line - with these ancient women, only then will you have the armor and the understanding you will need."
The next day I renewed my place in the Dean's office as a Latin major.
Sometimes I've wondered how life would have been if I'd not been persuaded by that magic voice...
T. J. Straw