Last Word: Professors for Life

At Bucknell the doors are open to students long after they graduate.

By Matthew Stevenson ’76

I was talking up the University to the parents of a prospective student, reciting my litany, when I finally came to a truth that it has taken me 40 years to figure out: At Bucknell, you get the professors for life.

Why doesn’t that ever make it into the world reports of U.S. News or those underground guides about the “social scene,” where they could easily write: “Long after your tuition checks have cleared, your professors will call you up, meet you for lunch, write you letters, mail you their books, come for visits and track your career, always with good cheer and encouragement?”

Of course there’s a downside to the life professoriate. Sometimes, when I publish a book or essay, I get back comments from Lewisburg that leave me flipping to the last page to see if I got a passing grade.

What’s all the more remarkable about my bonds with Bucknell professors is that for the last 25 years I have lived in Europe, and only rarely get back to campus.

I did visit Lewisburg in summer 2012 to see my freshman adviser (now for life), Tom Travis, who in the Paleolithic age of letters was the first person to tell me about a marvelous invention called “email.” He wrote me then: “You should get it, and we can write all the time,” which we do on subjects from books to family to his international travel that inspired me and legions of others.

On that trip to Lewisburg, I stayed with Katherine M ’75 and John Wheatcroft '49 at their early American farmhouse overlooking the Susquehanna, and throughout the visit, the conversations had the air of a tutorial.

In summer the view from their screened porch felt as evocative as Thomas Eakins’ river paintings, slides of which I grew to love in Gerry Eager’s art history classes. Sadly, he had died before my visit — otherwise I would have knocked on his nearby door.

I was poking around the extended quadrangle and checking out the new bookstore on Market Street when the capable Gigi Marino — editor of this magazine — offered to arrange a luncheon for me in the faculty dining room.

I invited John Peeler (political science), and Fay and Bob Beard (Russian studies, linguistics and independent study about Serbia my senior year). Soon we were joined from a nearby table by Peter Kresl (economics and my sophomore year Jan Plan, across Canada by rail).

All had been my professors in the 1970s, and we talked and laughed, not as though I had been away from campus for 35 years, but as though I was just back from spring break and trying to decide on my courses for next year.

For sure, college tuition is expensive, still keeping pace with the cost of new cars. But when you can amortize the cost over a lifetime of teaching, Bucknell becomes one of the great American intellectual bargains. Just don’t be surprised if, long after graduation, you find a professor’s pointed questions asked in your direction. In my experience, office hours never end.

Matthew Stevenson ’76 lives in Laconnex, Switzerland, outside Geneva. His most recent book, Whistle-Stopping America, is available at Amazon, as are others, including Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited.

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