Carl Bode, a professor whose influence resonates

Steve McKerrow

February 04, 1993|By Steve McKerrow

EVERY writer can name a person whose influence, perhaps unrecognized at first, resonates through the years. One of those persons for me was Carl Bode, a retired University of Maryland professor who died last month at 81.

In my night stand lies a battered paperback copy of "The Portable Thoreau," edited by Dr. Bode. The book provides a comforting escape when insomnia strikes, and frequently goes into a bag on vacations. Henry David Thoreau, who loved to go roving, makes a good traveling companion.

A couple of summers ago, I hiked to the top of Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire with the book in my backpack. As a light rain fell, I detoured from the summit trail to sit briefly in Thoreau's Chair, a cliff-side rock formation halfway up the peak the Yankee writer is said to have climbed often.

Dr. Bode's volume was half the required reading in the best college course I ever had, his upper-level English Department introduction to "Thoreau and Emerson," the dynamic duo of existentialism, at the University of Maryland College Park.

I never took another class like it. On the first day, he announced we could do whatever we wanted for the rest of the term. We could choose to have regular classes or not, take tests or not, write papers or not. At semester's end, we would grade ourselves.

Suspicious, we timorously proposed merely to read selections and discuss them in class, neither writing papers nor taking exams. We said we would listen to his exposition about what we were reading -- but no lectures!

Amazingly, he seemed pleased.

On the first day, he announced we could do whatever we wanted for the rest of the term. We could choose to have regular classes or not, take tests or not, write papers or not. At semester's end, we would grade ourselves.

Now, this was in the spring of 1970, a turbulent time on campuses across the country as students protested the Vietnam War. At Maryland, the National Guard visited us for a tense week or so late in the term. Further, old Henry David and Ralph Waldo competed in my life with student newspaper and outside part-time journalism work, the hunt for a job after June graduation and, especially, a courtship that would eventually yield a 22-years-and-counting marriage.

Although I kept up with the class reading, more or less, I probably cut more of Dr. Bode's classes than I attended.

I do remember one particular session, however, though it seemed to have nothing directly to do with the authors we studied. Dr. Bode read aloud some of his own poetry, and I vividly recall a selection in which he evoked the freedom of driving along in a convertible, a girl by his side and the wind blowing his hair.

Unbelievable! Here was this old guy unabashedly reading poetry about youthful passion -- poetry! (When you are 21, any professor over 40 is an old, old person, and Dr. Bode was nearing 60 at the time.)

At the end of the semester, I gave myself a "B." OK, I felt in my heart I probably deserved a "C" or worse, but at least I had resisted the temptation of that free "A."

About 10 years ago, the Other Voices page of this newspaper one day happened to carry two articles: one of Dr. Bode's frequent, wide-ranging commentaries and an unrelated piece by a former student who still felt guilty for cutting all those classes.

I don't remember the subject of his article or mine, but the juxtaposition finally spurred me to write the letter I'd composed in my head for years, every time I saw one of his bylines.

I related the above story and said how flattering it now was to share a newspaper page with a memorable professor -- even if I hadn't seen him that often, and he probably could not pick me out of a lineup.

I told him that hearing him read poetry had helped teach the courage of personal expression. And in retrospect, I wrote, I might just have deserved an "A," for finally understanding the freedom he gave that class -- to explore or ignore our intellects, and then confront our own consciences -- was fundamental to Thoreau and Emerson.

His answer?

A short note saying, "Your letter made my day. It's one of those I'll save," an autographed paperback copy of his newer "The Portable Emerson" (signed "for my fellow student"), and a curiously appropriate clipping of one of his Other Voices articles, from October, 1981.

It was a modest proposal soliciting students interested in "a single off-beat course," in which he would invite "two or three dozen of the most interesting undergraduate minds on campus" to springboard ideas from the writings of the "Walden" recluse.

"Mostly, you'd educate one another," he wrote, adding later, "Is this elitist education? Certainly, and I make no apology for it."

No apology needed, Dr. Bode -- just thanks.

Steve McKerrow is a Sun and Evening Sun staff member. A memorial service for Carl Bode will be held at 3 p.m. tomorrow at the University of Maryland Memorial Chapel in College Park.

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