Valued St. John's tutor leads faculty, students by example

May 13, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

Although she's entering her 50th year of teaching at St. John's College in Annapolis, Eva Brann is no intellectual snob.

Trained in ancient Greek archaeology, she describes the school's mission as: "Our books demand that we be linguistically acute, mathematically quick and philosophically deep every day."

But she also enjoys fly-fishing, railroads and listening to Dolly Parton.

Brann, 77, is as American as a transplanted Brooklyn woman belonging to a network of European World War II refugees can get.

And as the longest-serving tutor at the small private college, she will lead the formal faculty procession tomorrow at commencement.

"She takes delight in the unconventional," said college President Christopher B. Nelson. "To paraphrase [Michel de] Montaigne, she's a soul in which philosophy dwells ... with a joy and a shine that is apparent to all."

It has been a notable year for Brann. Last month, Nelson announced a new $2 million tutorship in her name. (At St. John's, faculty members are called tutors, not professors.)

The most visible career highlight was her visit to the White House last fall, where President Bush presented her with the National Humanities Medal.

Her busy but serene life -- divided between Annapolis and Santa Fe, N.M., home to the other St. John's campus where she teaches in the summer -- is a long way from where she began.

Brann was born between the world wars in Berlin, where her family members were considered assimilated Jews before Hitler and the Holocaust.

"It was a prosperous time. My father was a doctor, my mother was a nurse, and I had a wonderful childhood," Brann said. Her father fled Nazi Germany in 1939, followed by the rest of the family two years later.

"How much I became at home as an American," she said in an interview this week. "In an apartment in Brooklyn, we were a family again."

Brann came to Annapolis in 1957, after a period spent excavating Greek pottery from the Homeric period in Athens, and said she never looked back.

St. John's was a natural for her, and vice versa. Her Yale doctorate in archaeology fits with the college's required program grounded in classics and great books of Western thought -- a structure that does not allow students to major, or faculty to specialize, in any one field.

Being one of a handful of women teaching at the college then did not seem an insurmountable obstacle to someone who had survived far worse.

While co-teaching her last class of the semester Thursday night, Brann smiled as about 20 undergraduates around a square table puzzled through pages of Plato.

"Say it again in a different way," Brann told a student struggling to express an ethereal notion. Then she stepped into the pool herself to draw a difference between two ancient Greek thinkers: "Aristotle talks to the reader. Plato talks with the reader."

She calls herself "a universal grandmother" to the countless students she has nurtured and seen graduate.

In a student body numbering about 400, Brann makes it her business to reach out to those she does not teach or grade directly -- after all, "Johnnies" live in a self-conscious community they term a "polity."

She sings with the college chorus sometimes and gets to know freshmen and other students who come to the East Coast for the first time from as far away as Kansas or California.

"She has a lot of children," said Sam Kutler, an emeritus tutor who worked with Brann for 40 years. "Students like to learn in her presence."

Erica Naone, 24, who graduated last year and now works in the campus bookshop, said she received a surprising call from Brann, who never instructed her.

"She's got a big reputation, and she called me up to tell me she enjoyed reading my senior essay," Naone said.

Nelson, who accompanied Brann to the White House in November, acknowledges that she has been a mentor to him as well. They had forged a close working rapport in 1991, when he became president while she was the college dean.

"She helped me get my bearings and had a little patience while I grew up," Nelson said.

Brann is a colleague others depend on for more than book learning, but for sparks of insight and practical sense, too.

Kutler said Brann's scholarship and several eclectic books are held in such esteem that more than 20 academics are writing essays for a published collection about her works in the form of a Festschrift.

In a tidy and modest book-lined house, Brann lives a short walk from the centuries-old college whose long line of graduates include Francis Scott Key.

On those shelves is a book of her short sayings and reflections, Open Secrets/Inward Prospects, in which Brann shares a paradox that she has lived:

"Lives interesting to tell must be very distracting to live; lives satisfying to live are boring as hell to read about it."

jamie.steihm@baltsun.com

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