The freshman

College president chronicles his journey of discovery

November 20, 2008|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,

Roger H. Martin was striding purposefully around the St. John's College campus on the sort of sunny, gentle fall day that makes the brick buildings and grassy quads of academia look like nirvana. He stopped in his old seminar room - complete with a huge wooden table and diagrams on the board - and pointed to the very chair he sat in during a freshman seminar. Then he was off to the river, where he spent many cold mornings learning to row crew. In the boathouse, he found the eight-person boat he raced in, the Harriet Higgins Warren, and knocked on its side. Next, he headed off to the coffee shop, a warmly lit warren of small rooms, where he spent hours chatting with other students over bad coffee.

It was the sort of tour any number of nostalgic graduates could have given. But the ruddy-cheeked, soft-spoken Martin isn't a typical alumnus - or exactly an alumnus at all.

His love affair with St. John's, the Annapolis institution renowned for its great books curriculum, was a semester-long adventure he undertook when he was 61 and on sabbatical from his job as the president of Randolph-Macon College in Virginia.

Another thing is different about his intellectual romp at St. John's: He wrote a book about it.

Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again, which came out this fall, documents his journey from a near-fatal brush with cancer to the semester he spent talking about classical Greek literature and philosophy from Homer to Plato, Plutarch and Herodotus. He wrote about the insights he gleaned from the texts, the insecurities he wrestled with, the young friends he made and, compellingly, about joining the crew team even though he had lost a piece of his lung during his battle with cancer.

After hearing the athletic director's beginning-of-the-year speech about how only thumos - passion - is required to join a team at St. John's and not skills or previous experience, he signs up.

Martin describes Coach Leo Pickens' first crew meeting in the book:

" 'I can promise you,' he preaches to us, 'that being out on the Severn at dawn on a crisp fall morning, watching the sun rising from the east and the geese flying to the south as eight oars move in perfect unison over glistening water, is about as close to heaven as you will ever get in this life.' I'm sold. I am also anxious to get out on the river."

Pickens, who is depicted in the book as a no-nonsense, intellectual sort of coach, said in an interview that he admired Martin's gutsiness. Also, he said, he successfully captured the spirit of St. John's.

"You can really feel the affection he has for our college," Pickens said. "I also marked how he's really trying drive home the point that the books that we're reading though they may have been written 2,000 years ago, they're timeless in that they're raising questions we might encounter today."

Martin hadn't planned to write a book. Initially, he thought he might squeeze a magazine article out of the experience.

But in 2004, some media outlets learned of what he was doing and descended on the campus to interview the wannabe freshman. The attention - which not everyone at the school appreciated, he said - led him to an agent and then a book deal. And now here he is, with the sort of journalistic, memoir-like book that he often dreamed of writing when he was plugging away at academic work about British church history.

In the book, he attempts to answer the question everyone has asked him from the beginning: Why, exactly, did he do it?

He has refined his answer over time, and over a soda in the coffee shop, he put it this way: "Having overcome a death sentence I thought I had, I was trying both to celebrate life and figure out where I was going," he said. "I was on a journey of self-discovery in a way, like Odysseus. And I came here to do that."

Martin made a decision early that he wouldn't participate in the discussion in class because he didn't want to undermine the experience of the real freshmen. Toward the end of the book, he writes about what he wanted to say - but couldn't because of his self-imposed silence - when they were discussing Plato's Phaedo, which describes the end of Socrates' life.

"To me, the Phaedo is about courage. It's about victory over death," he wrote. "It is a work that speaks poignantly to a patient in a hospital dying of cancer, because Socrates comforts us with the knowledge that a better world awaits us after we leave this one."

After his semester as a Johnnie, Martin returned to Randolph-Macon College, but he retired in 2006, largely because of his illness. College presidencies are stressful, he said, and after struggling with cancer, he decided that though he had been healthy for years, he didn't want to live like that anymore.

These days, he's consulting for an educational fundraising organization and an executive search firm. He's also writing a book aimed at parents of high school students about what their children are up to freshman year.

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