Friday, August 16, 2013

THIS PROFESSOR HAD LASTING INFLUENCE



Dr. Scott Crom
In the days of black-and-white television there was a show called THIS IS YOUR LIFE.  Various celebrities would stand on a stage, and from behind the curtain a disembodied voice would tell a heartwarming story of the star from his or her childhood.  Then, out would walk a third-grade teacher or a church pastor who had once seen something special in that actor or singer or writer-to-be and there would be a tearful reunion.

The point of all that emotion was that there are people in most everyone’s life who have an influence, who steer the course of a person’s future in ways no one can predict.  There are people we remember fondly for the rest of our lives, though we may see them seldom, if ever, after those first meetings.

Dr. Scott Crom, professor of philosophy at Beloit College where I was a student back in the early 1970’s, was such an influential person for me.  He passed away last week at the age of 85.

Dr. Crom had already been teaching at Beloit for nearly 20 years when I met him in 1971.  (He started in 1954.)  He’d seen a lot of changes in that time, as you might imagine.  But though his students had gone from buttoned down to barely dressed, Dr. Crom himself seemed timeless, with an ever-present pipe, a white shirt with the sleeves rolled back and a slim tie of no distinct pattern.  A conservative image, I suppose, but the good professor hid much behind that façade:  tremendous energy in front of a classroom, dry humor, an open and inquiring mind, a devotion to the Quaker religious philosophy, a fondness for Sherlock Holmes and, best of all, a not-so-secret love for . . . science fiction.

I didn’t encounter Dr. Crom as a philosophy professor.  I met him as the teacher of what Beloit called an Underclass Common Studies course.  These “freshman” (Beloit didn’t use that term) classes on a wide variety of wonderfully engaging subjects, were meant to allow students to explore academics without a lot of risk to their grade-point average (UCS classes were pass/fail), to give the profs a chance to do something that they loved without a lot of drudgery and to bring both groups together in a more relaxed atmosphere.  The courses were supposed to be the “ideal” of intellectual pursuit.  I loved them.

Dr. Crom’s course was on Science Fiction as Literature.  Or something.  All I remember was that I was in heaven.  We read Wells, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke.  We explored what was the leading edge of SF at the time, the New Age—Zenna Henderson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon.  I wrote a thirty-page paper for the course on the history of SF and fantasy films, and got an A.

One of the most memorable moments of that fall was the night Dr. Crom invited the class to his home for a get-together.  (This was a benefit of a small school like Beloit, and a tradition not much observed these days.  Professors invited us into their homes on occasion, and we behaved ourselves.)  He showed us his study, filled floor to ceiling on three walls with books, most of them paperbacks, most of them science fiction.  Of course, some idiot asked him if he’d actually read them all.  (I sincerely hope that wasn’t me!)  

He chuckled and answered, “Well, yes.  Some of them more than once.”

Of course, we students weren’t the only ones taken aback on occasion that fall.  The professor couldn’t understand our hostility to Heinlein.  (We read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and couldn’t get over its blatant sexism.)  Some of the students in the class were just indifferent to the idea of a hopeful future.  Cynicism had already taken hold of my generation.  This was the Seventies, remember, not the Sixties.  I think this had a profound effect on Dr. Crom.  He never taught the course again, which was a loss to all the Beloit students who came after us.

I made a special effort to take more courses from Dr. Crom, though.  Beloit helped me in this.  Course requirements at the college were divided into four “intellectual areas”.  You had to take a certain number of credits from each of the four areas.  Fortunately, math and philosophy were grouped in the same intellectual area, so I avoided taking any math classes by taking History of Philosophy I and II with my favorite professor.  

Yes, thanks to Dr. Crom, I know my Kant from my Kierkegaard and can admire the Greeks for more than just olives and feta.  But much more than that, I owe him my mature love of science fiction.  Oh, I had started reading SF as a kid, and already had some of the classics under my belt before I knew him.  Without that class, and Dr. Crom’s guidance, though, I might never have started reading with the critical eye that has led me here.  Those discussions in class led to an ongoing desire to meet with others who loved SF and wanted to talk about it.  That paper on SF films birthed a lifelong interest in film with a concentration in SF and fantasy that plays itself out regularly in this blog.  And God knows I wouldn’t be writing science fiction romance today without what I learned in that class.  Those books still reside on my shelf.  I refer to some of them regularly.

So, thank you, Scott.  After all these years, I know you’d want me to call you by your first name.  We were friends, after all, when we met infrequently on campus in those intervening years.  We had much in common, thanks to the gift you gave me so long ago.  I think of you often—whenever I re-read one of those old SF classics you introduced me to, whenever someone reinvents Sherlock once again and, now, whenever I look to where you’ve gone, in the vast unknown universe full of stars.

Donna


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