Teachers have lasting impact

Last week a former teacher, friend and mentor died. He was 79. His name was Richard Luman. He spent the majority of his life as a member of the Haverford faculty as a professor of religion. As I read his obituary, I realized, once again, how important a small number of men and women had been in my life and how much I owed them.

Richard Luman changed my life. Had it not been for him I probably would not have finished college. Instead, he inspired me to stay in school; he taught me the importance of learning and scholarship and kindness. He was, in essence, one of the most important role models I’ve had and he changed my life for the better.

Richard Luman was a polymath. I remember the first class I took from him my first semester at Haverford. It was, oddly enough, a seminar on the history of the Catholic Church. Since I had grown up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in New York and knew very little about Catholicism, the course was very much something unusual for me; precisely why I took it.

Richard made the subject come alive. I still remember every text we read, from the New Testament (which I had not read before) to the venerable “Bede’s History of the English Church.” But more important than the specific texts we read or even of the subject in general, Richard taught me how rewarding learning new things could be. He taught me to admire scholars and authors and he taught me the meaning of the phrase “the life of the mind.”

There was also a tragic side to Richard Luman’s life. He was a great scholar, one of the best I’ve ever known, but he didn’t publish much. His mission was to teach and to open the world of learning to his students. Haverford, when he arrived, was changing from a school that did not expect its faculty to publish into a school that required publication. Happily, for generations of students whose lives were enriched by Richard’s teachings, he gained tenure, but he was never promoted to full professor, a fact that never stopped hurting him.

As I think back over Richard’s life and how he made my life so much better, my belief in the importance of teaching, of having a faculty dedicated to teaching and nurturing the minds of its students, has only been strengthened. I’ve probably read thousands of books and articles during the past 40 years, the works of some of the greatest scholars in my field. Those articles have taught me a great deal and helped to shape my own ideas.

But none of them had the profound effect upon me that Richard had. None of them taught me about kindness, or the value of humanistic learning. None of them actually changed my life in the way that one teacher, Professor Richard Luman, did. As sad as I am at his death, I also feel the joy that his life and his teaching gave me. And I think the best way to honor him and his life is to continue, to do the best I can, to follow his lead.

Amid all the talk about athletic conferences, national research centers and all the multifarious activities of a great university we hear today, Richard taught me that the most important function of a university is to teach its students and in so teaching, change their lives for the better. And so I shall try to do in his honor.