John Silber when I knew him, 1976
Peg sent along this remembrance of my mentor, Dr. John Silber. It’s short, and well worth reading in full to get a flavor of the man, but here’s a tiny excerpt:
Clearly he accomplished some great things, above all the transformation of Boston University into a renowned institution of higher education. His hiring in 1971 drew national attention. A striking story in Life magazine, titled “Quest for a Silver Unicorn,” chronicled the efforts of BU’s search committee to recruit a president “who could lead Boston University to levels of strength and excellence the school had never known before.” At the time it wasn’t clear whether such an individual even existed; four decades later it is hard to imagine who else could have succeeded so spectacularly.
Though I no longer remember the context of our conversation about intimidation, it was only in retrospect that I came to understand that because Silber wasn’t daunted by other people’s belligerent manner, he respected those who weren’t daunted by his. As a young 20-something, I wasn’t experienced enough to realize that the best way to deal with his outbursts would have been to stand my ground and bark right back at him.
On the other hand, I did figure out that one great upside of Silber’s personality was that I could ask him anything without fear of giving offense. He had a notable physical defect — his right arm ended in a stump just below the elbow, with a kind of vestigial thumb — that he made no effort to disguise, and I used to wonder how he could do things that clearly required two hands. He always wore shoes with laces — never slip-ons — and I asked him one day how he was able to tie them.
“What do you mean, how?” he growled. “Like this!” Then he bent over, and with his stump and his left hand, swiftly untied and retied one of his wingtips.
Silber despised political correctness — an attitude that extended even to his own physical deformity. I recall with delight the time his harried executive secretary walked into the room where he was meeting with several staff members. Laying some papers on his desk, she griped that she had been “busier than a one-armed paperhanger.”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than she began apologizing profusely. “Oh, Dr. Silber,” she gasped, “I’m so sorry! I can’t believe I said that!”
“Why?” he deadpanned. “I’m not a paperhanger.”
The only thing I’ll add is that through some strange quirk of character I did stand my ground with him, although never did I come close to holding my own in any of our philosophical arguments, and later, when I attended law school and graduated to argue with judges, I was always strengthened by the realization that regardless of the interrogator, he was no John Silber. Some teacher.