More on John Silber


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.





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8 responses to “More on John Silber

  1. Peg

    This may sound quite odd – but – I had a most memorable teacher in 2nd grade. Nothing whatsoever, of course, like Silber. But – she was the sort of individual who had a profound and positive effect on her students. She taught her little mushheads about the importance of learning, of being kind and thoughtful to one another and of holding ourselves to the highest level of ethics. She did it all with a compassion for us that was clear – but – none of this “oh you are the most precious and best in the world” kind of silliness that too often prevails today.

    She died about 2 years ago. This earned an obit in the Sun Times and a post at my blog about her.

    Whether in 2nd grade, high school or the university – those of us who were able to enjoy the relationship with an exceptional teacher have been exceptionally fortunate.

    • I was just discussing this with a friend – we both had a few – a very few, teachers who shaped us and had profound affects on our lives and still remember them, from, in my case, a forth grade teacher (Miss Cardoza) and continuing. A reminder that teaching can be a noble profession even if so rarely practiced that way.

  2. Excellent post and fabulous commentary by you and Peg.

    I would like to go back to school and be the kind of student who learned. I was the happy girl who often got things wrong but who everyone liked. The teachers would pat me on the head and pray I’d marry well! I had one fabulous elementary school teacher, Miss Ozier, and one fabulous high school history teacher, Mr. Foster. The latter disappeared from school one night, fired. Gay. No school letter to parents. No discussion. Nothing. just gone. Private school, hence no outside messy regulations to follow. I was the dumb bunny in his class but he never made me feel that way. And for that I shall always remember him fondly.

  3. Peg

    EOS – we all have different skills and talents – and shortcomings. A fine teacher will help us to do our best with the good, bad and ugly.

    I have to admit that I was extremely fortunate in where I went to high school and where I lived. Liberal area (in the CLASSICAL sense of liberal – of which I am proud to still really consider myself). We had quite a number of gay teachers in HS – male and female. Never was an issue. I was pretty close with a few of them. Great teachers; no problems with the kids at all. How lucky was I to grow up in the 60’s and have a community that appreciated your sexual orientation has NOTHING TO DO with your quality as a human being – OR – teacher!

  4. Peg: I had some of the finest teachers, really. A Russian woman who fled her homeland during WWII taught me Latin for six straight years. The French teacher who barely spoke English taught us so much everyday usable French that when I moved to Paris I was pretty much good to go. I was the problem. I was silly and giddy and more interested in planning the weekend party than understanding what a terrific learning environment my parents were paying for. It took me well into my twenties (some college professors would argue it was later!) to come into my own and have the desire to learn from within. All the good teachers anywhere can’t help those who aren’t ready to absorb the knowledge doled out.

  5. Walt

    Dude –
    I did not have the same wonderful experiences with teachers that this group had. I certainly never experienced the man – boy affection you experienced with Mr. Stiffler, and while I didn’t know him, I do hear his mom was quite the hottie. She invented MILF, if I am not mistaken. So he must come from good stock. I am sorry to hear of his passing.

    I started out with Nuns as my teachers. And there were no Nuns with Big Guns. They were mean little bastards, and not exactly the type of people you bond with. I still have ruler prints on my ass. How do you get a Nun pregnant? Dress her as an Altar Boy!!

    Anyhows, that all changed in the 7th grade. Ms. Lavender was my English Teacher. I think I told you about her before. She was 28 or 29, with green eyes and sweater puppies to die for!! She taught me so much!! Yes, she could be a strict disciplinarian, often making me stay after class, so she could spank me, but not embarrass me in front of the class. I was, after all, a naughty little boy. I too, still think of her fondly, and still send her dirty notes.

    High School? Forget it. College? I really don’t remember much of it. I never ran into a Sandusky, so I consider it a win!!

    Your Pal,

  6. Green Mtn Punter

    CF, thank you for your remembrance of John Silber. I received a B A in History from B.U. in 1969 and therefore missed out on John Silber’s reign. In my B.U. file I found an old NY Times magazine article (1989) on Silber entitled “Crusader On The Charles”. I found it to be surprisingly balanced for the NY Times, surely sympathetic to 1960’s student radicals.

    Some great Silber comments on the joke “Professor” that was Howard Zinn and how he gave all of his students A’s and B’s. No wonder he was revered by the lefty, SDS radicals who dominated B.U. in the mid-late ’60’s. They soon became faculty members in the ’70’s and ’80’s and Silber was always in their sights. But the B.U. Board of Trustees backed Silber in this battle fought to a “Mexican Standoff”, if you will pardon the un-PC expression.

    When I read Peter Collier and David Horowitz’s book “Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About The ’60’s”, it was BU, deja vu. Academia still suffers the consequences of the ’60’s; they were instrumental in bringing us “The One”. When will the radicals’ dominance of our universities, and culture, ever end? Will the adults ever return?

    • I believe I react so strongly to Reader Dollar Bill’s inanities on these pages is because he so strongly reminds me of the student “radicals” of the late 60’s-early 70’s: not an original thought in there heads and no room for any because their mush pans were loaded to overflowing with pablum spoon fed them by their professors. I listened to the vitriol of the DBs of the day as they denounced Silber and his attempt to hold them and their professors to an academic standard of excellence, endured their posters of a Hitler-mustachioed Silber, walked over the broken glass from the windows they shattered and so on, for years.
      So when their spawn, people like Dollar Bill, now praise Silber’s intellectual superiority in support of an ad hominen attack on another of their intellectual superiors well ….