Fiat Alfred University (Electronic) Communicators

We pride ourselves on our personalized approach to higher education at Alfred University. We attract students and then transform their lives one at a time. 

While we commend and are enormously grateful to our pivot to our students, faculty, and staff for the pivot to an online learning model this term, I think that the experience has also made us treasure more than ever our in-person, individualized, and immersive learning model.

As testament to our traditional, residential educational model, below please find an eloquent email written yesterday by Robert Littell ’56, an accomplished spy-novel writer to a prospective top student, Zack Shiffman, from New Jersey who has an interest in majoring in English and becoming a professional writer after he graduates.

The email below is shared with Bob’s permission. As you will see, Bob has not lost his touch to create moments that leave you between tears and laughter. His poignant Alfred University story attests to what makes our University the magical place that it is.

I am pleased to let you know that our Enrollment Management team has organized a Virtual Accepted Student Day tomorrow afternoon for admitted students like Zack. So far, over 200 admitted students have confirmed their plans to participate through Zoom. Please join me in thanking the members of our Enrollment Management staff for their continued dedicated work on our behalf—as well as to all the members of our Alfred University community, such as Bob Littell, who have been reaching out to our student prospects to communicate to them the power of an Alfred University education.

Fiat Alfred University (electronic) communicators!

P.S. Our Student Affairs staff along with the Hot Dog Day Committee members from Alfred University and Alfred State College have also organized our first-ever virtual Hot Dog Day Tribute for tomorrow, Saturday, April 25, starting at noon. Please join us and bring your own hot dogs. We will (electronically) supply the mustard and relish. Be sure to post your photos on social media using #HotDogDay2020. 

23 April 2020

Dear Zack, 

Mark Zupan has told me about your ambition to become a writer and asked me, as an Alfred alumnus (class of ’56), to reach out to you, one writer to another. 

Despite being someone who has made a living writing novels since the 1970s, I’m not sure I have all that much advice to offer. What I can say is that if you hope to become a writer, start by becoming a reader — read everything you can get your hands on, great and ordinary and downright awful (you may be doing this already), so as to develop your taste buds; to figure out what you like and in what direction you want to go, both in your studies and eventually in your writing. It may surprise you that I suggest reading awful stuff, but that’s a sure way to perfect what Hemingway considered essential for a good writer: “A good shit detector!” Every writer has days when he produces awful prose — the trick is to step back and recognize it, hence Hemingway’s indelicate dictum. 

What I can share with you that might be helpful, given that you are in the process of figuring out where you want to seek college education, is my memory of the Alfred experience. I was a lit major and took one course on Chaucer given by Dr. Mel Bernstein that was so extraordinary I can, with the help of a glass of wine or two, still recite passages from Canterbury Tales with a respectable Middle English accent. When I began to write novels, in the 1970s, Mel — who became a great friend — would write reviews of my books in the alumni news or the student newspaper Fiat Lux, and he’d send me a long letter analyzing the strong points and weaknesses of my work. This went on until he died and I can honestly say I learned more about writing from Mel’s reviews and letters than I did from the various reviews I got in the New York Times or the Washington Post or the New Yorker. Mel was also the architect of Alfred’s terrific Western Civilization course for freshman — he personally lectured on various literary subjects, and organized lectures from a host of specialists in other disciplines. Ernest Finch was the head of the English department and presided over memorable lit courses. Dr. Finch was a bachelor and when he left to visit his sister for a weekend he actually paid me to cat sit (that is, feed his beloved cat) in his second-floor apartment off Main Street. One of the most remarkable professors in my time was Mike Sibley: he was an ordained minister, a skilled carpenter and a thrilling teacher — I still remember details from Mike’s philosophy course (he, as well as his wife Pat, became great friends after I left Alfred). I studied political science under Fred Engelman, who spoke English with a noticeable German accent and lectured brilliantly on the origins of World War II. And I studied Spanish under Professor Rodriguez-Diaz, a devoted teacher whose classes on Spanish were about so much more than the language. He used to invite students back to his house on Main Street (where Community Bank is today) and give each of us a glass of Madeira at the start of long and dazzling bull sessions. 

In my senior year I was one of the editors of the student yearbook and convinced the others to dedicate the 1956 yearbook to Dr. Rodriguez-Diaz. I wrote the dedication myself. The problem was how to get him to the auditorium, which was upstairs in Alumni Hall, when the dedication was announced and read without alerting him to what was going to happen. My solution was to tell him what I thought was a lie: I told him I was being given an award and would be honored if he was there to witness it. The two of us were sitting in the balcony when the editor-in-chief of the yearbook went to the microphone on stage and read the dedication. Dr. Rodriguez-Diaz was speechless with emotion. He slowly made his way to the stage and, looking out at the audience, speaking with tears in his voice, said something about there being rare moments in life that were between tears and laughter. This, he said, was one such moment. Returning to the balcony, he was too overcome with emotion to look me in the eye. At that point Dr. Finch took the stage to announce the winner of the 1956 creative writing award. He said that the judges had decided to split the award that year between two seniors whose writing was exceptional. And he called out the name of Leah Napolin (a great woman and a great friend) and — you guessed it — Robert Littell. The two of us split the $50 prize and I can tell you that $25 seemed like a small fortune to me in those days. Leah went on to a great career in playwriting; one of her plays, Yentl, which she wrote with Isaac Bashevis Singer, ran on Broadway for years. And Robert Littell went on to a career as a novelist; as I write this I am locked down with my family in our farmhouse in northwestern France and, when I’m not gardening or reading, working on my twenty-first novel. 

My oldest son, Jonathan, went to an Ivy League School and I have often compared his experience there with my experience at a small school in a beautiful valley in upstate New York, Alfred University. Jonathan had nothing like my experience, Zack. He attended crowded lectures given by famous people — but his  “higher” education more or less began and ended there. As for me, when my professors died I felt I had lost a member of my family. They were all brilliant men devoted to teaching and they changed my life. (Despite what I think of as his wasted years at Yale, Jonathan — always a voracious reader — went on to become a writer also. His first novel, THE KINDLY ONES, won the top literary award, le Prix Goncourt, when it was published in France. If you google his name you will learn more about his novel.)

This is the very first time I have ever written to someone about my experience at Alfred and how much my professors meant to me. I’m taking the liberty of copying Mark and my brother, Alan (also a published novelist), because neither of them is familiar with this aspect of my years at Alfred. I manage to keep up with the university — I visited last year —as my brother worked there for many years and still lives there. My impression is that the things that made Alfred great have not changed. 

I will be glad if this letter is helpful to you. 

With best wishes in this difficult time (and, above all, stay safe),
Bob Littell