In response to last Friday’s email featuring a note that acclaimed writer Bob Littell ’56 had written to a prospective student for our Class of 2024, Zack Schiffman, about the power of an Alfred University education (see the very bottom of this email), I received a similarly moving note from Rick Lord ’71 (see directly below). When I asked Rick whether he would be Ok with my sharing his communication with our University community he graciously agreed saying “by all means, feel free to share it. Nikki ’72 and I owe Alfred a debt that can never be repaid.”
Rick’s original note and follow up blessing attest to both Alfred University’s power at transforming student lives one student at a time and our success as a “full-service” University.
Dear Dr. Zupan:
Although I always read–and usually enjoy–your frequent emails and other messages, I was particularly touched by the message from Robert Littell to Zack Shiffman concerning the possibility that Zack might join the Alfred class of 2024, and especially struck by the fact that, although Mr. Littell graduated 15 years before I did, both his experiences–and more amazingly, his faculty mentors–were identical to several of my own during my years at Alfred.
While Alfred, its faculty and its students certainly changed (dramatically in many cases) between 1956, when Bob Littell graduated, and 1971, when I did, every professor he mentioned as having positively influenced him during his tenure at Alfred also impacted my life in ways I often didn’t appreciate at the time, but which contributed significantly and positively to my personal and professional growth. If it’s true–and it certainly is in my case–that each of us stands on the shoulders of giants, I was blessed to have attended a University whose faculty viewed each student as an individual, and who did everything in their collective and individual power to nurture and develop each student’s unique talents and abilities.
I knew–and have a personal story about–every professor Bob mentioned except Fred Engelman. My wife, Nikki, knew and was closer to the Sibleys and “Papa Rod” than I was; I took Spanish from his wife, “Mama Rod”, though I must admit my attendance at her class was sporadic. Like many of my classmates during the late 60s and early 70s I sported a beard at times, including at the beginning of the semester when I first enrolled in her class. By the end of the semester, however, warm weather had settled in, and I shaved; when Professor Rodriguez-Diaz saw me, she commented on the many classes I had missed, and I told her (truthfully, since at some point during each semester we all caught some form or another of the Alfred crud, a cold or virus that preyed upon “immortal” young people who partied too hard, ate too poorly and slept too little) that I had been ill. Her response: “You do look pale. Don’t worry about the missed classes.” Of course I looked pale; the last time she had seen me I had a full beard, and I had just shaved it off! Although I had “gotten away” with my absences, Mama Rod was too nice a person and too good a teacher to con. I came clean the following day, and she “rewarded my honesty” by again forgiving my absences.
As an English major, my primary professors were in that department, and although by the time I attended Alfred David Ohara and others had joined the faculty, Dr. Finch and Dr. Bernstein were still leaving their indelible marks on students, including me. While I could tell you any number of stories about both of these remarkable men and the impact they had on me–as well as other faculty from other departments throughout the university–let me recount one story that left a lasting impression on me, and that affected me so profoundly that I followed its underlying message throughout my professional life.
With graduation and the real world moving toward me at light speed, I had decided to apply to law school. As the first person in my family to attend college, I knew nothing about the application or admission process for law schools. In 1971 I took the LSAT in February, waited until after I received my scores in March and did not apply to schools until late March or early April. I applied only to schools in the Northeast, based on the pre-law handbook, according to which my scores were at the median. I was rejected or wait-listed at the schools to which I’d applied.
I was puzzled, and thought that perhaps my letters of recommendation had not been strong enough. I also thought that I might have applied too late, and to schools that were too selective. The next year I applied in September, to schools in the Midwest and South, and my scores were at or near the top of the accepted range from the prior year. Those factors might have been determinative. On the other hand, I also asked Mel Bernstein to write a letter of recommendation for me; the previous year I had asked folks from disciplines I thought would impress admissions folks: political science and history. That hadn’t worked, so I thought I’d ask a teacher who had actually taught me. I had taken a couple of courses with Dr. Bernstein and had done well, and he seemed to like me, though I didn’t know him especially well and, more to the point, he didn’t know me at all outside of class. Although he readily agreed to write a letter on my behalf, he requested that I meet with him late the following afternoon, telling me I ought to set aside at least a couple of hours. I met with him the next day, having no idea what was in store.
He spent that time–several hours, until the sky turned dark and then some–just talking with me about my life, where I had come from, where I wanted to go, why I wanted to attend law school and so on. I felt as though I were interviewing for a job, though he was asking me questions that no interviewer could–or would–ever ask. More than that, however, he was sharing his backstory with me; it was in that respect less an interview than an in-depth conversation, where each of us learned about the other, though there was no doubt that he learned much more about me than I about him. That said, however, I learned lessons that day that I would carry with me for the rest of my life.
When I asked Dr. Bernstein why we were meeting and he was questioning me his response was straightforward and made complete sense: “Why, you wouldn’t expect me to recommend someone for a scarce position in law school without knowing him well, would you? After all, I consider it an honor that you asked me to write a letter on your behalf, and it’s my privilege to get to know you well enough that I can communicate to the admissions people just how remarkable a young man you are.”
I was stunned. Here, I had considered that Dr. Bernstein was doing me a favor; after all, I had asked him to take his personal time and to write a letter about a student he really didn’t know very well at all. I assumed he would write a generic letter of recommendation, telling the admissions folks that I was a good student and would become a fine, contributing member of society, blah, blah, blah. You know the letter I’m talking about: it’s half a page of platitudes that essentially says, “I don’t know this person too well, but he did well in a difficult course, earning an A when most students are lucky to receive a C+ or B-. Based on everything I’ve seen, he’ll be a fine addition to next year’s entering class. I recommend him highly.”
The letter Dr. Bernstein wrote was instead filled with personal anecdotes about me and my background. Moreover, it was handwritten–and when I asked him about that he said: “I’ve learned that you’re an outstanding young man, and I want your application to stand out, so I’m handwriting it instead of typing it. My handwriting is distinctive–and distinctively good–and the folks on the admissions committee will remember it because it’s handwritten. I’ve written many recommendations over the years, and the ones I’ve most wanted to have a positive impact I’ve handwritten. So far, it’s never failed.” Nor did it fail this time; within several weeks I had been accepted at every law school to which I applied.
I’ll never know, of course, whether Dr. Bernstein’s letter was a reason–let alone the reason–why I received offers of admission from every school to which I applied. Regardless, I never forgot the lessons Dr. Bernstein taught me. During my career as a law professor I was asked to write hundreds of letters of recommendation, sometimes by students I knew well, other times by students I knew only from a large class I had taught and in which they had typically performed well. Before I wrote any letter, I sat down with the student who had requested it and learned as much as I could about him or her, and included within the letter personal anecdotes about the student that had impressed me, and that I was certain would impress the letter’s recipient. And, while I never hand wrote a letter–my handwriting is worse than a doctor’s–I almost always included a handwritten postscript or note, directed at the recipient, so that he or she would know that my remarks were not part of a scripted form.
Mel Bernstein changed my life, as did so many of the faculty I encountered at Alfred. I thought you might be interested in one story of just how much of an impact he had.
Thanks for everything you’re doing for Alfred. And thanks for continuing to let us know about the remarkable faculty and their impact on yet another generation of students.
23 April 2020
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),