Thursday, March 11, 2021

Walter LaFeber: A Great Light Has Gone Out

Yesterday I learned that a great and good man I was fortunate to study under in college and later to have as a friend, Walter LaFeberhad died. As I emerged from my initial shock and distress, I remembered a line from Shakespeare in Love, uttered when the stunned Admiral’s Men hear of the death of Kit Marlowe: “A great light has gone out.”

That’s what happened yesterday.

I first got to know Walt in the fall of 1985, when I took both his legendary History 313 History of US Foreign Policy lecture (continued in the spring with History 314) and a small graduate-level seminar, also on the history of US foreign policy. I was 21 then, and it’s strange for me to consider now that Walt would have been 51—six years younger than I am today.

The reasons 313 and 314 were legendary, and the reason I was so fortunate to take them, were threefold: Walt’s command of the subject matter; his deep insights; and his masterful delivery, always involving a 50-minute talk—without ever resorting to notes—to a room of hundreds of spellbound people. 

In one lecture, I noticed a student in the row in front of me doodling in the margin of his notes: Walter es Dios. I doubt anyone in the room would have argued, though Walt himself tended to shrug off the praise he regularly received, always quickly departing rather than reveling in the applause that inevitably erupted at the end of his lectures.

History 313 and 314 met on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings. The lecture hall was always filled. Saturday might have been even more crowded, because students liked to bring visitors to experience Walt in person.

From the vantage point of 2021, it might not seem like much of an innovation, but Walt was ahead of his time in tape-recording all his lectures for any students unlucky enough to miss the live performance (by coincidence, yesterday Lou Ottens, the inventor of the audiotape cassette, also died). My brother and I used to bootleg the tapes at the library and mail copies to our dad, a voracious reader and amateur historian, who would avidly listen and then enthusiastically discuss the content with his sons. My dad died in 1997, and knowing how much he, too, learned from Walt and relished listening to him is bound up in my sadness today, although that connection also gives me a lot of happiness.

If you’d like some flavor of what it was like to listen to Walt, this was his retirement lecture, attended by over 3000 people in New York City in 2006. The whole talk is wonderful, but if all you want is the foreign policy discussion, it begins at about the 30-minute mark.

Another of Walt’s special qualities was his wry kindness. I could give many examples, but just one: when I turned in an essay for History 313 that included an elaborate explanation of why General Lafayette didn’t attack the Colonial forces, Walt wrote in the margin, “Another—and better—reason is that Lafayette fought with the Colonial forces, not against them.”

Despite a few missteps like that one, Walt wrote me a recommendation that I’m sure was instrumental in gaining me admission to law school. I managed to acquire a copy afterward; in it, Walt said that had I been interested in history instead of law, he immediately would have accepted me as a PhD candidate. I’ve wondered since whether I made the right choice.

Before studying with Walt, I was pretty insular in my outlook and while I read a lot, I wouldn’t say I was doing anything particularly useful with the information. But as the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher appears, and Walt’s insights into the nature of US foreign policy were hugely eye-opening and motivating, and provide an intellectual framework that has served me ever since. I don’t think his politics would be easy to classify, and in some ways I think he was amused by some of my more radical critiques of the status quo, which made discussions a pleasure even when we didn’t see eye to eye.

After I graduated from undergrad, we started getting together for lunch periodically, usually at Rulloff’s in Collegetown. He told me I had to stop calling him Professor LaFeber and start calling him Walt. It was a strange transition, but eventually he did become Walt for me, though part of me will always think of him as Professor LaFeber, too. My mom, who died in 1987, once told me how delightful it was to have her children grow up and then, while remaining her children, also become her friends (I have since experienced this joy as a parent myself). Growing up and becoming friends with a former teacher is, I think, something similar.

Even after I graduated from law school, my wife Laura and I have had numerous opportunities to visit Ithaca, and on almost every one of those occasions we’ve gotten together with Walt and his delightful wife Sandy. The last time we saw them was in the fall of 2019. The last time we were in touch was by email, almost a year ago at the start of the pandemic. Of course I’m upset now that I wasn’t in touch more—having lost people before, I generally know better. But somehow this year slipped away, and now Walt has, as well. I’m comforted by knowing how rich a life he lived, and how many hearts he touched and minds he influenced in his 87 years. “No one here gets out alive,” my dad would sometimes say, but still there are a few immortals, and Walt LaFeber was one of them.

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