One of my many great teachers at Williams was James MacGregor Burns ’39. I took his seminar on Leadership. Although there were 18 of us in the class, his incisive and thoughtful questions made it seem like a personal tutorial.
At the start of one October class, Prof. Burns came in and said, “It’s too dark in here and too nice out,” and shooed us outside Griffin Hall to have class on the lawn. I remember leaning back, feeling the warm breeze, looking up at the gold and red of the autumn leaves, and thinking, “Boy, this is just like the brochure! Here I am, sitting outside on a gorgeous fall day in New England, listening to a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bancroft Prize tell us about his personal dealings with JFK. College doesn’t get any better than this.”
Thirty-two years later, one of his precepts is still burned into my brain. He told me at one of our student/teacher conferences, “The trick to good writing is not so much figuring what to put in, but what to leave out.” Since I now write for a living, that one sentence has been incredibly valuable to me.
He had an impact on others as well. Ed Larson ’74 (entered with my class (1975), ultimately transferred to Michigan) and who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book on the Scopes trial entitled, Summer for the Gods, tells a wonderful story on C-SPAN’s Booknotes about what Prof. Burns meant to him:
LAMB: What’s it mean to get a Pulitzer Prize?
Prof. LARSON: Well, in my profession it’s–it’s–it’s the greatest
there is. It’s the–it–well, it’s a tribute to writing, and I love
to write. I love the–I love crafting words. I like to do research.
I like history. When I was–when I was going to college–this sort of
captures it–I had always thought I could write. I came from rural
Ohio and–where we didn’t get much particular training, and I learned
to–I learned to love literature by reading, not by writing. And I
loved to read, oh, various novelists, but I also liked Dickens and I
liked Hawthorne and–but I also liked Virgil and some of the classics
and–and Shakespeare and I loved to write. And I–and I thought I
could do it.
And then I got to college, and my freshman comp teachers were very,
very discouraging, but I–but I–but I–I liked it. And what I always
wanted to do is be a history teacher. And I had sort of given up on
my college and I was going to leave, but I had to get fresh–senior
standing to t–junior standing to transfer into University of
Michigan. And I thought, `Well, for my last–in the last qua–last
semester here, I’ll take James McGregor Burns, a Pulitzer Prize
winner, o–I’ve heard a wonderful human being.’ And I knew it was just
a course where you’d write one big paper. This had to be a paper on
And I just poured my heart out in writing that paper. And I–I was
going to be leaving the college anyway, and here he was–I knew he
could write because he had a Pulitzer Prize–he had two, actually, but
I–that’s why I knew he could write. And I, of course, loved his
books on Roosevelt. And I’d–I’d left the college after I turned it
in and I had–because I had to be out to Michigan–University of
Michigan to start. And he sent the paper back to me, and it was an
A+. And with–with wonderful comments in it. And that’s when I had
confidence I could write. So winning the Pulitzer Prize was special
for me because it had that–that history, that–that–that–that
connection with Jim Burns.
I remember having long discussions with Ed down in the Mission Park dining hall as he was sweating through that paper, and he was certainly not a mass of self-confidence. “Should I include this, how should I structure it, I’m worried I’m not arguing the right points….”. You’d never know it now, based on Ed’s accomplishments and the admiring comments I’ve read from his students. It shows you what an impact a great teacher can have — and how that impact can ripple through generations.