Richard Gardella ’57 wrote this essay, entitled “A Mentor Remembered” for the class of 1957 reunion essays. There is a fifth essay in the series, but I have been unable to get a copy.

I contacted the key folks in the Alumni Office about having them publish these essays themselves. There is no doubt that they would do a better job in terms of layout and organization. I also suggested that they continue with these essays in future years and expand the practice to other reunion classes. I have not heard back from them.

UPDATE: Found the last essay! Coming tomorrow.

When my former Williams College history professor, Robert G.L. Waite, died a few years ago at age 80, his scholarship earned him top-of-the-page obituary in the Times, complete with a photo and an extensive review of his psychoanalytical book on Hitler, Explaining Hitler: the Search for the Origin of his Evil. The article, however, did not detail something professor Waite did well on a daily basis for over 30 years: teach.

The Times piece also contained personal glimpses, including mention of the distinctive beard he sported in later life, and his passion for needlepoint, but nothing about his teaching performance. In an environment, favoring academic credentials over teacher performance, the obituary’s effort to profile the scholar rather than the teacher is understandable.

He wore no beard when I first saw him in the Williams campus in the ’50s, but his bald pate and intensity reminded me of that 24-hour-a-day revolutionary, Lenin. His lectures were well prepared and punctuated with memorable anecdotes. I learned that Czar Alexander III sometimes used vulgar language in written comments on official documents, and could bend a Kopek with his fingers. I can also tell you the number of illegitimate children Polish King Stanislaw II, a lover of Catherine the Great, was rumored to have fathered.

I came to Williams College as an indifferent student, but there was nothing indifferent in my approach to Professor Waite’s lectures. History fascinated me, especially Russian history, thanks to his efforts. I was not alone in my appreciation of his lectures and teaching performance. Our 1957 yearbook was dedicated to him.

Looking back now, it is clear those lectures helped arm me to deal intelligently with a rapidly changing world scene, and to build respect for our unique system of government. But there was much more than the lectures.

I was reminded of his further contribution to my education toward the end of his teaching career. My son, who took a course with him, showed me one of his term papers graded by Professor Waite. It seemed under every typed line there was a line in red pencil adding depth of understanding and forcing clearer analysis. And there were the familiar writing instructions – “Tighten it up! Get rid of these extraneous words…”

That same instruction and thorough review was remembered from 30 years before. And something else, was recalled – something small, but important. Something very human.

I remembered feeling growing sympathy for my teacher, after completing a final exam. What dull work it must be to read all of this uninspired prose and grade that panicky work product fairly, I thought. Maybe a little joke would help. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had just hurled his frightening threat at us: “History is on our side. We will bury you.”

So, on the blue book’s last page, I quickly jotted the following note:
“Dear Professor Waite, History is on your side. You will bury me.”
I signed the note “Nikita Gardella.”

No word or other sign came from him indicating he had read or appreciated my little joke. Many months passed.

And then, one day as I left his office after picking up a graded term paper on Fouché, the most brutal chameleon of the French Revolution, I knew he had appreciated my joke. The copious red-pencil notes told me so.

They began with the salutation, “Dear Richard,” but my given name was crossed out. Written above it in a clear hand was my Russian pseudonym: “Nikita.”

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