Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lester Mazor, 1936-2011

On March 6, 2011, Lester J. Mazor died after a short illness.  Lester was a major figure in my life from the first time I was a student in his class (January 1989) until his death.  He and I corresponded regularly, especially during the fall of 2010, as he and I rooted for the Philadelphia Phillies in the baseball playoffs (Lester would watch the games in Berlin, and email me at 5:00 AM his time to analyze what had happened).  During the 21 years that I knew Lester (more than half my life) he served as a mentor, role model and father figure.  Many people are sharing their reminiscences about Lester lately, from Hampshire's press release, to the wonderfully elegaic effort by my friend Sascha Freudenheim, which really captures a lot of Lester's essence.  Having made certain to share with Lester over the years just how important he was to me, I thought I would take this opportunity to share some memories of my time with Lester, and give a sense of what he has taught me.


When I arrived at Hampshire in the fall of 1988, many of the "original" professors were still there, and most were still energetic in their early 50's.  I frequently played (rather cutthroat) softball against Ray Coppinger and Lynn Miller, and while I never took the court myself, my friends had lots of stories to tell of Lynn and Lester Mazor's rough play in basketball games.  My friend Chris Glawe, F'85 did a killer Lester impression, and would frequently have me in stitches with his stories of the exploits of "Lester the molester".  

To that end, I was a little nervous to take my first class with Lester in my second semester.  The course was called "Law and Labor in U.S. History", and it is not going too far to say that it changed my life.  I had always been interested in labor history, and the "hidden history" of America, but this class showed me that in many cases, the most overtly anti-labor actions in the country were carried out in judicial opinions and statute books; which are not as obvious as army troops shooting strikers, but in many cases are more far-reaching.  To this day, I have never worked harder for a class than I did in this one.  As I wrote in my Div. II self-evaluation, "even though I left every afternoon at 3:00 feeling like a two year old" I was proud of how much I learned.  What was most inspiring is that Lester (and co-teacher Flavio Risech) expected us to do the kind of work that law school students did.  Trying to live up to these expectations was a lot of pressure, but also very gratifying.

In the last two years I have taught a high school class called "The American Century: Constitutional Issues", in which students read over 20 Supreme Court decisions from the period 1954-2000.  Students read the full decisions, including concurrences and dissents, which is pretty rare for 11th and 12th graders.  I have been pleased by the effort the kids have put out, and by the number who have thanked me for challenging them.  Lester's influence on this class stretched back to that class in 1989, but also went on up through this past December, as he would frequently debrief me about issues coming up in the class via email.  I will really miss being able to discuss next year's version of the course with him.

In 1990 I also took a class with Lester and Jim Wald called "From Potsdam to Perestroika: East Central Europe since 1945".  I thought this course would just add balance to the heavily American tilt to my studies, but it did much more than that.  Lester would frequently give me articles or books to copy, but knowing that he would want to talk about it, I read the things first myself. Lester also made sure that we understood that popular culture was an important way of understanding these societies.  We read novels by Kundera, Kozinski and others (inspiring my early desire to write a mash-up of the works of Oscar Wilde in the style of Milan Kundera-- "The Unbearable Lightness of Being Earnest").  Throughout the course, Lester promised that he would eventually reveal to us the reason why communism fell.  We all expected  a long, wordy answer.  On the final day of the class Lester came in (10 minutes late, as usual) with a boom box.  He walked to the front of the room, pushed Play and the first notes of the Beatles' Revolution rang out through the class.  Lester just gave us one of his "hmm" sounds and walked out.  I have actually stolen this (with slight adaptations) for classes of my own.

In 2006 I returned to Hampshire to attend the final in a series of law lectures organized by Lester.  Before it took place I sat in on a class in that year's version of the East Central Europe class.  It was very odd to be in the same place, listening to Lester's Socratic method again.  And he still took the time to teach me! In the class he discussed how "signals" sent by Gorbachev's USSR gave Poles, East Germans and Hungarians the freedom to start the rebellions that wound up bringing down the Iron Curtain.  Afterwards I asked him what these "signals" were like, and said that I didn't think we had them in our society.  Lester chided me, referring to a story in that morning's paper about the report of the Iraq Study Group.  He said all I have to do is keep my eyes open to see the signals.

During the Spring of 1991 I took an independent study with Lester.  Over the course of 14 weeks I read 12 major works of political philosophy, writing 10 papers.  Each week I would sit across from Lester's desk while he grilled me on what I had read, from Hobbes to Locke, to Marx to Foucault.  During these sessions I was always awed with Lester's grip on history.  He would always ask "what was going on" during the time we were discussing. Sadly, I often didn't know, which would send me back to my books so I could come in the next morning and give a better answer.  Now, at the age of 40, after teaching history for so many years, I can do what Lester demonstrated in those independent study sessions.  And whenever I ask a student "what was going on then?" I think of Lester.

In the Fall of 1992 I did part two of this independent study, along with Sascha Freudenheim and a few others.  Sascha has described this in his eulogy, but the "D.W.E.M. Sem" (Dead White European Male Seminar) was a very rewarding experience.  Sascha and I were basically the leaders, and Lester supervised.  Sascha was (and is) much smarter than I, and more attuned to philosophy, but I am proud of having had the chance to do my bit.  Around this time Lester assigned us to drive his Ford Focus to Amherst for some reason (flowers?  dry cleaning? pastry?), and since neither of us drove manual transmissions, it was very exhilirating (and dangerous).  Lester's trust for us was only matched by his impatience at how long it took us to complete the errand. 

In my Div. III year I had few classes, and nothing before 1pm.  I would usually stay up working until my favorite radio station went off the air at 2AM.  But it was around then that I changed my daily habits, so that I would wake up at 7, have breakfast with Lester, clip articles until 9, and then go to sleep again until the afternoon.  I always enjoyed watching Lester chat with the dining hall staff.  Lester often impressed upon me that success at a school was much more likely if one was friendly with mail room, dining hall and maintenance workers.  I have tried to heed these words at the schools I've worked at, and I am sure that Lester was right, as usual.


During that pivotal Spring '89 semester, Lester hired me as his assistant.  This work-study job entailed my making numerous photocopies for his classes, clipping and filing countless newspaper articles (pre-WWW), and trying to clean and organize Lester's office.  For those of you who went to Lester's end of Franklin Patterson Hall back in the day, you will recall that books, papers and other detritus covered every surface in the room.  And he had over 20 cartons of "Hampshiriana" in the storage room downstairs. I do not exaggerate when I say that one day, while cleaning up, I came across Lester's first grade report card!  While I was boggling, Lester and Stan Warner came in.  I waved the paper accusingly before Lester, and Stan said "only Lester could figure out how to get a document older than the college buried in this office", perhaps a reference to the courses Lester taught about the philosophy of time.  Lester seemed to appreciate my nagging that he clean his office, but no progress was made.  Imagine my surprise when I came back to visit him in 1995 and found the room clean as a whistle!  He just shrugged and gave one of his trademark "hmm" noises.  He was full of surprises.

Working for Lester was deeply rewarding.  Basically, every morning I got a private session with Lester.  He would have NPR on the radio and would expound about the stories, or the newspaper articles, or about an upcoming speaker he was hosting in a Law Lunch.  The Law Lunches were afternoon sessions in the Merrill House living room, and they were very informative.  Lester particularly tried to bring in speakers who could talk about issues in Europe, which was very eye-opening to a provincial naïf like me.  

One of Lester's favorite activities then was the "Divided City" trip, when he would take students to both sides of the Berlin Wall during Jan. Term.  I was able to go on this trip in 1991 (by then it was called "Divided City Reunited"--ultimately Lester set up a Hampshire campus at the Free University of Berlin).  It was my first (and only) time traveling abroad, and the trip was another instance where Lester helped change my life.  In the first place, he managed to finagle funding from the school to pay for my trip--all my parents had to come up with was spending money for my two weeks in Berlin.  In the second place, he was confident enough in me to let me have more freedom than I'd ever had before.  I spoke no German, had never been on my own in a city, and yet I had to travel from my hostesses home to all kinds of places all over the city.  I was embarrassingly provincial (years later, Lester tried to lure me back to visit Berlin, saying "they sell Cheerios here now") but I learned a lifetime's worth of lessons.

All my life, I had been taught to dislike (and fear) Germans.  In fact, my discomfort was so high that I never planned to go--I only put my name on the list for the trip because Lester kept asking me too (all the time I knew that I couldn't afford it).  When Lester came up with the $1400 to pay for the trip I was chagrined, to say the least.  On my first day in Berlin, I went to dinner with Lester and Professor Hermann Klenner, who had been in the Wehrmacht in WWII.  As I wrote in my self evaluation, "I was confronted with my bogey-man.  And I liked him!"  During the visit, the U.S. Congress was debating whether to give the first President Bush permission to launch the first Gulf War.  On the night before I left, the allied bombing campaign began.  When I returned to my hostess' home, she was crying before the TV.  I asked what had happened and she said "you're bombing Iraq".  I blustered a demurral (after all, I was opposed to the war!) but it was too late.  Birgit had done to me what I had been doing to Germans my whole life, and the lesson I learned that moment about the dangers of stereotyping, generalizing, and rushing to judgement is one I think about all the time.


The last time I saw Lester was in the end of September, 2008.  He had written me out of the blue, saying that he would be at a conference in Villanova, PA (about 100 miles away) and that he'd like to see me.  I immediately made plans to visit him for breakfast at his hotel, where I was surprised to learn that Lester also expected that the visit would entail my driving him to the airport.   Lester was physicaly diminished (gout, arthritis, and weight gain made it impossible for him to bend his legs., and heart trouble limited his movements.  He regretted not being able to play basketball anymore) but mentally as sharp as ever.  I have to confess to having been nervous during the drive down--after all those years, I didn't want to sound silly or not smart!  We discussed the upcoming election.  Lester, of course, was famous for advocating ballots with a "none of the above" option.  I shared with him my wary distrust of Barack Obama, and was impressed when he analyzed the Senator's character, career and campaign, concluding with an admission that he was planning to vote for Obama.  Lester acknowledged that politicians will always disappoint, and that they rarely live up to their stated principles, but concluded that it was important to have hope.  I found this very thought provoking and inspiring.

I have 75 saved emails between Lester and me, dating back to 1997.  Early ones vacillate between complaints about this new technology (Lester had always done all of his typing on a typewriter) and fascination about what he could do with it.  In the late 1990s he began spending half of the year in Berlin with his wife Anne (Sascha and I attended their wedding, which was a great honor--Sascha has some pictures of the event) and Lester would write to tell me how helpful the internet was to follow NBA and NCAA basketball. Lester was a gracious, empathetic friend as I wrote to him about my job changes, the death of my father, and the lengthy, chronic illness of my wife.  Lester shared with me the stories of his own declining health, including multiple heart attacks and a serious stroke.  

While I am sure that he corresponded with other former students on more intellectually meaningful topics, it always made me feel good to get another missive from Lester, (even when he was chiding me for not taking care of my injured back "after all", he said, "you're not getting any younger") with his usual closing "All my love, Lester".  I regret that I won't have the chance to get another of these messages, but I hope that wherever he is now, he knows that he has "all my love".