The Last Word .
“ ”—what a clever title for this final page, a perfect choice, provided we don’t allow it to drift into “the” last word meaning to convey an air of finality or rigid insistence. For then, I should feel more wary than honored to have the last say here on grounds that doing so would run afoul of keeping an open mind, one of the core values central to the work of teachers. Saying as much takes me back more than half a century to 1957 when I was only 13 and, by virtue of being in the right place at the right time, very lucky to have watched on live TV a show likewise called The Last Word. The moderator was Bergen Evans, a Rhodes scholar, Harvard-educated English professor with a brace of degrees to his name who quickly became a TV celebrity and my hero, besides Mickey Mantle, of course, the New York Yankee every kid my age idolized at the time. The format of The Last Word was nothing short of unique: a vigorous discussion of English words to which I paid close attention because secretly I really loved words as much as baseball, even if most of what was said was Greek to me. There it was, an innocuous little show on CBS-TV suddenly slipped into its schedule, with a cast of four articulate people saying bright, witty things about words. To my everlasting regret, the program ended in 1959, yet its Bergen Baldwin Evans … effect on me has lasted a lifetime. taught me to prize highly Dr. Evans, an academic superman, was unimpeachably the final arbiter of things of the mind and anything having to do with words. So to treat every word with far as I was concerned, he was the last respect, as if it were on word, totally enslaving me with his never pedantic, never aloof, inteltrial for its life. lectual charm. In fact, his skill as a teacher was so far-reaching that it was capable of proving to this young Catholic boy that syntax (a word only later I came to understand the meaning of ) can be almost as fascinating as sin itself. Seen through the haze of time, those 30-minute Sunday afternoon broadcasts had a dimension of magic for me. From them I learned without letup more than a thing or two about English. For when he wasn’t talking about English, Professor Evans was talking about Latin and Greek, as well as philosophy, subjects that I would later come to study and eventually to teach. He assured me that they would never interrupt my future, but would become my future, and that I would not become the fool of books. Bergen Baldwin Evans, whom I revered and wanted so much to be a borrowed likeness of, on whom I am lavishing all this extravagant praise, taught me to prize highly things of the mind and to treat every word with respect, as
The Last Word aired from 1957 to 1959.
if it were on trial for its life. In his own words, he taught me not only to deal with the demon that numbed my fingers with paralyzing uncertainty when they took hold of a pen, but also led me to the messianic belief that the study of words could change a person’s life. Finally, the most important thing I learned from Bergen Evans was that it is not always necessary or important in life to have the last word, the same lesson preached by an even higher authority, St. Paul, who warned the Corinthians against seeing one another as the final possessors of all truth, as having the last word on anything. My voice at Cathedral is only one of a rich chorus of voices—those of my colleagues. It is in unison that we teach, preach to, and hopefully reach our students. s Dedicated to the memory of Catherine Vitale
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