After spending a glorious gap year living in London, traveling through England and hitchhiking across Europe, I returned to University of Illinois in Chicago in September 1968.
I wasn’t sure how well I’d do, since I’d been out of the classroom so long. But luck was with me: my first class that fall quarter in Early Modern European History was taught by Prof. George Huppert.
Huppert was a small, quiet and unassuming man, but as I quickly came to appreciate, a giant of a teacher. He began the first class by pulling down a map of Europe and describing the geopolitical forces – mountains, plains, rivers, oceans and seas – that were paramount. Sweeping his hands across the map as if leading troops, he pronounced, “This is what shaped national destinies.”
It was a revelation. I had always loved history – had done a presentation on Greek history when I was in third grade – but this was of another order altogether. Huppert’s pacing, style, erudition and sense of humor were the perfect gateway back to academia. And his slightly accented English and natural reserve hinted at some interesting back story.
I declared history my major and took all his courses plus others on ancient and modern history. History is not just time travel to the past, I realized. It helps explain the present and predict the future. It’s one of the indispensable liberal arts.
Great classes, great subjects and great teachers inspire us and shape our lives.
My first great teacher was Sam Arron, who taught violin in West Rogers Park.
I had dropped out of U. of I. in Champaign-Urbana and returned home to Chicago. There, in a closet in my parents’ apartment, I found a cheap, beat-up violin that many years earlier had belonged to my uncle. As a kid, he had even carved his name, Max, in big letters across the bottom.
I had “Max” repaired and, since I had time on my hands before school resumed in the fall, started studying with Professor Arron, as my father called him. He was like a professor – patient, wise, kind, almost a second father to me. He taught not only violin but basic values: discipline, focus, perseverance and “above all, truth and honesty,” he would say.
At 19, I was too old to consider a professional career, but still, with Arron’s guidance we flew through the standard scale and exercise books and over time moved on to the concerto literature: the lovely Vivaldi in A minor and the brilliant Mozart in G major, as well as pieces by Handel, Bach and Beethoven.
It started me on a lifelong journey into orchestra and chamber music playing that brought great joy and thankfully continues to this day.
Many years later I switched to viola, the violin’s big brother. My first viola teacher was Sam’s son, Julian. He was more rigorous and methodical than his father, which was exactly what I needed then.
Over the last 30 years, I have had many other wonderful viola teachers, including Karin Addis at the Music Institute of Chicago, Claudia Lasareff-Mironoff at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and UIC, Li-Kuo Chang and Hui Liu from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Richard Young from the Vermeer Quartet.
But the two most influential were Milton Preves and Roger Chase. Preves, longtime principal violist of the CSO, taught me how to teach myself, one of the great gifts a teacher can bestow. I wrote about him in a 2012 profile that appeared in The Strad magazine, Saturdays with Milton.
One of the leading English violists, Chase, who was on faculty at Roosevelt University, taught me something important about the futile pursuit of perfection.
At the time I was obsessing about the shape of the right hand holding the bow, specifically whether the old-fashioned Russian-style bow hold with straight fingers might be preferable to the more contemporary and popular Franco-Belgian hold with round fingers. (In the unlikely event you’re interested in this admittedly arcane subject, here’s more information.)
I asked Roger: straight or round?
He sat me down and said, in his plummy Oxbridge accent, “Let me tell you a story.”
His teacher had been Bernard Shore. Shore was 18 years old when his right hand was severely injured in a grenade blast during World War I. As he was going into the operating room Shore told the surgeon, “Save every eighth of an inch you can.” He came out with a mangled index and middle finger. “But that didn’t keep him from a fabulous career as a performer and teacher,” Chase told me. The point was clear: it’s not perfect form that counts so much as assiduous effort.
Huppert had a story too, which he told me over coffee years later.
He was 5 years old when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. His parents handed him off to his great aunt, who was married to a non-Jew, in the hope he could be kept hidden from the Nazis.
“Even if there is only one chance in 10,000 for the boy’s survival,” he wrote in his memoir, speculating on what his parents were thinking, “the odds are better than if he stayed [with us].”
But it was too risky to keep him, so he was turned over to other relatives and later strangers. He wound up dodging Allied aerial bombs and scavenging for food with roving packs of boys through empty Budapest homes, a “petty criminal,” as he called himself. “On my own now, in the ruined streets, wearing tattered clothes, I walked aimlessly,” he wrote. Starving, he blacked out and awoke in a Budapest hospital.
Dumped from one orphanage to another and handed off from one person to another across Europe, at war’s end he had amazingly survived that one-in-10,000 chance.
Eventually he made his way to the U.S., served in the Army, and studied history on the G.I. Bill at University of California, Berkeley, where he met his future wife on the first day of class and received his Ph.D in 1962. He started teaching at UIC in 1966. I met him two years later.
Talk about incredible stories of courage, bravery and perseverance.
Life without great teachers is like a year without sun. It deprives us of the sustenance, inspiration and joy we need to grow and mature.
You can be a great teacher too. Not in a school classroom, but in the classroom of life, helping and guiding a youngster.
Try mentoring, as I did for 10 years under the auspices of the McGaw YMCA and Catholic Charities. My mentee, who lived in the Fifth Ward, and I met every Saturday to have lunch or go to a ballgame or watch a movie or enjoy one of a dozen other fun activities. I got to know his wonderful grandmother. People would say to me how nice that I was shaping his life in a big way. Yes, but it worked the other way too: he shaped my life in a big way.
Be a great teacher yourself. Be a mentor.