In Praise of a Favorite Teacher
We all have favorite teachers or professors. Mine died last week. Bill
Leverette taught history at Furman for almost 30 years. He was my
teacher, mentor, and friend. I learned from him, admired him, loved him.
Now I miss him -- greatly.
A native of Nashville and a graduate
of Vanderbilt, Bill Leverette was a free-thinking, plain-speaking man
who relished how lucky he was to spend most of his adult life doing what
he loved: reading, writing, teaching, discussing, and reflecting. He
taught not because his students needed him but because he needed his
students. That his former students became his closest friends testifies
to his success as a professor.
One of Bill's many virtues was his
talent for finding hidden abilities in students whose motivation had
ebbed or been blunted by less perceptive instructors. And once he found
such a germ of ability he would goad and challenge us until it flowered.
entering Bill's classroom in 1970, I entered his well-furnished mind
and benefited from his easily summoned knowledge. His love for language
and for learning exercised a seductive charm over me. With each
encounter, I collected chips of his brilliance and piled them into my
consciousness like a cairn.
Bill took history seriously, and he
helped me see its importance as well. He stressed that the past was
filled with surprise and unpredictability, populated with hard-pressed
people making difficult choices on the basis of inadequate information.
teaching history, Bill refused to tether himself to the balloons of
academic fashion. He disdained the superficial and superfluous, the
trendy and ideological. He insisted that we go to the original sources
themselves and write our own history.
Bill offered his self to
his students as well as his learning. He was a courageous teacher in
that he revealed to us exactly how he was thinking, feeling, struggling.
He prized intellectual honesty and emotional candor. He told us not
simply about the past but about life as he understood it. Along the way
he added dashes of irony, wit, humility, and the dignity that comes from
facing life's terrible uncertainties.
Bill was an ardently
informal person. His casual classroom manner and the engaging
idiosyncrasies of his personality drew me into his orbit. On most days
he would sit on the front of the desk, his glasses awry as he glanced
only occasionally at the bare outline of a lecture scribbled on a yellow
legal pad. As he warmed to the subject of the day, he would begin
making sweeping, almost manic, gestures with his arms and hands to
highlight a point and sustain our attention.
lectures were yeasty and digressive. How bracing it was to be in the
company of this teacher for whom scholarship was an heroic enterprise.
How beneficial it was to be challenged to become a better writer, a
clearer thinker, and a more tenacious defender of one's own values and
In the process of teaching us how to think and read,
analyze and write, Bill Leverette became an adviser about life, a
confidante, a friend. While jealous of his independence, he was liberal
with his time, and we were the beneficiaries of his attention.
repeatedly demonstrated that some of the most important teaching occurs
outside the classroom and off the campus. He extended us the
hospitality of his home as well as his study. His favorite pastime was
hiking. A woodland path provided him with a balsam tonic. Nature
anchored his outlook and restored his balance; its stillness and
solitude helped calm his soul. Even though nature isn't always tranquil,
Bill found serenity there: the out-of-doors provided him a respite from
urban frazzle and his own demons.
It was while hiking with Bill
that I learned to appreciate those inspired moments when he would wax
philosophical and help me distinguish between true culture and varnish.
Under his tutelage I experienced what a liberal education in its ideal
sense can be. Bill Leverette shook me up without disorienting me. In the
process, he helped me become a better person as well as a better
student. He wanted me not just to learn about history but to be wise,
decent, humane, generous and sincere.
How lucky I was to know
Bill Leverette. I wish every student could have a teacher and a friend
like him. He gave me the great gift of his example, and for that I am