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Remembering Fred Wheelock

Ned Groth, Spring 2018

(Author’s note: This biographical remembrance is based on documents and personal communications, including yearbooks, class newsletters, letters, my own recollections, a few anecdotes from classmates and other alumni, and conversations with Dr. Wheelock's daughters. My goal, as always, is to create an honest and loving portrait of our former master, as we knew him. While I’ve striven for factual accuracy, I take full responsibility for any errors. This remembrance can be amended, if need be, as others contribute their own memories to it.  –NG)

Description: C:\Users\Ned\Desktop\Wheelock\FMW Portrait 60.jpgI think we all called him "Dr. Wheelock," no one came up with (or dared to, or actually felt the need to come up with) an even slightly derogatory nickname, as we inevitably bestowed on younger faculty. He seemed almost Olympian, one of those incredibly overqualified teachers that Lamb Heyniger found with some regularity. In fact, the year we entered Darrow, there were two such—T. Guthrie Speers, the chaplain, was the other. Both "doctors," as we all addressed them, both well along in their careers and even famous in the world outside our little campus, and yet, there they were, living (voluntarily!) on an isolated mountainside up in the Berkshires, and sharing their wisdom with teenagers, helping us learn.

When I entered 9th grade, I had had almost no exposure to foreign languages. I'd spent maybe two weeks in 8th grade in a Spanish class, which my junior high school required, just so we could see what it was like to study a language. Unlike many of my friends in Bound Brook, I had no immigrant grandparents or cousins, neither of my parents spoke another tongue, and we had never traveled abroad. I recall that when I chose my courses at Darrow I was advised that Latin would help me get into a better college. I kind of doubt that that was still true, even back in 1958, but someone still thought it was, so I took Latin. (In sophomore year I continued Latin but added French; see Des McCracken memorial.)

The first week or so in Latin I, I felt completely bewildered. Although I'd been taught English grammar all my school life, I had no idea what a noun case was; the idea than nouns had cases had either never been broached, or I had managed to avoid absorbing it. Dative? Ablative?? What on earth was this man talking about? On the other hand, I sort of understood that verbs had present, past and future tenses, and differed according to who was being or going or whatevering, so it made sense that nouns could also have different forms, depending on how they were used. It eventually even made sense that verbs could have, say, a perfect, an imperfect and a pluperfect tense, or even a future conditional subjunctive tense, but I am getting ahead of the story. My first few days in Latin class felt a little like Dorothy's initial days in Oz. And I was not alone. Peter Gorday had a similar experience. He writes, "I spent the first part of the year in utter lostness and terror, until I caught on to the idea of declensions and conjugations."

But Dr. Wheelock was obviously a very nice man, he was patient with us, he understood that many of us were in terra nova, he went over everything enough times that we began to catch on, and he clearly knew his stuff. And sure enough, we began to get it. P.J. "got it" so well that at the end of the year, he was awarded the First Year Latin Prize. He now professes to have been amazed that Dr. Wheelock "chose" him for the prize; well, duh, I think it's probably because you had the highest grade in the course, Peter! P.J. recalls, "The prize was a book by Gilbert Highet, 'Poets in a Landscape.' Highet was then a distinguished, idolized professor of Humanities at Columbia. He had spent some time in Italy, and the book was his analysis of Roman poets, enriched with visits to the country locations evoked in their lyric poetry. Wheelock was of course intimately familiar with Highet’s work, but the book was totally beyond me and sat on my shelf, ignored, for many years. I am now reading it and savoring every word. It is elegantly written as a combination of travel-book and literary analysis. What a gem! And I don’t have to be quizzed on its contents! I hope that Dr. Wheelock is sitting in some kind of celestial easy-chair, enjoying my enjoyment. These Darrow seeds can be slow to germinate."

Description: C:\Users\Ned\Desktop\Wheelock\Latin Book.jpegSpeaking of books, of course, the observant among us noticed that Dr. Wheelock had written the textbook we were using. How cool was that!? Back then, we used the 1st Edition. Today, there's a revised, expanded 7th Edition (6th shown here), still selling briskly.

Description: C:\Users\Ned\Desktop\Wheelock\FWheelock at desk 2.jpegAlthough Dr. Wheelock was obviously a highly experienced scholar in his field, we probably were more focused on passing the next test than on exploring his back story. But of course there is one. Frederic M. (Melvin) Wheelock was born in 1902, in Lawrence, MA. His parents were Franklin M. and Etta R. (née Goldthwaite) Wheelock. He went to Phillips Andover, then got a B.A. cum laude in 1925, an M.A. and in 1933 a Ph.D., all from Harvard. He taught at Haverford, Harvard, the College of the City of New York and Brooklyn College in the decades before he came to Darrow. During that phase of his life, he was very much the academic classicist. This photo (shared by his daughter Debbie) shows him as she says they remember him, in his home study, typically busy preparing lesson plans or reading classical texts. (Note the Harvard plaque on the wall.)

He came to be our Latin teacher via one of life's fortunate odysseys. Devoted to teaching, in his 14 years at Brooklyn college he had "published" too little, and thus "perished" (was not granted tenure). After a brief failed attempt at the business world, he ended up at Cazenovia Junior College, on Rte 20 in central New York, SE of Syracuse, in 1954. He was given additional (non-Latin) courses to teach, plus administrative/dean's duties. He did finally get his textbook published, after working on it for years. It came out in 1956 as #104 in the Barnes & Noble College Outline Series. But he was eager to get back to teaching Latin. In 1958 he applied for the Darrow job, and Mr. Heyniger hired him instantly. 

The genesis of that (famous) textbook is woven in his career history. When he was teaching at Brooklyn College, after WWII, many of his students were veterans attending college on the GI Bill. Few if any of them had studied Latin in high school, and they were older than typical college kids and had seen a lot of the world, including some of history's deadliest battles. Dr. Wheelock found that none of the then-available texts "spoke" to those students. (Remember the doggerel, "Latin is a language, dead as dead can be, first it killed the Romans, now it's killing me!"?) Wheelock set out to solve that problem, by creating a text that linked the language and classic texts to humanistic, cultural and philosophical themes. He wrote it, page by page over many years, finishing it while on a six-month sabbatical with his family in Mexico. It will surprise no one that his wife, Dorothy, edited and typed the manuscript! By the time we used it at Darrow, it was already out in paperback (the pink-covered version we bought at the school store).

Although he was only 56 when he came to Darrow, Dr. Wheelock seemed rather old and frail to me. He and his family lived in the third-floor apartment in the Meeting House, and he climbed stairs very slowly, putting first one foot, then the other on each step before advancing ("Rome wasn't built in a day," he'd intone.). He told us he'd had a heart attack, and we figured (mistakenly) that he might keel over at any moment. One day, a mean-spirited moron in our class, Don Walsh (who has been "lost" for over 50 years, so I will name him without asking him to explain or defend himself), set off a cherry bomb in Latin class. I did not witness the event, but kids were talking about for several days afterward. Walsh, whose goal in life at that point was apparently to be the biggest cut-up on campus, said he'd been hoping to give Dr. Wheelock another heart attack. One can only marvel at the colossal stupidity of (some) kids and be exceedingly glad that Don failed to get what he wished for.

Description: C:\Users\Ned\Desktop\Wheelock\Woodworking 1959.jpgDr. Wheelock had no coaching duties, but he mentored the Woodworking Club. A handful of us who aspired to become better carpenters met once a week, down in the catacombs of Wickersham. I don't recall any power tools—it was a lot less fancy a shop than the classes I'd had in 7th and 8th grade—but it was fun, something to do of an evening, making useful and/or pretty wooden objects with our own hands. Dr. Wheelock approached his role with the same enthusiasm, helpful knowledge and patience he showed in the classroom, and I recall it as one of the most enjoyable extracurricular experiences I had at Darrow. This is the yearbook photo of some of our little gang of sawyers from 1958-59.

Another faculty duty shared by all was to be Master of the Day, which entailed handling minor chores that came in over the transom that day, and saying grace at dinner. Denny Hopper remembers that Dr. W always said grace in Latin, and Denny could tell, from his pacing and intonation, that he was ad-libbing, not reciting some pre-packaged, memorized prayer from an old liturgy.

Description: C:\Users\Ned\Desktop\Wheelock\Mrs W w CDB.jpgWhen Dr. Wheelock came to Darrow, of course, he had a family. His wife was the former Dorothy E. Rathbone, they married in 1937, and they had two daughters, Martha, who was about 16 in 1958, and Debbie, about 13 then. The presence of not just a wife but three female family members at Sunday dinner made the Wheelock's table in the dining hall a highly desirable place to be assigned, if one were lucky. Our primary experiences, naturally, were with Dr. Wheelock in the classroom, but family members were also part of the campus community, and so they figure in a few memories here.

Dorothy (though of course always Mrs. W to us boys) was very attractive in a 50-ish sort of way, intelligent, cultured, vivacious (Jon Horwitz recalls her as a "live wire with an outrageous sense of humor," great company at dinner), motherly toward the boys, and obviously a devoted helpmeet to her husband. This is a yearbook photo of her, possibly taken at a school dance that the Wheelocks and Brodheads were chaperoning. This picture says more about CDB, who looks very uncomfortable dancing with a woman not his wife; see CDB memorial for more on that theme. For us boys, Mrs. Wheelock was a delight to have around.

Description: C:\Users\Ned\Desktop\Haight.jpegUnfortunately no photos of Martha or Debbie made it into our yearbooks. It must have been, well, interesting, for the Wheelock daughters, being the only high-school age girls on campus, even if only inDescription: C:\Users\Ned\Desktop\Wheelock\May.jpeg the evenings and on weekends (during school hours, Martha attended Miss Hall's, while Debbie went to junior high down in the Valley, and later boarded at the Howard School.) And for at least one Darrow boy, it got a little more than interesting. Bill Haight, left photo, a senior up in Ann Lee, was tall, blond, athletic and quite good looking, and he knew it. By reputation, he thought he was God's gift to women. His football teammates decided to take him down a peg or two. One fall day, Bill got a note, in a feminine script, that said "Oh Bill, You're so handsome I can't stand it! Would you meet me in the gym at 9:00 tonight? Eagerly, Martha W." (Martha does not recall having written the note, i.e., it was forged without her knowledge.) It made perfect sense to meet in the gym, downstairs from the Wheelock's apartment. Haight took the bait; he snuck into the pitch-black gym at the appointed hour that night and whispered, "Martha? Martha!" On came the lights, and there stood not Martha, but members of the football team, yelling "Surprise!" The photo at right is Pete May, tailback on that year's team, Ann Lee resident, friend of Bill's, and a mastermind of the prank (Jon also credits Jerry McGee, which sounds plausible.) Many people then (and many still, perhaps) had no idea what the yearbook picture and caption were about. Now it can be told! Some among us, at least, had found ways to amuse themselves with simply imagining what having girls on campus could lead to.

Dr. Wheelock and his family spent just two years at Darrow. In 1960, with Martha in college and Debbie in boarding school, they needed greater financial security. He found a (tenured) position at the University of Toledo, which tasked him with re-establishing the teaching of both Greek and Latin, so he was busy, but in his element. Dorothy also found rewarding work there, helping students in the language lab. Back at Darrow, meanwhile, those of us who'd been so fortunate to take Latin I and II with Fred did not have much time to miss him. Our new Latin teacher, Patrick Evans, almost the opposite of Fred in many ways, was British, 22 years old, brash, just out of Oxford, spending a year in America on a lark before getting a "real" job. But he shared Fred's love of Latin, its lore and teaching it, and he was particularly fond of the odes of Horace, so we were in good hands.

Latin III closed my career with the language; I took French and later German, as I prepared for a science career, grateful for the linguistic foundations I had acquired, mostly from Dr. Wheelock and Latin, but no longer feeling it fit into my personal curriculum. A few years passed, and I found myself missing my classmates and former Darrow teachers. So I started a class newsletter in 1968, and kept it up, off and on, for about 15 years. Dr. Wheelock sent me a letter that first year. At that point he was about to retire, from Toledo, and said he felt "the years have caught up with me." He and Dorothy were looking forward to living a simple life, in an old schoolhouse in Amherst, NH. His textbook was now in its 3rd edition, and he had a book of Latin readings out as well. In 1966 the family had taken an extended tour of Europe, where both daughters had spent some of their college time. In 1968, in fact, Debbie was living in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and enjoying life there (Paris, 1968!!), while Martha was in New York, where she'd earned a master's, was teaching English in Great Neck while pursuing a PhD in literature. Dr. Wheelock said he planned to devote  his time from then on to "gardening, nature study and other gentle pursuits."

The only contact I had with the Wheelocks after that was when I gathered news each year for the next newsletter. Sometimes I just collected what came in, and sometimes I went searching, by calling people, often under the auspices of the annual Darrow (fundraising) telethon. (Multi-tasking, '70s style.) In 1979, I spoke with all four Wheelocks. Fred and Dorothy were happy to report that life in Amherst was going according to their plan. Fred kept busy gardening, taking long walks, woodworking, fishing and cutting wood for their wood-burning stove. He said he loved being retired, had recently published another book, Quintillian the Educator, and his introductory text was still going strong. Dorothy said they had seen the Brodheads, and mentioned that they were now grandparents, courtesy of Debbie (who had a two-year old, Vanessa). I next spoke with Debbie, who recounted that she had been an airline stewardess, had seen the world and all that, and had now married and settled down, living in the Chelsea neighborhood of NYC. She was making and selling her own jewelry, and taking care of the above-mentioned Vanessa. Martha, when I reached her, was still teaching English in Great Neck and still working on her PhD at NYU, on May Sarton, a 20th-Century poet and novelist. She and a partner had made a film, World of Light, based on her research, and Martha was taking time off from her teaching job to promote it. A year later, for the next newsletter, I caught up with Martha again, and she was busy and happy. World of Light was very well received, had been nominated for an award or two, and although she was still teaching to pay the rent, she was hoping to quit and become a full-time filmmaker.

Not long after that, I myself got married, we soon had a family, my job got both more interesting and more demanding, life kind of crowded out other stuff, and I stopped writing newsletters for a decade or more. When I eventually resumed, once the internet made it all easier, the world had spun 'round a great many times, and I had lost track of a lot of people. Some of them, including Dr. Wheelock, had moved on to whatever comes after this life. He passed away, from a heart attack, on October 29, 1987, in Sharon, CT, (they had moved from Amherst to Kent a few years earlier, to be closer to family), at the age of 85. When I think back to his apparent frailty in his years at Darrow and our concern over his cardiac health, that seems like a remarkably satisfactory run, including 20 full years of what sounded like a most enjoyable retirement. Obituaries appeared in the New York Times and the Peg Board, among other places. Dorothy trekked on, continuing her volunteer community work in Kent and being grandmother to Debbie's children for three more years, but then she rejoined Fred far sooner than anyone expected, killed in an auto accident en route to Thanksgiving dinner in 1990.  

Any of us hopes to leave a legacy, and Fred's is threefold. His remarkable books live on, reissued every few years, thanks in part to the engagement of an editor/partner, Richard LaFleur, who has revised and expanded the original volume substantially. Now titled Wheelock's Latin, his introductory text had sold more than a million copies by 2003, and still sells tens of thousands annually. A biographical essay in The Classical Outlook (a journal for classics scholars) that year said that "Wheelock…introduce[d] Latin to more Americans than any man in history. Where would we be without him?"

Description: C:\Users\Ned\Desktop\Martha.jpgHis (and Dorothy's) other two legacies, of course, are Martha and Debbie, who have each prospered and flourished. The two of them created a web site to promote and honor their father's work, http://wheelockslatin.com/index.html, and they co-wrote a foreword to the recent editions of the textbook. Soon after I last spoke with her in 1980, Martha, at left, moved to Los Angeles, and while she never quite managed to shed that need to teach to pay the rent (she was in the English Department at the Harvard Westlake School for many years, and has now retired), she did soon become an important, successful independent filmmaker, in her "spare" time. At last count she has produced 13 films, documentaries, mostly about highly literary and political women, feminists, activists and intellectuals. Her latest, called Forward Into Light, is about Inez Milholland, "the poster girl of radicalism," an effective but perhaps not sufficiently well known women's suffrage campaigner here in the Description: C:\Users\Ned\Desktop\Debbie.jpgU.S. You can learn more and contact Martha if you'd like to, at her production company. Debbie, right, lives in the NYC exurbs/Hudson Valley and is also a retired teacher (from the Carmel, NY public school district). She has two grown children (Ian came along a few years after Vanessa). She is an avid organic gardener and continues to craft jewelry, like the lovely pieces she is wearing in the photo. Vanessa worked at Nickelodeon in NYC and is now VP for Development at DreamWorks Animation TV in Los Angeles. (Fred and Dorothy would probably be bemused but very proud to see that moviemaking seems to run in the family!) Ian is now the Director of Operations at the Salt Palace Conference Center in Salt Lake City, drawn there by the outdoors and nearby mountains; he's an avid snowboarder. So Debbie has many reason to travel westward, and does so often. Of course the Wheelock women are our age now (they always have been, in fact!), but when I saw their pictures (on Facebook, where else) I recognized both immediately as the grown-up versions of the young women we once knew at Darrow. See the photo album at the end for a couple more pictures.

Given that Dr. Wheelock died 30+ years ago, this memorial has been a long time in coming. I still have a fair backlog of others to write, since most of our teachers have now earned one, and now that I'm retired myself, I am working my way through them. I am indebted to Martha and Debbie for their help, and for their lasting devotion to their father's memory. He was, in the real sense of what the term meant back then, a gentleman and a scholar, thanks in part no doubt to his Harvard education, for which Lamb Heyniger, we gather, was happy to forgive him. He was a kind, gentle and humble man, I can't recall hearing him ever raise his voice, and he seemed as happy teaching 14- and 15-year olds as he had been teaching WWII veterans at Brooklyn College a decade earlier. His love of his subject matter and his deep knowledge of all things Latin almost seeped from his pores. Debbie added that she felt his Darrow experience was something he greatly valued. He was, she said, a simple, down-to-earth man at heart, who, had he not become a classics professor, might well have ended up a farmer (and in retirement, more or less did). The Shakers' ethic of simplicity and "hands to work" resonated deeply with Fred, and he truly enjoyed the woodworking club, almost as much as he loved being in the classroom.

We were fortunate indeed to have crossed paths with Frederic Wheelock when we were in our main learning years. What is left to say, but "Ave, Magister, atque vale!" 

* * * * * * *

Below here, a family photo album of sorts. Martha and Debbie have lots of contemporary shots (see their Facebook pages) but unhappily few old family memories kinds of images. What we have here are, left to right in the first row: (1) Fred and Dorothy with baby Vanessa (and cat Putzi) at their home in Amherst NH, 1978. (2) Fred and baby Ian in the Amherst Woodworking Club! (3) Fred and Debbie on his 80th birthday, Amherst, 1982. And, bottom row: (4) Ian, Debbie, Vanessa and her husband, Troy Sands; and (5) the Wheelock sisters.


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