As a future English major, I was honored to have been admitted to English 25, back in 1956 Yale’s Honors English course for first-year students. I got to class early that first day and couldn’t wait to meet our instructor. When he walked in, however, I was taken aback. He was nothing like what I had expected. Although he had the requisite Harris Tweed jacket on, he seemed to me more like Disney’s Scrooge McDuck than a suave Yale professor. My disappointment deepened when he introduced himself. His Southern-inflected English was crammed full of strange idioms and bizarre mannerisms. And here I was waiting for terse New England cool. Decades later when I read Dick Cavett’s autobiography, Cavett, he recounts being taken by his roommate to a class taught by this professor, then spends the better part of the page describing the oddities of speech he experienced and learned to mimic...
As it turned out, mine was a classic case of first impressions deceiving. Alexander McLaren Witherspoon, familiarly known by the boys—Yale College was all male back then—as Withy, turned out to be my favorite instructor at an institution where famous faculty members competed for applause at the end of term for a knock-out undergraduate course. (Yale’s policy required even the best-known professors to teach at least one undergraduate course each year.) Like the actress Reese Witherspoon, a distant relative, Withy was descended from the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, the first president of Princeton University, and the only clergyperson to sign the Declaration of Independence.
English 25 was a year-long survey course where we read great works of English (and some American) poetry, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English, through Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Milton’s Paradise Lost, among other things, to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Later in graduate school I had Withy again for a Great Works of English Prose course. In between, he was my undergraduate advisor. A resident fellow of Berkeley College, the Oxbridge-style dormitory cluster where I lived, he once saved me from a run-in with my world-famous Chaucer professor, E. Talbot Donaldson, whose grad assistant usually gave me a C+ on my weekly essays no matter how hard I tried even though I was straight-A in all my other classes. Mr. Donaldson ended up raising my course grade and, thanks to Withy, probably made my magna/Phi Beta Kappa graduation possible. In summary, Withy was a wonderful professor who brought everything we studied to life, helped us understand the essence of what we were reading, and taught us how to read out loud in a way that would make our listeners sit up straight. He was like James Hilton’s Mr. Chips: Not just a teacher of literary material but a mentor of young adults and a trainer of souls. Like Jimmy Carter he taught Sunday School until shortly before his death. In fact, he became my idea of a true Christian gentleman. With my new German wife, Simone, I visited him in his assisted-living quarters a few months before he died. Dressed in his tweed jacket, he pointed to the profusion of flowers, boxes of candy, books, and numerous other gifts. “Take what you like,” he said. “I don’t need these things anymore.” What I saw in him now was only beauty. The frog was really a prince.