Robert Louis Reynolds tells of how his unassuming Latin teacher inspired him to learn and to love, in Reeve Chudd’s sweetly sentimental tale.
|Image generated with OpenAI|
My name is Robert Louis Reynolds, Jr, and this is not my story, nor is it a story of my family – not my biological family, anyway. It is, instead, the story I’ve told my son and his sons about the profound impact our teachers can have on our lives. It is the story of Grover Joseph Lassiter, who taught Latin for nearly fifty years at Lorrington Academy, a then all-boys prep school near Agawam, just over the Connecticut River from Longmeadow in western Massachusetts.
It is with equal parts of guilt, pride, and love that now, as one of the “Old Boys” (which is how the School referred to its alumni) that I write here in the hopes that future sons – now sons and daughters – of Lorrington will also know more of him as well.
Lorrington Academy was founded in 1834 by Phineas G. Lorrington, an American industrialist whose rendering factories built conveniently next to slaughterhouses created sludge with multiple uses, from animal feed to soaps to fuel. Unlike many philanthropists of his day, Mr Lorrington made his fortune on prowess and experience, devoid of any corruption or government favors and without the support of his older family members. He had learned from his father, a simple barber, that education was the tool to elevate one’s station. Hence, Mr Lorrington planned to create a boys’ college preparatory institution for decades.
The school was a stereotypical single-gender, New England private boarding institution of the period, with tie-and-jacket required daily and classes every day except Sunday. While not steeped in religion, grace was uttered before every meal; obligatory, though brief, chapel services were endured every day except Sunday; and on that seventh day, the boys wore full business suits and attended a mandatory, high Episcopalian (though school brochures claimed it was nonsectarian) service of at least two and one-half hours in length. About ten years after my tenure, the School merged with Longmeadow School for Girls and became a co-ed institution, Lorrington-Longmeadow Academy.
Mr Lassiter, alternatively (or conjunctively) referred to affectionately and/or irreverently in privacy by the boys as “Old Joe” or just “Joe”, was nearly 70 years old when I matriculated as a freshman in the fall of 1965, coming from my family’s home in Hamilton County, Indiana, just north of Indianapolis. That summer, my parents announced their intention to divorce, and my mother, still just thirty-seven years old, didn’t want her only child infringing his teenage years upon her newly found single life, so she sent me off to boarding school, some 900 miles away. While I went kicking and screaming, my banishment to Lorrington was perhaps the greatest gift that my parents bestowed upon me besides my birth. I thrived and grew with the discipline and control of the institution. But, then again, this isn’t my story.
When I met Old Joe, he was five-foot-nine – perhaps a bit shorter because of his poor posture – with white, thin hair, and he was frail and barely filled his suit of clothes. In faculty photos from days of yore, strewn around the campus halls, I could see him a few inches taller, bolt upright and vital, sporting a full head of dark hair and a wide smile that only rarely passed his lips when I knew him in the flesh. As had all of the Old Boys from decades gone by, I sat as a freshman in Latin 1 class with Mr Lassiter’s normal stone face, severely monotone voice, and Boston Brahmin accent. I know that sounds like a death sentence, but the Lorrington tradition of “creative compliance” truly made Latin 1 a glorious experience.
What was this “creative compliance”? It was a most wonderful, age-old practice at Lorrington that our observance of traditions and rules would be done in an innovative and sometimes magical manner. For example, during winter, all boys (and even the Masters, as the teachers were called) were required to wear hats when outside. Failure to do so would be an infraction which, if the offender was caught, meant a punishment of “hours” – time doing assigned menial chores, such as shoveling snow, mopping floors, reshelving library books, and other tasks teenagers didn’t appreciate. How did the boys observe the Winter Hat Rule? They brought from home – or purchased from the nearby St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop – top hats, chef hats, dunce cones, cowboy hats, ancient pilot headgear, coon skin hats, and many, many others. One boy wore a sombrero, another a Mickey Mouse ears hat (presumably procured at Disneyland). Still another wore a 15-foot knitted stocking hat manufactured by his mother with alternating stripes of the school colors (black and gold), the extraordinary length of which conveniently doubled as a scarf around his neck.
Mr Lassiter always wore a black beret. We later discovered he’d married a French wife just after the Great War, but she died soon after. Perhaps this was his tribute to her memory. But more on that later.
As another example of creative compliance, we had to wear neckties every day of the week. How did we creatively comply with this constriction prescription? We produced and wore the most outrageous, gaudy, masterfully ugly neckwear available, and the wider and more revolting, the better. These included bow ties that spun, with Christmas lights, and silly messages (eg, “I like dogs and maybe 4 people”). We competed for the most frightful creations; the most abhorrent neckwear achieved the highest esteem among the boys. So disgusted was one Master, Mr Townsmith – known to the boys by his secret moniker, “Gopher,” because of his buck teeth – by these offending sights, completely devoid of sartorial splendor, that while we were in his English class during the winter months he would have the most offending wearer in the class surrender his tie, to be hung outside the window from the shade drawstring, becoming close to frozen stiff by the end of the class. Was this punishment? Of course not. The winner of this privilege spent the entire class with his neck in freedom. Yes, Mr Townsmith was amused by creative compliance, just like Old Joe and the rest of us.
Here’s the guilt part of my story: one tradition at Lorrington, which in retrospect still haunts me, was that the boys (including myself, I’m afraid) in Latin 1 fell into the age-old pattern of disrespectfully mimicking Joe’s monotone delivery and Boston accent in his class, so that every sentence we uttered in that classroom, whether in English or in Latin, was spoken just as he would say it, except that we prefaced or ended our statements with, “Suh.” While I knew that Mr Lassiter was all too aware of the practice, he never once let on to a single boy that he found their method of response insolent or hurtful, and I regret that in one of those rare moments when he and I were alone together in conversation, I never asked him if he was bothered by it. We didn’t invent this practice; later, as an upperclassman, I waited on tables at Alumni Day reunions on campus and confirmed that, as far back as 1936, the boys had performed identically in Old Joe’s class. But, to a man, the Old Boys spoke with great love for Old Joe, likening him to their father away from home. By the time I heard that admiration and adoration, I knew exactly what they meant.
Here’s an example of this phenomenon of mimicry: Joe asked one of us very early on in our first trimester: “Young Hallis (we were all referred to as Young, followed by our surname – never once by our given name), use the adverb semper (“always”) in a sentence.” Naturally, when Old Joe issued this command, it sounded like “…use the advebb sempah“.
Ronnie Hallis, a wisecracker throughout our four years together, replied cleverly with words from our first vocabulary list: “Sempah ubi sub ubi, Suh” (“Always where under where”). A couple of us who understood the pun chuckled, but not Mr Lassiter. Perhaps by this time in his long tenure, he’d heard it all because, in a deadpan look, he moved his gaze from Ronnie over to me, uttering merely an inquisitive: “Young Reynolds?” to which I replied with the only Latin sentence I could remember with that word, John Wilkes Booth’s utterance after he’d shot President Lincoln: “Sic semper tyrannis, Suh” (but “semper” came out as
“sempah” because I had to “pahk the cah in the Hahvahd yahd“).
There was, however, an even bolder and more lively tradition for the Lorrington freshmen in Mr Lassiter’s Latin 1 class. Whereas the course curriculum was about memorizing Latin vocabulary, declension of nouns, and conjugation of verbs, and was not intended to be a course of conversational Latin, thanks to the encouragement of the upperclassmen of Lorrington and the tradition of creative compliance, several of the freshmen in Latin 1 would research and use literal Latin translations of everyday idiomatic English colloquialisms in class (and sometimes, outside of class, we greeted each other with “Ave!” as if we were all Centurions or Roman Senators).
Taking up the challenge, Worthy Mansfield (Worthington Charles Mansfield V) and I would spend our only free time (Sunday afternoon) in deep research in the school library and eventually in the Agawam community library (there was then, of course, no Google), to create fun expressions we could try on Old Joe. Mr Lassiter was thrillingly up to the challenge with his responses, but, more important. I was certain he enjoyed the boys’ project, correcting us more often than not.
My first effort in this endeavor was delivered on my way out of class one Saturday morning. With my very best monotone imitation, I bid goodbye to Old Joe: “Sit hic dies tibi incundus, Suh.” (“Have a nice day”). Without hesitation, Old Joe replied: “Spes est, Reynolds adulescens.” (“Hopefully, Young Reynolds”). I smiled back and nodded, but then later, I had to research the translation of his response. Nevertheless, after our first such colloquial encounter, I sensed that I had begun a connection, even a relationship, with Old Joe. Although I didn’t elicit a smile from him, I told myself I had precipitated a scintilla of pleasure in the old man.
With such self-encouragement, I was inspired to press on with my research, doing far more than Worthy or any of my other classmates. I set myself a goal to have at least two such encounters with Mr Lassiter weekly. Even in class, when Old Joe, thumbing through our textbook, casually began a Monday class, asking himself, “Now, where were we on Friday?” I chimed in, “Exercemus casus ablativos et modus subjunctives meos, Suh!” (“We’re working on ablatives and subjunctives.”). His eyebrows curled upward, “Cabtatio benevolentiae, eh Reynolds,” he said with a smirk (not quite a smile, yet) which literally meant “catching goodwill.” But the way he said it, he meant that I was “brown-nosing,” ie, currying his favor a little bit excessively.
I became captivated by the exotic nature of what I perceived to be conversational Latin (even though it was a mere translation rather than a true Roman dialect), as opposed to the sterile memorization and regurgitation of the Latin 1 curriculum. I began concentrating heavily on my grade in Latin, and my efforts paid off so that I became far and away the best student in that class. Quite frankly, I was not deterred in the least by the annoyance which began to fester on the faces of my classmates (although they later revealed that they secretly hoped that my prominence would distract Old Joe away from their less-than-stellar performance in the class).
We ate every meal at Lorrington family style in the cavernous dining room, ten at a table (except Sunday breakfast, which was an optional and casual dress). A Master sat at the head of the table, and the rest of the dining room table would be filled with students unless the Master was married and had children, in which case there was room left for them (they only joined us occasionally for dinner, but their chairs were reserved). What was amazing and still puzzles me is that we switched tables every two weeks, and, somehow, the mystery table assignor on the staff assured that each of us was placed at a table during the school year with every one of the 400 boys, without computers to accomplish the feat.
Since all of the boys took turns waiting at our table (bringing each course, clearing several times on aluminum trays and wiping the table, and resetting it for the next meal) for at least three meals during our two-week tenure there, Mr Lassiter’s table, devoid of spouse or children, was desirable because there would be nine boys at his table to cover the waiter assignments for the forty formal meals of the fortnight, leaving us the best chance of enduring only one turn as table waiter during the two week period.
We later learned that Mr Lassiter met his future wife, Marie, during World War I, when he and his Army platoon occupied a farmhouse outside of a small town in northeastern France, Fleury-devant-Douaumont, which had been destroyed by German artillery. Marie apparently spoke broken English (but Mr Lassiter was fluent in French), and her father, the farm owner, was incredibly generous to the doughboys occupying his barn and residence. He especially took to Old Joe because of his impeccable French and upon hearing of Old Joe’s farming background.
After the Armistice, Mr Lassiter had returned to the farm, professed his love of Marie, and, within a year after his return to his home in Longmeadow, sent for Marie to join him as his wife. By the time they wed, Mr Lassiter had taken a teaching job at Lorrington, and legend has it that the boys coveted an assignment to his table at meals so that they could gawk at his diminutive blond beauty at dinner. Two years after she arrived in the States, Old Joe’s adored Marie was thrown from her horse, who’d been apparently spooked by the report of an automobile backfire nearby, and the fall caused her to suffer a broken neck, killing her instantly. The School buried Marie in the nearby Agawam cemetery, with all of the boys and Masters attending the funeral service at the School chapel and the gravesite. Old Joe never remarried and never had children of his own. We boys were his children. We were most definitely his loving sons.
In addition to mandatory Latin, freshmen at Lorrington also took the first of four years of a modern foreign language, either French, Spanish, or German. Because my maternal grandfather, with whom I was quite close, spoke fluent French (having picked it up when living there for a year while he, his mother, and brother were immigrating eventually to the United States), I took French. It was another tradition that each modern language Master would take his freshman class to watch a theatrical exhibition of a foreign film in their chosen language (with subtitles, of course). Because Mr Lassiter’s polyglot talents were well known at the school, our French Master, Monsieur Mouchet, took Old Joe as an additional chaperone for our outing to Longmeadow, where the somewhat risqué “Belle du Jour,” starring a young and exquisite Catherine Deneuve, was playing. Belle de nuit was an old French idiom literally meaning “night beauty” but used to refer to a prostitute. Instead, Ms. Deneuve was Belle de Jour, the beauty of the day, and the phrase also refers to the Morning Glory flower, which only blooms in the daylight.
The movie plot concerned a frigid wife who becomes a prostitute in order to be more available to her husband. After the movie, in our transport van, we were restricted to speaking only in French, and Mr Lassiter asked us, “Qu’avez-vous pensé du cul de Catherine Deneuve?” (“What did you think of the ass of Catherine Deneuve”). Apparently, we’d seen the Americanized version of the film because only Ms. Deneuve’s naked backside was featured (in those days, the European versions would include frontal nudity). Worthy Mansfield, far more advanced in French than the rest of us, replied, eloquently I might add, with the soulful cry of a teenage boy in a hormonal storm, as we all were: “Mon dieu! C’était la chose la plus merveilleuse que j’aie jamais vue!” (“My god, it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen!”) Our esteem for Old Joe from this brief exchange of fantasy rose exponentially, and then the next day, the entire School was abuzz with Mr Lassiter’s rare exhibition as “one of the guys” with us. We felt privileged to be the purveyors of such bountiful gossip with the upperclassmen.
Lorrington students spent every weekday morning (and Saturday) at 7:30am in our School chapel for mandatory religious services. Sundays, we endured a longer, high Episcopalian service with a full sermon by our School chaplain, who also taught our daily comparative religion class – we referred to the class as “Bible Boredom” – which we endured all four years of our tenure. In the brief, twenty-minute weekday service, a Master or a prominent student was placed at the lectern to deliver a brief sermon (which, if delivered by a student, needed to be held to no more than three minutes in order to avoid incessant criticism from our classmates afterward). Students were selected to participate based on their ongoing grades in Bible Boredom class, and having tested well in our first trimester, I received the nod as the third freshman to speak at one of these weekday mornings late in the winter.
In preparing for this venture, I harkened back to my father’s favorite quotation from Scripture. Dad’s greatest talent was simplification. I knew that waxing too metaphysically with this crowd would purchase for me a one-way ticket to hell, and I had to submit my comments to our chaplain in advance for possible censorship, so there was no opportunity for either levity or blasphemy. I spoke of the passage from the prophet Micah 6:8, but I didn’t know at the time how fitting this quote would be as a tribute to Old Joe. Here’s what I said:
“The prophet Micah gave us perhaps the simplest definition of leading a righteous life when he said that all that God asks of us is ‘to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.’ My father called this passage the ‘watchword of his life’ when I was much younger. I didn’t really understand him then, nor can I say that I fully understand him now. The same direction was stated in different words by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount and by a dozen other inspirational and enlightened speakers. My father told me that should I meet anyone who embodies that simple instruction, they deserve my utmost respect, regardless of their religious beliefs. I hope that I shall have the courage and dedication to follow that path as well.”
I heard neither criticism nor praise from my classmates, who were probably still half asleep during my appearance. Several Masters complimented me as we walked down the steps from the chapel. I didn’t hear from Mr Lassiter until the end of our Latin I class that morning.
“Young Reynolds!” he called to me just as I was exiting his classroom. I turned to face him.
“About your discussion in chapel this morning.”
“Yes, Suh?” I asked.
He pursed his lips and slightly closed his eyes, seemingly in an effort to convey the gravity of what he was about to tell me. “Nicely done, my boy. Extremely well done.”
“Thank you, Suh,” I whispered, astonished to have such an effulgent kindness in my favor. I will always treasure that moment and retain to this day the vision of his face in my mind’s eye because I later learned that this was a man who indeed captured the words of the Prophet.
Spring came early that year, and when the daily damp heat of western Massachusetts commenced, at one dinner, the headmaster announced that the boys would be permitted to wear shorts, along with obligatory knee-length socks. There was no air conditioning in any of Lorrington’s buildings, only large, noisy fans, and we cheered the announcement. The sight of us, in tie and jacket, shorts and knee socks, was a great source of amusement to the Agawam townspeople, whom we referred to as “Townies.” They resented the presence of the privileged Lorrington boys. Not a spring day went by when we walked on the sidewalks of Agawam without hearing a car horn to signal their enjoyment of the silliness of our appearance. But when we entered Latin 1 class and found Mr Lassiter in our same outfit, with his 70-plus knobby knees showing, we realized again that he was one of us. He was the only Master to don our less formal attire, and one of the boys, Leonard Hayden, as I recall, remarked after class that Old Joe’s exhibition was something his own father might have done in support of his son.
On a very steamy day in May of that trimester, I greeted Joe with: “Satine caloris tibi dies est, Suh?” (“Hot enough for you?”), and I had to write down and later research his response: “Non calor sed umor est qui nobis incommodat, Young Reynolds” (something like “It’s not the heat; it’s the humidity”). And he smiled at me! That simple grin was sunshine to me because I could feel the warmth from the old man, who now completely filled my heart. I felt that I’d climbed a summit to gain his friendship; I almost leaped forward to hug him, but instead, in a moment of restraint, I scampered out of the classroom door through a crowd of sophomores awaiting his Latin II class.
Near the end of my freshman year, Agawam held its annual Memorial Day parade down its main thoroughfare, appropriately named Main Street. It was another sticky, humid day, and Mr Lassiter marched (strolled, really) with the veterans of foreign wars, being the most senior of the group. Several other Masters, veterans of World War II, also marched along with him. Being a Sunday afternoon, a few from our class went into town to watch and cheer them. We also watched as Mr Lassiter collapsed onto the pavement in front of us.
Those of us from Lorrington rushed to his side, and the Masters carried him, still conscious, a block away to the School infirmary, where there was a telephone to call an ambulance, and Dr Chester, the School physician who lived behind the infirmary, was summoned. After a quick examination, Dr Chester told us that he believed that Mr Lassiter had suffered a massive heart attack and that it was profoundly serious. While we waited for the ambulance to arrive, we gathered around Joe’s weak body lying in bed before us.
In semi-consciousness, Mr Lassiter looked at me and conjugated the verb to love: “amo, amas, amat… Repeat.” From habit, I automatically replied: “Amo, amas, amat… amamus,” and he weakly motioned his hand to cut me off. “Amamus” (“We love”) was his last utterance. Dr. Chester checked his heartbeat with his stethoscope and shook his head. I passed through denial instantly, fell to my knees, and began to weep. All of us present were utterly overcome.
Old Joe’s funeral was held in the School chapel, and at least a hundred of the Old Boys attended and stood in the aisles and the chapel lobby to pay their respects. It was there that Mr Lassiter’s 61-year-old cousin, Cecile Black, who lived in Lenox, about eight miles away, shared with us a part of his untold history. After the memorial service, I introduced myself to Cecile and asked if I could copy her notes from her brief speech. She said that Old Joe had mentioned me to her, and she understood our mutual adoration of him immediately, so she drew her notes from her purse and presented them to me. Here is what she’d written:
Good morning. I’m Cecile Black, Grover’s first cousin and next of kin. Grover was an only child, as was I, and so we kept in touch over the years. I’m going to relate a history of my cousin that I anticipate none of you have heard before, as my cousin was a quiet, sweet man and never concerned himself with what other people thought about him. But he would tell me all about how he loved the boys of Lorrington and how amused and heartened he was when some of you sought to invent colloquial Latin to converse with him. He always had stories to tell me about you boys.
I barely knew Grover as a child, as I was nine years younger than he, and he went off to college by the time I was becoming self-aware. About those early years, I can only say that whenever our families would get together, Grover had his nose in a book most of the time. So, I don’t have any significant childhood stories of him to speak of. Instead, I’ll start in late May of 1917, when Grover Lassiter graduated from Harvard, majoring in classical studies. I was at his graduation ceremony with Grover’s mother, and while still wearing his cap and gown, he bid adieu to us and departed after the commencement ceremonies in the central green of Harvard Yard (now known as Tercentenary Theatre) and proceeded to walk to the Cambridge enlistment center. He was immediately assigned to the Officer Training Camp in Plattsburg, New York, receiving his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the regular army infantry in November, and he sailed for France in January of 1918, eventually making his way to Company 1 of the 116th Infantry, 42nd Division.
As a result of his valor in battle, Grover, then not even twenty-four years old, was awarded the Purple Heart and the Congressional Medal of Honor, with the following citation:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy northeast of Binarrville in the Argonne Forest, France, October 2-7, 1918. Although cut off for five days from the remainder of his division, Lt Lassiter maintained his position, which he had reached under orders, and held his command, consisting initially of 28 men, in the face of an enemy of far superior numbers. He and his command were cut off without additional supplies, rations, or ammunition in spite of determined efforts to get them to him and his men. His men were forced to rob the supplies from Germans they had killed in battle in order to survive and maintain their position. On the fourth day, under the white flag, the enemy transmitted an offer of surrender while quietly attempting to outflank the Americans. Lt Lassiter and his 13 remaining men repelled the effort and continued to prevent the enemy’s advancement, holding fast until the fifth day, when 250 men of the 42nd Division surprised the enemy from behind, at which point, Lt Lassiter, though himself wounded, left his men, now safe with the relieving soldiers, and alone followed the retreating enemy and captured their fleeing commandant as his prisoner.”
Grover asked me to donate his medals to Lorrington, and your Headmaster has agreed to provide a suitable display on campus for them, as well as his commendation, to be a permanent fixture here. While his bravery as a soldier might seem quite extraordinary to many of you, it was his lifelong dedication to you boys that he regarded as his legacy. As I mentioned, you boys were a constant source of stories and anecdotes which Grover shared with me, you brought him continuous joy and wonder. And when any of the Old Boys would return to campus and sought out Grover for a visit, he was elated and would often report them to me with glee. If there is a heaven, then Grover has united with his late wife, Marie, the soldiers under his command whom he left on the battlefield, and, of course, the Lorrington Old Boys who will join him at some point.
My cousin was modest to a fault. He once shared with me his sorrow that his was not a distinguished life, and he felt that his memory would be short and faint. I assured him that he was mistaken. I trust that you boys will make certain that my reassurances showed clear and correct foresight.
Mr Lassiter had never mentioned his war experience to any of the boys or the other Masters, and the only uniform we ever saw him wear was his old, ratty Army side cap in the Memorial Day parade, so we never saw his Medal of Honor ribbon, light blue with five white stars. While I regret that I didn’t know about his wartime courage while I knew the living man, it is a testament to Old Joe that his humility was the greatest lesson I learned from him. Nothing in Caesar’s Gallic Wars or Cicero’s musings could give that lesson to me so profoundly. Micah would indeed be proud.
At the fiftieth reunion of my Lorrington class, the dozen or so of us attending (out of a class of 101) decided unanimously to walk to the only florist in Agawam, and we bought out their near-fresh inventory and marched to the town cemetery where our hero is buried, next to his dear Marie. The town cemetery, barely a quarter acre during our student days, had now grown to twelve acres of plots, and yet we had absolutely no problem finding the grave of Mr Lassiter, even though we hadn’t been there for half a century. He was right where we’d left him.
We showered his gravesite with our blossoms, and now, nearly the same age as Old Joe, we wept again for our loss. “Te adhuc amamus, Suh,” I choked out. We still love you.