By Dan Schwartz
I entered Buffalo State at the same time the Watergate scandal was firing up.
A couple of years ago, I returned to Buff State as an instructor, and some of the feelings I’ve been having are eerily reminiscent of my early matriculation. Once again, we have an unpopular president under fire.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about my Latin professor. In those days, everyone said, if you wanted to become a lawyer you had to take Latin. At the risk of putting the way-late last dagger in Caesar, I’m here to tell you, you need not take Latin to become a lawyer. They even have Latin-English, and law dictionaries now.
But learning from Dr. Larue was one my best academic experiences. Each week we were required to translate 25 sentences by famous Romans from Latin into English and 25 from English into anguish. I’m reasonably sure none of us ever finished our homework, so we did a very Roman thing: We conspired to have one of our number ask a question that we knew would distract Larue off the topic at hand.
“Uh, Dr. Larue, that Pliny the Younger seems like quite the scamp,” and with that Larue was off like a catapult, telling us stories about Pliny, and Livy, and Catullus, and Cicero.
I always suspected he knew exactly what he and we were doing, but he downplayed his disappointment in us by making the very best of things.
One day, much to our relief, he told us we wouldn’t be going over the homework. He marched us over to the student union, where we scrunched in among many other people, to watch two television sets bolted high on a wall.
Nixon’s vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, was about to resign from office.
Agnew used to go around the country giving speeches about how horrible, we, American college students, were. He called us “an effete corps of impudent snobs.” He even criticized many of us for daring to oppose the war in Vietnam. As a result, let’s just say most of us didn’t care much for Spiro T. Agnew.
Yet, here we were standing in the Buff State Student Union learning that Spiro was resigning while under investigation for taking bribes when he was governor of Maryland.
Soon thereafter, the comedian Robert Klein spoke at our campus. He said his hero was Neil Armstrong because Neil didn’t sell out when he set foot on the moon. He said “One small step for man…” Klein reasoned, “If Agnew had been first on the moon, he would have said ‘Coca-Cola’,” or more in keeping with his past performance, “Sam’s Tailor Shop, Baltimore.” For generations, textbooks and history books would have read, “The first words said on the moon were…” It would have been the ultimate advertisement.
Agnew said he would resign, but not plead guilty. He said he would plead nolo contendere.
Suddenly, everyone who knew him turned around to ask Larue what that meant.
Suddenly we all needed the the Latin professor.
Looking like Teddy Roosevelt in a dashiki, yarn belt and wire glasses, he took full advantage of that rare moment.
Beaming, he said, “It means he will not say if he is guilty or innocent. It simply means he will not contest the charges.”
Cheers and many expressions of appreciation rose up. Even people who didn’t know him expressed their gratitude to Dr. Larue.
In sum, it was a moment we’d recall the rest of our lives.
Dan Schwartz, JD, Ph.D., teaches at SUNY Buffalo State College.