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My View: A singing professor sparked love of Shakespeare

By Dan Schwartz

When I entered college, as an early admissions student, green as a gherkin, I soon developed a strategy for picking classes. If I passed by a classroom that was crowded, I figured it was either a required course, and I should be there, or a really great course, and I wanted to be there.

One day, I wandered into a classroom that was packed to the rafters with students. There were students seated in the windowsills. There were students seated on the floor between rows of other students. There were even some seated on the ancient radiators that might’ve warmed more than the hearts of the Buffalo State students perched on it.

I grabbed the last small patch of floor at the master’s feet. It was the early 1970s, and after the ‘60s we were used to sitting on floors. The professor, a smallish, bald-pated man, imitated a loud trumpet fanfare using just his voice. "Well, that was interesting," I thought. Then he loudly imitated what he later said was an Elizabethan cannon. I guess I’ll have to take his word on that, I reasoned. He then sang, Cole Porter’s “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”

The professor said there was a theory that claimed gossip was an art form in Shakespeare’s time. Audiences would often talk over the actors, so Shakespeare began his plays with a trumpet fanfare. When people began talking over the fanfare, Shakespeare resorted to firing a cannon to get the audience to shut up. Some say the cannon caught the curtains on fire, and his theater burned to the ground. Another theory held it was burned down because the theater was getting too political.

I had wandered into a 300-level Shakespeare class. Instead of being intimidated, I was interested. As he sang, I found myself silently sending one up. “Oh God, if you’ll just give me my own class someday, I promise I’ll sing on the first day, too.”

Always be careful about what you promise God. Although I actually had an extremely brief turn as a folk singer – after Bob Dylan, anyone can “sing” – I’ve always said the government should have given me a folk singer subsidy, and paid me not to sing the way they pay some farmers not to grow crops. Still I’ve honored that promise.

Dan Schwartz.

Will Gragg was a great professor. I still remember much of what he taught us. I’ve passed on some of that to my students. He brilliantly taught us the major tragedies and “Measure for Measure,” which became a personal favorite probably because the Watergate scandal was going on.

I liked that course so much I used to arrive early and sit on the short set of steps that led up to his office in old Ketchum Hall at Buffalo State. He began calling me his Steppenwolf, and soon we began discussing the works of Herman Hesse along with those of the Bard.

I was uncharacteristically confident about the midterm. On my way into the classroom, I happened to glance at the blackboard. It read, “Professor Gragg died at 9:00 this morning.

I slumped in a chair and just stared at the blackboard. Students wandered in and quietly wandered out. When I was about to get up and leave, a stressed-out woman came in late, read the board and exclaimed, “Oh good!”

Then she noticed I was sitting there, and apologized.

I don’t completely know why, but I slowly said, “That’s OK. He was a professor so dedicated to his students, he died the day of the midterm.”

Dan Schwartz, Ph.D., teaches at SUNY Buffalo State College.

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