Memories of a Classics Major at Holy Cross 1968–1971

In the fall of 1967, when I began my college search as a senior at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, I knew from the start that I wanted to attend a Jesuit college as a residential student. I remember having a conference with the Prep guidance counselor, who recommended Holy Cross. Worcester seemed just about the right distance from my home in Hoboken. It was far enough away for a new cultural experience (Except for Connecticut, I had never visited New England, which had always fascinated me!), but close enough to home for an occasional visit.

So, I didn’t apply to any other colleges, just Holy Cross, in the Early Decision Program, which promised me an early admission decision provided that I agreed to attend if accepted. So, by sometime in November, I think, I had been accepted at Holy Cross and ended my college search, without even having stepped foot on campus!

I didn’t actually visit Worcester until sometime in June of 1968, after my high school graduation. I persuaded my parents to take a trip up and a high school buddy, Bob Ruggieri, who had not yet made a college choice, tagged along. Visiting campus confirmed for me that I had made the right choice, and Bob was so pleased with the school that he eventually enrolled as well.

Of course, from the start, there was the question of a college major. At the time I was vaguely thinking about sociology, as a preparation for a life of public service, but I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. That is one of the reasons a small liberal arts college is a good choice for many college-bound students.

While most of my freshman courses were required (English, Philosophy, Theology, History and Modern Foreign Language — I took French), there was room in every freshman’s schedule for one “elective” course each semester. Since I had taken four years of Latin and three years of Greek in high school, and really enjoyed both subjects, I decided to register for a course entitled “Hellenic Traditions Seminar: Aeschylus.” The idea of reading Greek tragedy in the original was very appealing to me, but little did I realize at the time that Aeschylus’s Greek is especially difficult to read and that the Hellenic Traditions Seminar was the capstone course in the Classics Department. Students were expected to read five of Aeschylus’ extant plays in Greek and submit to a public final exam by outside examiners. And here I was with only three years of high school Greek under my belt.

Probably someone at Holy Cross should have counseled me against taking that course, but no one did. Fortunately, however, it turned out that half of the eight students enrolled in the seminar were freshmen like me and the seminar was taught by a very kind and understanding man, Werner Loewy, who was always encouraging despite the fact that I was clearly in over my head.

Mr Loewy — he never finished his Ph.D. at Columbia — had escaped from Nazi Germany as a young Jewish man and settled in Yonkers with his parents and sister. He and his wife Frances never had any children. I don’t know how they wound up at Holy Cross, where he taught Classics and she was a departmental secretary, but he was a wonderful addition to the Classics Dept. I have fond memories of his ever-present smile and sense of humor, as well as his patience with even the most struggling or sometimes unprepared students. I can still hear him ask a student in an amused voice “Is that a sight translation, Mr. X?” and then exhale a bit of pipe smoke into the room. His pipe-smoking was a regular feature of class and none of us seemed to mind. Those were different times.

The seminar met in a room dedicated to Classics upstairs in Dinand Library, the ideal location to study the ancient texts.

I had to work very hard for that seminar, just to keep up, but, thanks especially to Mr. Loewy’s encouragement, I did manage to read all that Greek and even write a term paper comparing Aeschylus’ Choephoroi to Euripides’ Electra. By spring my knowledge of the language had improved considerably and I even survived the public examination, which my parents drove up from New Jersey to attend.

Here is the full program for that public exam.

By the end of freshman year I knew that I wanted to be a Classics major, thanks in large part to Mr. Loewy. I eventually did take a sociology course, by the way, but must confess that I found it somewhat disappointing — mostly jargon without much substance, at least to my immature mind.

One of the members of that Aeschylus seminar, John Dowd ’71, took two more seminars with me. We became good friends and have stayed in touch over the years.

A senior Classics major I especially remember from my first year was Ken Kitchell, who went on to earn a Ph.D. in Classics from Loyola University in Chicago and to teach Classics first at Louisiana State University and then at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Over the years, Ken and I became good friends and even collaborated on an Elementary Latin course entitled Disce! (but that is a tale for another time).

Ed Vodoklys, a native of Winthrop MA, a graduate of Boston College High and a fellow member of the class of ’72, became my roommate for two years (1969–70 and 1970–71). Ed, too, was a Classics major. We resided in Wheeler Hall and even spent a day during the summer of 1969 painting our room.

Ed went on from HC to receive a Ph.D. in Classics from Harvard and become a Jesuit. He is currently a member of the current Holy Cross faculty.

The Hellenic Tradition Seminar the following year was on Thucydides, taught by Fr. Joseph Marique, who, I think, had started the seminar fourteen years earlier. Fr. Marique was a very demanding teacher and Thucydides, like Aeschylus, was a challenging author, but by now I was better prepared and able to cope a bit more. What I remember most about Fr. Marique was his disdain for liberal politics, and, especially the New York Times, which he always referred to as the ‘gospel according to Sulzberger.”

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War was, in some ways, an appropriate text to read during the academic year 1969–70 with all the anti-war protests, culminating in the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970, which closed down college campuses throughout the country, including Holy Cross. All final exams were cancelled that semester, including the planned public examination for the Thucydides seminar, and students received grades based upon their work up until the cancellation of classes. Thucydides would have been fascinated.

In sophomore year all students were required to take a New Testament course in the Theology Dept., but what I really wanted to do was to read the New Testament in Greek instead. Fortunately, Fr. William Fitzgerald, S.J. was offering a New Testament course in the Classics Dept. and somehow I managed to get permission to take that course to fulfill my theology requirement. Fr. Fitzgerald was another asset to the Classics Dept. and I eventually took a course on Roman comedy from him as well. He was also one of the officiants at my wedding in 1972.

Although I never took a course from him, I would be remiss if I did not also mention Fr. Robert Healey, S.J., who also taught in the Classics Dept. but whom I knew much better as the Jesuit resident on my floor in Wheeler Hall. The door to Fr. Healey’s apartment was always open and students were welcome to stop by for chats long and short. His booming laughter would often be heard ringing down the hall. So, for me, Classics was everywhere at Holy Cross.

And he even kept a cat in his apartment in Wheeler. Occasionally the cat excaped and made a run down the hall!

In my sophomore year I also enrolled in a Latin course with a newly-hired Classics professor, Dr. William Ziobro, who had graduated from Holy Cross in 1966 as a Classics major and had just earned his doctorate at The Johns Hopkins University with a dissertation on Sophocles. I took a survey of Latin literature with him. It was quite an experience to take a course from a newly-minted Ph.D.

Ziobro taught the Hellenic Tradition Seminar the following year. The subject, inevitably, was Sophocles, and he was determined that we would read all seven extant plays in Greek. The class as a whole “only” read six, but some of us read all seven! It was probably the most intense of the three seminars I took and, in many ways, was more demanding than any course I took in graduate school. Both John Dowd and Ed Vodoklys were members of this seminar.

Here is the full program for that public exam.

As I look back on all three seminars which I took I really can’t imagine how we managed to do all that work in addition to the demands for all our other courses. But we did.

Ziobro’s arrival at Holy Cross was a game-changer for me. By the end of my second year at the Cross, I realized that with a couple of summer courses I could graduate in three years and save some tuition money for my parents, who still had four children in the potential college pipeline. So I persuaded my parents to let me attend a summer program in Greece to earn the necessary credits and they agreed. I will write about that glorious summer in Greece another time, but graduating early meant that I quickly had to decide about my future.

While I really liked Classics, I was still not sure I was cut out for graduate school or would even be accepted in a graduate program. But Bill Ziobro encouraged me to apply, especially to Hopkins, his alma mater. So I did.

I didn’t put my eggs all in one basket, however. I had worked in the library at Holy Cross and liked library work, so I also applied to the library program at Columbia University. And I also applied to the Peace Corps.

In April of 1971 I was accepted by Columbia and received an invitation from the Peace Corps to teach English in Korea. I was very tempted by Korea, which would have led to a totally different life story for me, but, much to my surprise, I was not only accepted to the graduate program at Hopkins, but with a very attractive full-ride scholarship for three years. (Those NDEA graduate scholarships established by the federal government after Sputnik were incredible deals!) Ziobro must have written a dynamite letter for me because I am sure I did not get in simply on the merit of my own application.

The Hopkins acceptance was clearly an offer I could not turn down lightly. I decided to give graduate school in Classics a try. So I went to Hopkins in the fall after my graduation from Holy Cross in 1971. At Hopkins, in the spring of 1972, I met and married Anne F. Waterman, now my wife of 50 years, and in 1975 I successfully defended my thesis on Euripides’ Trojan Women and began a long and rewarding career as a professor of Classics.

For all of this I have Holy Cross, and, especially the faculty in the Classics Department to thank.

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Tom Sienkewicz

Tom Sienkewicz

I taught Classics for 40+ years and am now Capron Professor Emeritus of Classics at Monmouth College in Illinois. Read more about me at www.tomsienkewicz.com.