Section: Opinion

In fond remembrance of Professor Bill Klein

There is certain relief, now familiar to nearly all alumni, that comes when a familiar building leaves the Hill. Bar, Black Box, Bookstore: For me, memory is the preferred location for my favorite parts of Kenyon. They are better off there.

This cannot be said for old professors. 

The late professor William “Bill” Klein — known as Klein to both his admirers and detractors in the student body — was ancient even back in 2014-15, when I had him for his famed Anglo-Saxon class and then for a special project. His modern memory was failing, but the ancient memory was in full bloom. Even that is not quite just to him; though he might forget your name in class, he would recall essays of yours from weeks and months prior, referencing them in his reviews of your latest assignment like an earnest fan, as if he filed them alongside Chaucer, Dickinson and Bede in his bald head.

Klein cared deeply for his students, a subtlety lost on those who knew him only for his reputation as an easy grader. Klein did not come to Kenyon to crack skulls; the phenomenon of grade inflation — though he contributed to it — perhaps amused him as a side effect of something else, rather than a disease. His manner of teaching, discussion-driven to the point of maddening silences, suggested that gene (recessive in academia) of wanting to teach more than be published. He loved the Hill and seemed to believe he’d arrived, something few feel with conviction.

As such, Klein was always in his creaky-carpeted, papers-laden hidey-hole of an office in Sunset like a hermit, sometimes even on weekends. In this humble office, he offered me a great deal of advice, unexpectedly bawdy stories or reverent allusions to John Crowe Ransom, a man Klein venerated like a saint.

One frequent reference was to one of Ransom’s essays, “Why Critics Don’t Go Mad,” a piece which I think comforted Klein in the Kenyon atmosphere of quasi-literary mysticism, much like his beloved Amish furniture. Klein shared this essay with me during a period of my life when a great deal was going wrong at Kenyon and he was one of few privy to it. He made a photocopy for me and pointed out on the still-warm paper:

“It is apparent that I think of the critic as a good man; a man of integrity pursuing an uncertain career … [Parents] need not fear to entrust the good young men their sons to him at the university … they will be made acquainted among other things with the soul of modern man, and that is something which is in store for them anyhow, one time or the other.” 

“That’s what this is all about,” Klein said, dismissing my troubles with authority. “You’ve found the modern man and all that. But,” he said, folding the papers to the title page, “You will not go mad.” 

Looking back, I realized there was something else Ransom was right about: The critic in this case, Klein, was undoubtedly a good man. I did find out a great deal about the soul of the modern at Kenyon — and if they have a scrap of the human warmth that Bill Klein did, then collectively, we shall be all right. We will not go mad.

But we shall miss him sorely all the same.

M. T. Eley ’15 was an English major with a concentration in the integrated program for humane studies (IPHS). He lives in Roanoke, Va. 

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