Story

  • And he studied with Robert Frost

    For one semester of my senior year, the great poet, Robert Frost, had a visiting chair in the English Department. That was serendipitous luck. As an English major I was eligible to attend the twice weekly evening meeting with the great man in the Rare Books Room of the Baker Library. None of us ever achieved a personal acquaintance with Mr. Frost, but I did have an advantage for being accepted.

    Here is how it happened. Seniors in English were to compete for the only fifteen students privileged to sit with the master. Each applicant could write a short essay on why he was specially qualified to appreciate the privilege. Mr. Frost would read the essays and choose the winners. I was a successful athlete but an average student. I was pretty sure I would be outgunned by the competition. So I took perhaps the first big chance in life at that time and reverted to guile. This is what I wrote:

    “Dear Mr. Frost:
    You were the guest of my uncle, Dr. George Waterman, on the occasion of your speaking engagement at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach (Uncle George was the President of that society) and you behaved very badly. I think you owe it to me.”

    I will add that I had listened to family gossip about his visit in Palm Beach. Uncle George’s wife, my Aunt Claire, was a tough nut. She kept a cook and demanded punctuality to dinners. Frost was not only egregiously late but occasional didn’t appear at all. Other outrages: he often stayed out until small hours of the morning and used their phone for long-distant calls to his girl friend. Aunt Claire loathed their independent guest. Frost reciprocated (although he honored and appreciated Uncle George, a good and enormously popular gentleman). My act was so brash that I almost drew back from dropping it in the faculty mailbox. But I did, and the call came to meet in his office.

    The next day I found myself facing Mr. Frost in his office. A pair of strikingly blue eyes, as familiar as the warm, humorous country face to most of the literary world, observed me for a few moments. He spoke, “So you are Dr. Waterman’s nephew? What do you think of that wife of his?”

    I had already considered such a question and readied an answer, “She was a World Class, mean and difficult tartar and she scared us all” I answered (taking another big chance).

    He laughed and asserted emphatically, “AGREED!” We both laughed (I with great relief). We topically talked for a few exchanges and he wrapped up the visit, “I’ll see you tomorrow evening. You’re in”.

    During that winter term we sat on the floor in front a big fireplace. Frost sat in a winged chair by the fire. He read to us from new poems he was working on, discussed their structure and composition, at times recited old and popular poems and occasionally took questions from his audience. It was never a structured study. It was just a privilege to be in the presence of literary greatness.

    Over the years I earned my bread partly as a speaker, narrating my 16mm films live on lecture circuits and later – with the advent of video – at seminars. I was frequently introduced effusively with reference to “…and he studied with Robert Frost”. That Dartmouth experience was never a classroom study. But the association with the legendary, enormously popular poet was a big boost.

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