Friday, February 27, 2009

Robert Donald Spector, RIP

We were very sorry to read in the New York Times obituary notices that our friend Robert Donald Spector has passed away. Here's Long Island University's official announcement, by President David Steinberg and Brooklyn Campus Provost Gale Haynes:
It is with deep sadness that we write to inform you that Dr. Robert Donald Spector, coordinator of the Humanities Division and professor emeritus of English at the Brooklyn Campus, and chairman of the University’s George Polk Awards in Journalism, died on February 25. A gifted poet and writer, he was an inspiration to students and colleagues alike.

Dr. Spector’s association with the University began during his undergraduate days; he earned a B.A. in English, magna cum laude, from the Brooklyn Campus in 1948. After completing an M.A. in English at New York University, Dr. Spector returned to Long Island University to begin a teaching career that spanned more than five decades. He always was passionately involved in the University community. In 1967, Dr. Spector organized a movement to oppose the sale of the Brooklyn Campus. Thanks in large part to his efforts, faculty and students successfully lobbied against the sale, preserving the campus for generations to come.

Dr. Spector, who also held a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University, was a renowned author of scholarly books, articles and volumes of poetry, and as chairman of the Polk Awards, played a significant role in the administration of one of America’s most coveted journalism honors. His commitment to his work earned him the University’s Trustees Award for Scholarly Achievement, now called the Abraham Krasnoff Memorial Award for Scholarly Achievement, in 1978; a Tristram Walker Metcalfe Alumnus of the Year Award in 1981; and an honorary doctorate from the Brooklyn Campus in 1994.

Despite the magnitude of his achievements, Dr. Spector cited “over 50 years of teaching thousands of students” as his greatest accomplishment. He will no doubt be missed.

We first knew Dr. Spector as the father of our friend Eric, whom we met over 40 years ago at Midwood High School and with whom we also went to Brooklyn College.

In early March 1975, thirty-four years ago, we were chatting with Eric on the phone one evening and at the end of our conversation, Eric said, "My father wants to talk with you."

Dr. Spector, then the English Department chair at LIU's Brooklyn Center, said that one of his older professors had died of a heart attack on his way home to New Jersey from a night class in freshman comp. Knowing we'd finished our M.A. work at Richmond College (now The College of Staten Island), Dr. Spector asked us if we were interested in taking over the class.

Just 23 and in the second semester of our M.F.A. program in creative writing at Brooklyn College, we had never really given much thought to college teaching. Before our appointment at LIU the next afternoon, we stayed up reading whatever we could on the teaching of college writing, mostly our M.F.A. director Jonathan Baumbach's great book, Teachers as Writers/Writers as Teachers.

We were prepared to be interviewed, but when we walked into Dr. Spector's office, the first thing he said was, "Mr. Grayson, your students are going to eat you alive."

He told us about the class, English 11, and about how upset the students would be at the sudden death of a beloved professor. It was an evening class, and as we were to soon learn, except for one Orthodox Jewish boy, we were younger than any of the students in the class, working adults whose day jobs were on Wall Street or in banks or offices.

Dr. Spector got us through that scary first semester and the four wonderful years afterward that we taught adjunct classes in LIU's English Department as we learned to teach everything from remedial writing to the short novel. By then Dr. Spector had moved on to become coordinator of the entire Humanities Division, so he was no longer our direct supervisor. But he was always there with good, common-sense advice for a rookie college teacher. We learned a lot from him.

Dr. Spector had a generous spirit and a kindness that's sometimes rare in academia. The M.A. students in English and the English majors adored him, and he was one of our models for what a good college teacher of writing and literature would be. Also inspirational was his devotion to LIU and to the integrity of the Polk Awards in journalism (one of this year's winners, announced two weeks ago, was our Arizona friend Paul Giblin, for a series he co-wrote for The East Valley Tribune investigating Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s nasty campaign against illegal immigrants).

Dr. Spector also introduced us to Humphry Clinker and other works by Tobias Smollett, the great eighteenth century British writer who taught us many tricks.

Dr. Spector was perhaps the leading Smollett scholar in the country, and he also wrote and edited many, many books of and about British literature, a few of which are pictured here.

We will miss him, and we express our deep condolences to his wife, to Eric and his brother Stephen (with whom we used to teach at CUNY) and their families.

Now heading out to the Brooklyn College campus to teach an English class for Borough of Manhattan Community College - one of four schools where we are happily teaching this term - we will think a lot about Robert Donald Spector, who gave us our start doing what we love.

1 comment:

calpoet said...

I am very saddened to learn this. Bob Spector was a major figure in my life. A mentor for many years. He was the first literature teacher I had way back in the early 1960s and I kept in touch with him sporadically over the years, although recently lost touch. He was a gifted teacher and beloved friend. He instilled a love for literature in me and I modelled much of my college teaching career after his. I missed the Times obit, so this is the first I'm hearing of his death. May he rest in peace.