The Brief Life and Long Shadow of Donald Loftsgordon ’50
He was a rising star in Oxy’s philosophy department when he took his own life in 1966. Today, his name is synonymous with teaching excellence. Who was Donald Loftsgordon?
By Andy Faught
At 6 feet 4 inches tall, Donald Loftsgordon ’50 couldn’t escape notice. Known as “Lofty” to his students, he possessed many of the hallmarks of the stereotypical absent-minded professor: tousled hair, loose shirttails, bow tie, and a shopworn briefcase his students would one day see fit to replace.
But his towering intellect, by all accounts, left the deepest imprint. When Loftsgordon joined the College in 1960 as an assistant professor of philosophy, his impact was immediate. A straight-A graduate of Occidental, the young professor’s hands waved with propulsive energy as he guided students through knotty philosophical questions that included the problem of evil and mind-body dualism.
He challenged students to clarify their thinking, to avoid circular arguments. “I don’t think there’s been one month in the last 50 years that I haven’t given some thought to Donald Loftsgordon in some fashion or another,” says Richard Carrigan ’65 of Malibu, a philosophy major and Columbia Business School graduate who spent his career trading in the equity market. “His teaching and his subject matter gave me such a framework for analysis. I never had a teacher who had such an impact.”
Philosophical discussions continued beyond the classroom. They happened in stairwells. In the Quad. Sitting on a curb. “He literally held court for students,” recalls Bob Winter, the Arthur G. Coons Professor of the History of Ideas Emeritus and a faculty member from 1963 to 1994. “It was wonderful.”
“The publicity office’s clichés about the advantages of small colleges—stress on effective teaching, close student-professor contact, ‘individualized’ instruction—are, at least at Occidental, justified in fact,” Loftsgordon noted in a 1965 statement he wrote for the Danforth Foundation’s E.H. Harbison Award competition, which honors distinguished teaching. “On almost every evening, even in summer, I get at least one phone call from an Occidental student or recent graduate.”
Clearly, Loftsgordon was in his element. And then, he was gone.
On June 28, 1966, one of Occidental’s brightest lights hanged himself in a Madison, Wis., hotel room. He had flown back to his birthplace to bury his mother, Ruth, who six days earlier had died from a thyroid condition in Los Angeles. (His father, Henry, 85, was in declining health himself and did not make the trip to Wisconsin for his wife’s burial.) On June 26, reportedly distraught over his mother’s death, Donald checked into Methodist Hospital in Madison, where the attending doctor diagnosed him with “acute anxiety-tension state with depressive features.”
He was discharged sometime the next day, in time for his mother’s burial. A coroner’s report indicates he died at 1 a.m. the following morning, and that a suicide note was found in the hotel room. Loftsgordon was buried beside his mother at Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison. “Their lives were so entwined that I think Donald was unable to imagine life without her,” says Rolf Svanoe, associate pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, S.D., and a second cousin of Loftsgordon.
Loftsgordon, 38, had just returned from a yearlong leave of absence as visiting professor of philosophy in the Graduate Council of Humanities at Southern Methodist University, where he completed revisions on his second book. He published the lead article in The Journal of Philosophy earlier in June (a 13-page piece titled “Present-Day British Philosophers on Punishment”). And only days before his suicide, Loftsgordon had lectured to a group of college-bound high school graduates in a weeklong Oxy program that gave young adults an idea of what to expect in the years ahead.
Loftsgordon was speaking for the third straight year at the invitation of the program’s director, David Cole, professor of psychology emeritus (1947-84). “Donald was always one I asked,” says Cole, noting his colleague showed no signs of emotional distress. “He gave one of these philosophy lectures in which you could argue both sides of an issue. He was enthusiastic, articulate, and challenged you to think. It was because of those things that it was easy to engage students in a hurry.”
As Loftsgordon’s death occurred during summer break, word spread slowly to the Occidental community. Philosophy department chairman Cyril Gloyn—a good friend of Loftsgordon’s and his biggest faculty champion—summed up his dedication to the College in a short memorial. “Occidental College was his life; its interests, his interests; its hopes, his hopes,” he wrote. “He taught [his colleagues], as he did his students, what it was to ‘do philosophy.’”
At a college that has long placed a premium on good teaching, Loftsgordon was “an exceptional teacher, able to present abstract and technical material clearly and provocatively,” Cloyn added. “Students in his classes might react negatively or, more often positively, but they were never apathetic.”
Nearly half a century after his passing, Loftsgordon’s legacy—and the emphasis Oxy places on teaching—endures. A highly prized teaching award created by the Class of 1967 in his memory is presented each spring by graduating seniors; winners are selected “for exceptional ability to communicate and inspire.” Classmates, students, and faculty remember his personality and promise with a fondness colored by regret. “He was a very shy person,” says philosophy major Ann Dickson ’65. “He was very hard to know, and he was physically awkward. I’d always felt badly for him. It was hard to be Donald Loftsgordon.”
Donald Rice Loftsgordon was born on Oct. 31, 1927. His father, Henry, was a lumberman and one of five brothers who became prominent Madison businessmen and civic leaders. His mother, Ruth, was a librarian and doting mother to her only child. The family initially split time between Wisconsin and California when Donald was young, eventually moving to Los Angeles full time, where Donald attended Hollywood High School.
A lifelong advocate of the small liberal arts college model, Loftsgordon excelled as a student at Oxy and double-majored in philosophy and history. Glenn Smith ’50 had little doubt that his classmate would go far. “He gave it all cylinders in every class,” says Smith, a retired college administrator living in Medford, Ore. The two were both members of Phi Beta Kappa and Kappa Nu Sigma, a history society. “He was brilliant. He simply wanted to be a straight-A guy,” Smith says. “It was clear he was going to go places in the academic world.”
Accompanied by his mother, Loftsgordon spent a summer studying at Oxford University prior to his senior year. He earned his master’s in philosophy at Columbia University and took a detour to law school, studying for two years at UCLA before returning to Columbia for his doctoral studies. His teaching career began at Dartmouth College in 1956, and three years later he joined the philosophy department at Lake Forest (Ill.) College for a single year before returning to Occidental.
Loftsgordon elicited ambivalence in at least one Occidental faculty member soon after his homecoming. Professor of history John Rodes—who passed on him for an opening in the History of Civilization department in 1959—wrote a memo describing his perceptions of the new hire in a memo dated Oct. 22, 1961: “A hard worker, does not shun his duties. Very intelligent, a good lecturer. A good man, though perhaps not quite as brilliant as one is led to think on first encounter. … I would say it is too early to award tenure, and I would as yet be doubtful about Associate Professorship.”
In a letter to dean of the faculty Vernon Bollman dated Jan. 24, 1963, Cyril Gloyn made the case in the affirmative: “Dr. Loftsgordon, in my judgment, measured up fully to all of the criteria established by the College for evaluating professional performance,” he wrote. From counseling his charges to calling student square dances, “I believe he has made a place, and a significant place, for himself within both the faculty and the student body.” Loftsgordon was granted tenure that spring.
“Lofty” spurred his students to similar heights. Philosophy major Lew Sargentich ’65 graduated summa cum laude from Harvard Law School and has taught tort law and jurisprudence as a Harvard Law professor since 1973. “There’s not a semester that goes by in my courses that something from Dr. Loftsgordon doesn’t influence me. ‘Is it true but trivial, or significant but false?’” Sargentich asks, quoting one of Loftsgordon’s common queries. “I’ve used that in my teaching for years. When you teach jurisprudence or philosophy of law, it clarifies your thinking.
“What was so remarkable about him was that he was able to distill the basic ideas that he’d want us to think about on big topics, and make them graspable propositions,” Sargentich adds. “In my own life, I had to struggle to simplify in that way—to have propositions that are basic that work. I’m quite amazed that he was able to do that in this part of his career.”
From 1961 to 1965, the number of philosophy majors graduating from Oxy more than doubled, from eight to 17. (As further evidence of his magnetism in the classroom, one out of four students enrolled at Oxy in the fall of 1965 had taken Loftsgordon’s Introduction to Philosophy class—an elective that fulfilled none of their graduation requirements.) Philosophy major Richard Hallin ’62 won the Rhodes Scholarship, and the department produced a Marshall Scholar, four Danforth Fellows, and a Woodrow Wilson Fellow.
Professor of English and comparative literary studies Eric Newhall ’67, whose class created the teaching award as a memorial to Loftsgordon, has won the award five times (1979, 1985, 1993, 1999 and 2000)—more than any other Oxy professor. He never took a philosophy class from Loftsgordon but, like hundreds of his Oxy classmates, heard him speak during History of Western Civilization lectures in Thorne Hall. Loftsgordon reminded him of Robert Frost, “a bit like the stereotypical philosopher who was thinking great thoughts but didn’t take the time to comb his hair in the morning,” Newhall says. “He posed the great liberal arts questions to us: What is justice? What is truth? He had a special talent for provoking thought. He helped turn us all into lifelong learners. I would say on a very good faculty, Don Loftsgordon stood out. He was truly a teaching star. Nobody missed his lectures.”
While myriad students cite Loftsgordon as an influence, the College had few female philosophy majors in the early ’60s. Growing up in Tujunga, Ann Dickson wanted to move to Hawaii and “major in surfing.” That idea flopped with her parents, and Dickson instead enrolled at Oxy. She taunted her mother and father by seeking out what she hoped would be the least useful major: philosophy.
“It was such an odd reason for me to be in the department. It tickled Loftsgordon,” says Dickson, a retired teacher living in Mendocino. “I had this platinum blonde hair and I didn’t look like a philosophy major or act like one. I think he found my flippant edge kind of amusing.”
Dickson quickly became taken with Loftsgordon and classroom discourse. “What mattered to him most was clear thinking. He didn’t care about your observing knowledge as much as defending your position and understanding your own thinking and being able to recognize when you were being snowed. He wanted you to be able to analyze any argument for the fallacy in it. I was so intimidated by the guy. He’d push us, and then he’d grin.”
Dickson maintained her roguish spirit even after graduation, moving to Alaska to take up flying instead of enrolling in graduate school, as Loftsgordon had hoped. She wrote him a letter from the Last Frontier and was surprised to hear back from her old teacher. “He seemed more familiar and more at ease in correspondence than he had in person and he revealed he knew me better than I realized he did,” Dickson says. “Although I was surprised he killed himself, there was a level at which I understood it. I think he felt very alone.”
Even as an adult, Loftsgordon’s mother was a commanding presence in his life, recalls Andrew Rolle, Robert Glass Cleland Professor of American History Emeritus. Loftsgordon lived in a Los Angeles bungalow complex owned by his parents, and “The only way you could reach him was through the mother. She would answer the phone and you couldn’t get at him unless you went through her. I didn’t much like that.”
Even so, Loftsgordon bonded with some of his students outside of the classroom. One of them was Axel Steuer ’65, class co-valedictorian with Sargentich and president of Illinois College since 2003. “I did not have the experience of a male influence in my life,” says Steuer, who migrated to the United States from Germany at age 11 and never knew his father. “Don took a strong personal interest without being personal. He didn’t ask me questions about my own private life or any of those things.” Loftsgordon attended Steuer’s first wedding and brought the newlyweds a set of towels.
As a young man, Steuer entertained the thought of entering the ministry, which elicited remonstrations from Loftsgordon. “Don was, I think it’s fair to say, not religiously inclined,” Steuer says with a chuckle. (Loftsgordon listed his religious preference as Lutheran on his 1960 job application to Occidental.) “He raised challenging questions, but he never tried to make me an unbeliever. When I read about his death, I felt a deep sense of personal loss.”
The loss to Occidental was not easily comprehended. “I certainly can’t claim, and no one else can either, that we knew the state of Donald’s mind,” says Hal Lauter, Loftsgordon’s lone surviving department colleague. “He had not been as successful in his professional work as he wanted to be. He was having difficulty getting things published that he wanted to publish. He had girlfriends, but things weren’t panning out there either. Nobody had any suspicions his mother’s death would bring about his own death, but it did.”
The following school year, students left grappling with Loftsgordon’s death wasted no time in preserving their mentor’s legacy. They took up a collection and created the Donald R. Loftsgordon Award for Outstanding Teaching, awarding a plaque and $100 that first year to professor of chemistry Frank Lambert, who taught at Oxy from 1948 until his retirement in 1981. Lambert initially opposed the idea of a student-selected award, but changed his mind after three students in his organic lab explained their intentions. “I was flabbergasted,” he says, his voice catching as he recalls that day. “I was not a noted guy, and there were plenty of hotshot operators in that day, as there are now. It was astounding, and I still have the plaque on the top of my wall as the top award.”
Cole, one of the last faculty members to see Loftsgordon alive, took the honor in 1973. “Many faculty on many campuses are very pleased when they get student recognition like that,” he says. “I was pleased. The plaque is still on my wall at home.”
Over the years the Loftsgordon Award has developed a certain cachet, with an eclectic collection of honorees that spans the gamut of the Oxy curriculum. “If you look at the list of people who have won, it doesn’t look to me like a popularity contest,” says Newhall. “I like to believe it’s a vote in favor of a good liberal arts education.”
Perhaps as importantly, it keeps alive the memory of an Oxy icon. “He was a great man,” says Winter. “There was nobody like him.”
Freelance writer Andy Faught lives in Fresno. He wrote “The Occidental Method” in the Winter issue.
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