In a generational exodus, six singular professors with more than 250 years of combined classroom experience say farewell to Oxy. But their lessons have shaped legions across every discipline
By Samantha Bonar '90 | Photos by Marc Campos
At the heart of every liberal arts education is the connection between a student and professor. For all the talk about small class size, it's often the conversations that happen outside the classroom—over a cup of coffee, during office hours, or even a home-cooked meal—that separate the good professors from the great ones.
Occidental is saying goodbye to six of the greats this year. But don't take our word for it; listen to their former students.
Allen Robert Gross "is a fantastic and capable conductor, without any of the annoying ego." Arthe Anthony "was that special educator in my life who made, and continues to make, a difference." Jim Whitney "has always been a great friend, mentor and supporter in anything that I do." Martha Ronk "has been a patient hand and a steadfast supporter of me." Alan Freeman '66 M'67 "gave me some of the greatest dramatic instruction at the beginning of what would become a career in art." "It was deeply validating to have an intellectual mentor" in Larry Caldwell.
Allen Robert Gross, Professor of Music
Joined Oxy: 1983
As a junior music composition major at Oxy, Mason Kaye '08 was invited (along with two other conducting students) by Professor Allen Robert Gross to Waltz Night at Caltech. "All he said was, 'Come at 7, and wear a suit.' We thought we were just going to get to observe the orchestra and how he conducted," Kaye recalls. "After the first three pieces, he motioned me to come over. He handed me the baton and said, 'You're up.' Completely unprepared, I conducted a piece I was unfamiliar with—something all conductors need to be able to do."
Kaye, who now works as a composer and conductor in Los Angeles, describes the experience as "terrifying but ultimately successful." A few years would pass before he realized that those waltz pieces could be played by the orchestra without a conductor ("There was almost nothing I could have done to mess this up"), but Gross' exercise had fulfilled its purpose: "It served to build a root of confidence that allowed me to succeed."
"I had always desired a position at a fine liberal arts school where I could both teach and build an orchestra program," says Gross, who received his doctorate in conducting from Stanford in 1978 and came to Oxy in 1983 after a stint at the University of Louisville School of Music. That same year he began lecturing in music at Caltech, which inspired him to marry the schools' musical resources. "I felt that by virtue of a combined orchestra with Caltech, a small college such as Oxy would be able to establish a thriving program that would give its students the rewards of performing in a large and high-level orchestra," he says. "The excellent concerts that we have given, and the many years of collaborating with generations of students in making music together, sums it all up."
As director of the Caltech-Occidental Symphony and the Occidental Chamber Orchestra, Gross specializes in the traditional Austro-German and Central European repertoire but is also an active interpreter of new music. He also has an avid interest in working with young musicians and has been the conductor of the Pasadena Summer Youth Chamber Orchestra since 1986.
"Over my 40 years of playing the viola, I have worked with numerous conductors in California and in other states," says Bob Gutzman '87, who has played in the Caltech-Occidental Symphony since its inception. "By a significant margin, Allen is the best music director I've had." In sharing the historical context of a given piece of music and what the composer was going through when he wrote it, he adds, "Allen is big on telling very entertaining stories about the pieces we play. Sometimes he gets so excited while he's conducting that he stumbles off his podium or accidentally flings his baton. It's hilarious."
Gross has even managed to coax several Oxy professors to play with the orchestra over the years, including Woody Studenmund on triangle (for Mahler's 1st Symphony). Bob Winter on viola several times, and ECLS professor Anne Howells on violin.
While Gross is retiring from the College, he will continue on as conductor of the Caltech Orchestra (minus Occidental, which will house a chamber orchestra next year) as well as the Santa Monica Symphony, for which he's served as music director and conductor since 1991. "I am still as enthusiastic as ever about bringing to life great music of the past and present."
Gross says he will miss "the intellectual stimulation of talking about musical matters with all my faculty colleagues" at Oxy. "Most importantly, I will miss the wonderful students whose enthusiasm and desire to make music have enriched my life."
Violinist Alexandra Forman '11 calls Gross her "adviser, music director, and friend. He did anything in his power to help me achieve my goals and plan out my time at Occidental from the get-go," says the geology and music major. "Allen was as devoted to aiding my musical studies as to providing any support I needed during my transition into college and throughout my four years." Whether the issue was academic or personal, "Allen was there to be a nonjudgmental ear to listen," she adds. "The environment that he created for me and my peers is the quintessential definition of an Oxy community."
Arthe Anthony, Professor of American Studies
Joined Oxy: 1979
It wasn't easy being one of the only faculty members of color on campus at Oxy in the not-so-distant past, and Arthe Anthony—who became only the second tenured black professor in the College's history in 1985—recalls a number of her peers who ignored or disrespected her. One day in the Cooler, she says, a male faculty member came up to her and said, "Hey, black mama! Did they fight with guns or knives at your high school?" Another time, when Anthony started "a little 'woman of color' group" on campus, "The administration reacted as if we were the Black Panthers," she recalls.
That kind of treatment helped Anthony empathize with the isolation students of color might be feeling. "I learned a lot from the young women and men I worked closely with," says Anthony, who completed her doctorate in comparative cultures at UC Irvine. "They looked through a variety of lenses coming from a variety of backgrounds around the country, and some the world. They had their perspectives and questions."
"I entered Oxy as a naive young Mexican-American girl from Boyle Heights, and graduated as a proud Chicana with a strong sense of identity," says Lupe Nolasco Carrandi '83, now principal of the Los Angeles Unified School District's 4th Street School. "I attribute much of this to the influence Arthe had on me. She encouraged me during times when I doubted my self-worth in an environment that could be difficult to deal with for a girl from the 'barrio.'
"As a student, I admired her strength, enjoyed her classes about the Black Experience and African-American Women Writers, and loved her sharp wit," Carrandi adds. "Most of all, I was in awe of the dignity and poise with which she carried herself. Oxy was a tough place to navigate for students of color, and Arthe became a source of comfort and a figure to look to during difficult times."
The course Anthony was most passionate about was African-American Women Writers, which she put together "from scratch" after attending a conference with a panel on black American writers that focused almost exclusively on men. "I got mad after that panel and thought, 'Oh no, this will not do. I'm teaching about the women.' That is when I was young and feisty!"
"If you went to Oxy in the mid-'80s, you were taught by a cohort of faculty in their 30s who just exuded cool," recalls Peter Hong '87, now senior deputy to L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. "David Axeen with his green BMW 2002. Martha Ronk reading at Beyond Baroque. Norman Cohen blowing you away in the classroom and blowing by you on the basketball court. But even in that crowd, Arthe was the coolest. She confidently told you what needed to be fixed, whether it was some administration policy, a deficiency in the library, or your formatting of footnotes.
"But if you were her student, you knew she was pushing you to do better because she really loved you," Hong continues. "She needed you to be your best. She was going to get behind you and support you to make sure you got there."
Anthony has always had a knack for mixing with young people and adding a new ingredient to their lives. Her recent retirement party drew former students and colleagues from as far away as Chicago and China. Years ago, she says, "A group of students came to my house, and one was shocked to discover I had a cat, another was shocked when I let it slip I was divorced. Her face is clear in my memory. All teachers are this way."
Jim Whitney, Professor of Economics
Joined Oxy: 1982
Of all the courses he taught over the years, Jim Whitney's favorite topic was international economics—until about 10 years ago, when he developed a new course called Law and Economics. "I ran case reviews like a law school class with lots of cold calling, divided the class into legal teams that conducted mock trials, and depended heavily on student interaction to make the course work," he says. "Students consistently rose to the challenge, and Law and Economics became great fun to teach and my new favorite course."
Abiel Garcia '09 concurs. "Professor Whitney's Law and Econ class was one of my favorite classes ever, including law school, because we moved past the application of economic principles to a business world, and saw how they could be used in everyday occurrences," says Garcia, who is now deputy attorney general in the antitrust section of the California Attorney General's Office. "He was one of the first professors who really showed me what could be done with the knowledge being taught at Oxy."
"Jim Whitney played a key role in helping economics become the most popular major on campus," says longtime economics department colleague Woody Studenmund. "His superb, colorful teaching and his dedicated leadership as department chair were inspirations for all of us. Outside the department, he was an important force in faculty governance, having served as president of the faculty and as a longtime member of the faculty subcommittee on finance and budget. In everything Jim did, he was upbeat, tireless, and collegial—a model colleague."
After earning his B.A. at UC Santa Cruz and his M.A. and doctorate from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Whitney was excited to return to a liberal arts environment. "Oxy attracts lots of talented students who would thrive in any academic environment, but our greatest opportunity to make a difference as teachers comes when we work with students who struggle at the outset," he says. One such student was assigned to Whitney's first freshman writing seminar.
"I was also his academic adviser, so I knew that he was struggling in all of his classes," says Whitney. "I was convinced that he would not succeed at Oxy." Three years later, though, the student took a second class with Whitney—his upper-division International Economics course. "He did very good work all term long and topped it off by writing the best research paper in the class. My initial assessment of his prospects was way off mark, and I have never been happier to be wrong. I learned so much from him, and his example has inspired me throughout my career to never give up on a struggling student and to remain mindful of the potential that every student possesses."
For his senior thesis, economics major Bob Gutzman '87 wanted to write about energy economics, a topic that wasn't covered in the undergraduate curriculum at Occidental. Whitney, his adviser, agreed to Gutzman's proposal "provided I that read not one, but two energy economics textbooks over winter break my senior year. After winter break, Jim and I discussed the books, and I went on to refine my thesis into something manageable. He really went the extra mile in allowing me to pursue a subject I was passionate about."
As for retirement, Whitney plans to indulge more in his passions, such as travel, exercise, reading, research, gardening, riding his tandem bike with wife Linda, and taking the Metro to local events and attractions. "If I were to continue working, this is the job I would still want," he says, "but as much as I enjoy it, I enjoy leisure even more. It's all part of the following advice I offer for free: Don't settle down too soon or retire too late."
Martha Ronk, Irma and Jay Price Professor of English Literature,
English and Comparative Literary Studies
Joined Oxy: 1980
"Drawn to it as drawn to the pointlessness of it all
after a while I couldn't tell if nostalgia was
for a place or a time or before learning to think."
—from "Arroyo Seco," by Martha Ronk
"There are moments when a poem or play catches," says Martha Ronk, "when a student or group of students takes hold of what has already been part of your own study so that you are on it together and everyone is highly focused and has a full appreciation of the words of a text."
And whether it's Stevens, Stein, or Shakespeare, she adds, "Sometimes a group of students in a class will come together in a special and somewhat mysterious way and the class will have a special energy and synergy that is compelling; I love these classes."
For Molly Quinn '10, Ronk was "a once-in-a-generation teacher. My years at Occidental are made memorable for the long, weekly conferences we held poring over my poems and discussing my intellectual rifts and emotional barriers. During my time at school as well as over the four years since I graduated, Martha has been a force of both kindness and advocacy for me and my career. She has been a patient hand and a steadfast supporter of me throughout the many phases of my college journey and beyond."
A Shakespeare scholar and poet, Ronk received her B.A. from Wellesley College and her Ph.D. from Yale. She joined the Occidental faculty following the closing of Immaculate Heart College, where she had taught for eight years. She designed the creative writing emphasis in the ECLS major at Oxy, and in 1990, she received the Graham L. Sterling Memorial Award for outstanding teaching, service to the College, and distinguished professional achievement.
"I took my first class with Professor Ronk as a sophomore. It was creative writing," says Jacob Surpin '14, an ECLS major from Brooklyn. "Martha was very good at dealing with each person at their own level of experience, while also remaining rigorous and holding to her own standards about what good writing was. Professor Ronk is a real scholar, a woman of letters in the full sense of the phrase."
Just as her career at Oxy was taking off, so was Ronk's career as a poet. "The impulse of a lot of contemporary experimental poetry, of the postmodernists, is to abrade language, to roughen it, to make you look twice rather than to look through it as if it were clear glass. It demands reading," former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass wrote of her 1995 collection of poetry, State of Mind, in a review for The Washington Post. In 2007, she was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Her most recent collection, Transfer of Qualities, was nominated for a National Book Award in 2013.
ECLS professor Eric Newhall '67 has had many conversations with Martha over the years, "but one in particular stands out in my mind," he says. "We were serving together on the General Education Committee one year, and I had just delivered a brief statement to the group about what I thought our program should focus on—those topics that young people around 18 years of age should be reading about and thinking about. I had suggested that we focus our program on questions relating to Identity, Community, Democracy, and Justice. Martha looked at me and asked: 'But Eric. What about Beauty?' It's always a good idea to have an artist on the General Education Committee."
As for her retirement plans, Ronk has a manuscript of poems on photographs that needs to be finished and another in the initial stages plus "Trips to writing conferences, and one for pleasure to Ireland, so I will continue reading William Trevor, Elizabeth Bowen, John McGahern, Molly Keene, Seamus Heaney, and guidebooks on Celtic monuments." Other plans include teaching (and taking) a course from time to time, visiting Pittsburgh, returning to ceramics, and tutoring. And, of course, taking time to contemplate Beauty.
Alan Freeman '66 M'67, Professor of Theater
Joined Oxy: 1969
Having taught at Occidental for nearly 45 years—the second-longest run in College history—Alan Freeman has raised thousands of curtains in every imaginable capacity. "Oxy offered me a unique career path in the theater: teaching, acting, directing, producing, writing, and later building Keck Theater," says the eternally impish professor. He was mentored by Omar Paxson '48 and Howard Swan—"first as their student, and later their colleague. I have continued to collaborate with some of the finest colleagues one could choose."
Freeman proudly points out that two of his former students have won Tonys: Heidi Ettinger '73 was the first woman ever to win a Tony for scenic design, for Big River in 1985. Six years later, she won a second Tony for The Secret Garden. In 1988, Joanna (Hall) Gleason '72 won best actress in a musical for her role as the Baker's Wife in Into the Woods. But his pupils have excelled in every medium.
"Whenever I think of my time in Keck Theater with Alan Freeman, I always smile," says "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." executive producer Maurissa Tancharoen Whedon '97, who as a senior acted in Freeman's play Wall Scaling, an exploration of women's friendships from high school to terminal illness. "His wisdom, encouragement, and spirit were essential in helping me find my way through college. Everything I learned from him continues to shape my life."
"Alan Freeman was a tremendous educator. He taught me about drama," says Gabriela Cowperthwaite '93, director of the award-winning 2013 documentary Blackfish and a theater minor who acted in several plays during her time at Oxy. "Now I have to speak in front of audiences all of the time, and I think back to Alan telling me to relax my voice and relax my arms to my sides, things like that: 'Just calm down and relax your arms.'"
Beginning acting classes—Acting I & the Zoo Exercise—were Freeman's favorites to teach. "To help students begin to train and understand the work and process of the actor—and themselves—has always been my favorite task as a teacher," says Freeman.
Outside of class, Freeman has directed more than 65 plays, musicals, and operas; acted in more than 60 plays and films; written two full-length plays; and directed four short films. As producing artistic director of the popular Summer Theater Festival from 1970 to 1999, he staged everything from Sondheim to Ibsen, and delighted audiences with leading roles in Equus, Translations, The Odd Couple, The Playboy of the Western World, Romeo & Juliet, and many others. In addition to his responsibilities at Oxy, he has worked professionally as an actor and director for the Mark Taper Forum, San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, and the San Francisco Opera's Western Opera Theater.
For his swan song at Keck Theater this spring, Freeman directed a contemporary take on Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Soprano with an all-woman cast, paired with the dystopian tragicomedy Far Away, by Caryl Churchill. The production was promoted under the umbrella title Two Weird Plays.
Freeman's long teaching career has been a profound learning experience for himself as well. "One afternoon, a student—let's call him Josh, because that was his name—popped into my office for a quick check-in," he recalls. "We greeted each other, and he sat down in the big, red chair on loan from the prop department. 'So, Alan,' he started with a twinkle, 'Tell me. What's the meaning of life?' 'Love and service,' I blurted back without thinking. A silence followed. We both were left gobsmacked. Then we chuckled. Neither of us had expected an answer." Recounting this, Freeman says, "Look what teaching theater has taught me."
Larry Caldwell, Cecil H. and Louis Gamble Professor of Politics
Joined Oxy: 1967
When Larry Caldwell joined the Occidental faculty almost 47 years ago, the Beatles were still the Beatles, Dustin Hoffman had yet to ignite the big screen as The Graduate, and the Cold War was in full effect. "I had been teaching at Wellesley College and expected to remain there," Caldwell recalls. But when Oxy professor and political science chair Ray McKelvey found out that Caldwell was giving a lecture at Caltech, he invited the U.S.-Soviet relations expert to come to the College to discuss "Soviet studies." "Oxy was interested in offering something in the Soviet area, and they told me, 'Name the courses that we should offer.' It was a breath of fresh air, and I made the move."
Thus began a tenure that has spanned six decades and a world of changes. Once called a "Sovietologist," Caldwell has served as research associate at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London; as a visiting professor and director of European studies at the National War College in Washington; as a scholar-in-residence in the Office of Soviet Analysis at the CIA; and as a staff member and consultant at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the RAND Corporation. He has testified before Senate and House committees, advised congressional and presidential campaigns, and written a handful of books and countless articles on Soviet foreign and military policy.
"Larry Caldwell has been one of the truly great teachers and scholars at Occidental," says Derek Shearer, Chevalier Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs. "His scholarly and policy work on Russia has been of world-class stature. And he has challenged generations of students to apply for top fellowships such as the Rhodes and the Marshall, mentoring many applicants in the process."
"When I think about my Oxy experience, I think about having coffee with Caldwell in the Cooler, and discussing events in the Soviet Union," says Bobbi Ballard '90. "His passion and knowledge inspired me to focus my major in Soviet studies."
Ballard went on to get a Ph.D. in psychology. "In my work now, I write psychological reports for the courts," she explains. "These reports need to summarize a great deal of data, draw conclusions, and express those conclusions clearly. Honestly, I still think of Caldwell and his talk of 'thought pegs' when I proofread my work for clarity."
In advising Reiko Niimi '79 on an independent study course that was linked to Model United Nations, Caldwell urged her to apply to the Fletcher School, where he had studied. "His advice to include 'the strengthening of my capacity to conduct policy analysis' in my application essay remains in my mind, because I had no understanding of what that was supposed to mean!"
Niimi was accepted, and has spent more than 25 years now at the United Nations and the World Bank. "Larry Caldwell had a direct influence on where I am today," she says. "And yes, I have 'conducted policy analysis' in a wide variety of countries and sectors."
"I have loved teaching at Oxy and have appreciated having very bright, hard-working students for all of my years here," Caldwell says. His favorite courses have changed with the curriculum. In 1972, he and Russian language professor Gil Alkire created a multi-disciplinary, team-taught class, The Russian Experience. "I also taught Russian politics and foreign policy, comparative European politics, and international politics. After I returned from working at the CIA in the 1980s, I added a course on U.S. National Security. All of these have been favorites at different times." The most unique course? A class on World War II that he taught with Valentin Berezhkov, a Foreign Ministry translator for Stalin during the war.
Caldwell received the Graham Sterling Award for outstanding faculty achievement in 1980, and his contributions to the College run deep. "Larry wrote our current faculty constitution, served as the first Faculty Council president, and is a great scholar and teacher," says Roger Boesche, the Arthur G. Coons Professor in the History of Ideas. "He has been an ambassador from the faculty to the trustees, and in my personal life, he has been like a brother to me. I can't imagine the College without him." He's not alone.