Steve Charles—Center 216 got noisy last Thursday.
Professor of English Tobey Herzog H’11, his red #41 Chicago Bulls jersey pulled over his signature blue Oxford cloth shirt, was showing video clips from the championship game of the second Chicago Bulls Fantasy Camp he attended back in the 1980s—the one where he won the MVP award—and as they watched that old footage, 30-plus students were cheering him on.
They laughed at a tongue-in-cheek interview with Bulls radio announcer Johnny “Red” Kerr (not to mention the ’80s short-shorts uniforms and some of Herzog’s middle-aged, hirsute teammates). They applauded as he was introduced for the game, and groaned when he missed his first shot. A few minutes in Tobey said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and stepped to the computer to turn off the video. But the students protested.
“You’ve gotta score,” several called out.
Seconds later they got their wish when Tobey was fouled and hit his first free throw. The gleeful cheers from students were so loud Professor Warren Rosenberg heard them halfway down the hallway. He’d later ask his long-time English Department colleague what the hell was going on down there.
Tobey was just telling stories—personal stories. This one was about his love of basketball: The first shots he took as a kid after his neighbor put up a goal; the exhilaration he felt every day he’d go there and shoot baskets by himself; the joy of playing on his junior high and early high school teams; the trauma of not getting playing time when a new coach took over; the redemption he felt years later when he was named MVP at the Bulls Fantasy Camp; and why more than a half century after he took those first shots, he still plays the game in Wabash’s NBA—the Noontime Basketball League.
All this to set up a conversation about two works of literature—John Updike’s poem, “Ex-Basketball Player,” and Pat Conroy’s memoir, My Losing Season, a book that includes the line, “I have loved nothing on this earth as I did the game of basketball.”
They are literary works that explore, among other things, relationships between fathers and sons, coaches and players, athletes and the games they play and the dangers of living for the glory days of the past.
And you couldn’t have imagined a more moving, hilarious, and enjoyable catalyst for thoughtful conversation about those works than Herzog’s personal stories. His love of basketball connects and resonates with the 18-22 years olds fresh from their own glory days of the sports they love and encourages empathy from the less athletic. Here’s a guy who, in his 60s, can still drain a 15-foot jumper over younger, taller players; who has cheered on the generations of Little Giants from the bleachers of Chadwick Court and Hollett Little Giant Stadium to the sidelines of Knowling Fieldhouse. And that same teacher also loves the works of Dickens and Hardy, Fitzgerald and Miller, Kosinski and Keats, Hemingway and O’Brien, among others. The ultimate scholar-athlete.
The revelation that his stories could be an entre for his students to the very literature that has enriched his own life is a recent one for Tobey. Students in his Modern War Literature class complained that Herzog—a Vietnam veteran and a leading scholar of Vietnam War literature and biographer of veteran and author Tim O’Brien—wasn’t bringing enough of his own war experience into the classroom. Could his own personal stories have helped students better understand and have empathy for the authors and characters in those works?
So in this final year of teaching before his retirement, Tobey took perhaps the greatest risk of his teaching career. He created a one-time class, The History of Herzog, in which he would guide students to the literature that has enriched, shaped, and informed his life. And he would introduce those works he loves with personal stories of when and why those authors and their works came to mean so much to him.
Teaching for Herzog has always been about the material, not the teacher. Putting the spotlight on himself is so contrary to his nature; maybe that’s why this class is working so well. “It could still go off a cliff,” he says. But if it does, it will do so in glorious flames.
I’ll save the details for the article I’m writing about the class for Wabash Magazine, but suffice it to say that by taking this risk and making himself vulnerable, he’s creating a safe space for students to do the same, and perhaps they’ll receive a similar gift this literature has given their teacher.
“They may not remember me,” Tobey told me after class, “but they may remember some of these stories; they will remember some of the literature, and that may be important for them, may help them some day.”
In the same room a few days later, Tobey gave his final public academic lecture before his retirement (he will give the last Chapel Talk this semester in May). The room was packed; several of us sat on the floor. This time faculty colleagues from across the College along with staff and students were the audience, and the focus was his work as a scholar of Vietnam War literature.
Taking cue from his success in The History of Herzog class, he opened with stories. Personal stories. About his father and his father’s war stories, his mother’s war stories from the home front, his own stories from Vietnam, and the story of what led him to focus his scholarly research and writing on Vietnam War literature.
“I have always been fascinated with war stories and the tellers of those tales,” Tobey said. Those stories will be the final works he’ll be introducing to his students in The History of Herzog class in the coming weeks, and I plan to attend those sessions to finish my article.
For now the image that stays with me from The History of Herzog is from last Thursday: Tobey leans over the podium, reading glasses in hand, and listens to a student’s reflections about the John Updike poem. Hands go up across the room as the professor encourages the student to extend his point, then calls on another who makes a connection with the Pat Conroy memoir. Tobey responds with surprise—“whoah!”—then smiles and nods like a point guard who just dished out an assist to a teammate for a slam dunk.
Forty-plus years and the teacher still loves the game.