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U. of I. classics department celebrating 100th year

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


cartoon of man sitting in the grass under a tree holding a baseball
Click photo to enlarge
 Cartoon of William Abbott Oldfather.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The department of the classics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is celebrating the anniversary of its 100th year – the highs and the lows, the goods and the bads of its century-plus history.

The celebration, “Over One Hundred Years of Classics at the University of Illinois,” will take place from 1:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Nov. 9) in the Colonial Room of the Illini Union, 1401 W. Green St., Urbana.

The event, which Kirk Freudenburg, head of classics, describes as “a gala celebration,” is free and open to the public. A companion display on the first floor of the University Library, 1408 W. Gregory Drive, Urbana, will be on view from Wednesday through the end of the month.

archival photo of seven people standing in front of a cabin
Oldfather founded “The Walking Club.” From 1909 until his death in 1945, he led a group of scholars every Saturday into the woods for singing, hiking, canoeing, baseball – “always baseball, never football.” 

According to Freudenburg, the classics department is one of the oldest in the country and since its inception in 1905 “has been one of the leading classics departments in North America.”

Over the years, the department faculty has included such world-class scholars as William Abbott Oldfather, Ben Edwin Perry and Alexander Turyn.

Not to be outdone, “The current faculty has achieved an international reputation in all areas of classical scholarship,” Freudenburg said, and classics professors edit three periodicals: Illinois Classical Studies and its Supplement and the Journal of Coptic Studies.

Despite its stellar accomplishments, the department also “has had something of a history of extreme and sometimes outlandish professors,” Freudenburg said.

black and white cartoon of the profile of a bearded man walking, carrying a broom over his shoulder
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Cartoon of William Abbott Oldfather.

For example, there was Revilo P. Oliver, “a pundit on the far right who was hung in effigy on the Quad in 1964 for having invented a now-infamous conspiracy theory regarding President John Kennedy’s assassination,” Freudenburg said.

And there was Oldfather, “a brilliant scholar who basically invented the department as a player on the national scene and who did much to build the library’s holdings.”

Oldfather played many roles on campus, Freudenburg said. For example, Oldfather founded “The Walking Club.” From 1909 until his death in 1945, he led a group of scholars every Saturday into the woods for singing, hiking, canoeing, baseball – “always baseball, never football.”

In fact, the members of the club met at the local train station at noon “thereby studiously avoiding the mayhem of Illini football.”

According to Freudenburg, the club was huge and had its own songbook, cartoons and alums.

Unfortunately, Oldfather met his death during one of the club’s outings. Late one Sunday afternoon in May of 1945 he attempted to shoot his canoe over a knee-high dam in the Salt Fork River near Homer, Ill. An expert canoeist, he had done this many times at this spot, but this time, the canoe capsized. Attempting to retrieve his gear, Oldfather was drawn under the dam by a powerful back current. His body was found nine hours later.

As tragic and untimely as Oldfather’s death was, “He died doing something that he loved and in the company of friends with whom he shared a passion for exploration and for wandering off the beaten path,” Freudenburg said.

William M. Calder III, the Oldfather Professor at Illinois, will speak at 1:40 p.m. on “Solid Stuff: William Abbott Oldfather and Illinois Classics.” Calder is a world-renowned expert on Greek religion and epigraphy, Greek and Roman tragedy and the history of modern classical scholarship.

Other topics and speakers – all from the U. of I. except where noted, include:

• 1:30 p.m., welcome and opening remarks, Freudenburg;

• 2:20 p.m., “A Library to Live In,” Danuta Shanzer, classics and medieval studies, and Bruce Swann, classics librarian;

• 3:30 p.m, “Myth for the Masses: Life Onstage at the U. of I.,” S. Douglas Olson, classical and near eastern studies, University of Minnesota;

• 4:10 p.m., “Classical Allusions of the Present and Future,” Jon Solomon;

• 4:50 p.m., “Notes From the Archives and Closing Remarks,” Freudenburg;

• 5 p.m., opening of the Classics display;

• 6 p.m., public reception