McGraw Tower

McGraw Tower at Cornell University.

When I think of Cornell Professor Walter Lafeber these days I also think of legendary basketball player Michael Jordan.

It’s not that Lafeber was a global icon (although he should be) or that he had superhuman leaping abilities (although Lafeber was a star basketball player in high school in Indiana in the 1950s).

It’s because to watch Lafeber perform his craft — university teaching and scholarship — left you in awe of his talent. His lecturing skills were leaps and bounds above his mere mortal colleagues on the Cornell faculty. His soaring oratory mesmerized students and drew standing room only crowds to even his early Saturday morning lectures.

My heart sank earlier this week when a Cornell friend texted me that he saw word of Lafeber’s passing on Facebook. One of his many protégés, media critic Eric Alterman, lamented the passing of his mentor. Many Cornell alumni like me join him in trying to honor the impact he had on our lives — in my case, almost four decades ago.

Professor Walter Lafeber was something of a legend on the Cornell campus in the 1980s. Students spoke in hushed tones about “The History of American Foreign Policy,” his lecture class that regularly attracted more than 400 students and had to be moved to a large auditorium usually reserved for rock concerts. I saw the “Grateful Dead” in the same venue as his class; Lafeber gave a better show.

Students would shuffle in early on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (!) mornings to be certain to get a seat and to be ready with their pens and notebooks as soon as Lafeber finished writing his 3-4 outline points on the front board.

And then, like a seer ready to convey oral history to his disciples, Lafeber would manage to keep the whole class spellbound for the next 40 minutes, listening intently and taking copious notes. He himself never used notes or any visual cues — he’d simply seamlessly weave a tale about some American foreign policy period in the 19th or 20th century that would illustrate an important narrative. The Cold War with Russia, the failed intervention in Vietnam, the long-brewing Korean War — all these earlier conflicts would come to life in the confines of Lafeber’s class and by the time he wrapped up his lecture like a bow around an ornate gift, you would look down and see that you’d filled at least eight pages of your spiral bound notebook with well organized notes on his well crafted lecture. Studying for exams would be easier because Lafeber was so meticulous in laying out the important points and putting them in a sequential, digestible narrative.

Among the many things I admired about Professor Lafeber were two telling anecdotes, one of which I’ve never been able to verify but it sounds plausible and added to his mythology as a giant in foreign policy scholarship. I was told once that 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern had Lafeber on his short list to be named Secretary of State. Think of how modern American history would’ve changed if instead of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger we would’ve had George McGovern as President and Walter Lafeber as his foreign policy emissary in a late-stage Cold War era. I’d like to think things might’ve ended earlier in Vietnam, we would’ve meddled less in Central America and the brewing hotspots in the Middle East might’ve been calmed down by Lafeber’s cool, even-tempered Midwestern style.

The other anecdote I heard is verifiable: when it was time to pick a History Ph.D program after completing his MA at Stanford University, Lafeber turned down Harvard’s offer. He instead matriculated at University of Wisconsin because “the study of history at Wisconsin had a heritage going back to the time of Frederick Jackson Turner of encouraging people to think differently [about history],” according to Lafeber’s entry in Wikipedia. Turning down Harvard, Lafeber once reportedly said with no ego, was “the best professional advice I ever received.”

One of the historical thinkers that influenced Lafeber was Charles Beard, whose work by the 1950s had fallen out of favor. Beard suggested that American history be looked at through an economic lens to discern political motivations. When I was contemplating writing a senior history thesis, I recall Lafeber told me to check out Beard and his work. I was intrigued by Beard’s economic interpretation of the constitution and how property ownership may have been the main motivator of our Founding Fathers, rather than high minded idealism. Lafeber encouraged all of us to think differently.

Last year, after I watched the 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan and his epic reign as the MVP of the Chicago Bulls, I remembered that Lafeber had once taken a bit of a detour from his scholarship on the Cold War, Central America and the Korean War, to write a very insightful book in 1999 about Michael Jordan’s impact on global capitalism. Lafeber always spoke about being a Chicago Cubs and Bulls fan growing up so it made sense that he combined his passion for sports and international relations to write a seminal book on how one global sports figure (along with Nike and other brands) spread capitalism to places like China and other parts of the globe. Lafeber’s book was entertaining and extremely insightful — for one week while I read it last Spring I was transported back to his classroom in the early 1980s at Cornell.

When Lafeber officially retired from full-time teaching in 2006 he gave a farewell lecture in New York for his legion of loyal students. Within a day of its announcement, the 1000 person auditorium at the Museum of Natural History was filled up, so the organizers decided to move it to the Beacon Theatre on the upper West Side which seated more than 5000. That, too, filled up rapidly.

I’ll never forget that evening just 15 years ago — the auditorium was buzzing with quiet anticipation, just like his Saturday lecture classes. Lafeber strolled onstage in his muted gray suit and tie and proceeded to give an incredibly insightful lecture describing where America had gone wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq just a few years earlier and why he had a pessimistic view of then President George W. Bush’s ability to get America out of these two interminable wars, much like his predecessors mistakes in Vietnam and Korea.

At the end of that final lecture, 5000 former students, some in their late 50s, rose as one in a thunderous standing ovation. Through my moist eyes I saw others wiping away a tear at the sight of this Jordan-like Professor hanging up his sneakers one last time, but leaving the stage at the top of his game.

A few years ago, I saw Jerry Seinfeld perform his masterful comedy show at The Beacon Theatre, where just a decade earlier I had witnessed my college advisor’s Last Lecture.

Lafeber’s show was better.

Tom Allon is a 1984 graduate of Cornell University.

 When I think of Cornell Professor Walter Lafeber these days I also think of legendary basketball player Michael Jordan.
>
> It’s not that Lafeber was a global icon (although he should be) or that he had superhuman leaping abilities (although Lafeber was a star basketball player in high school in Indiana in the 1950s).
>
> It’s because to watch Lafeber perform his craft — university teaching and scholarship — left you in awe of his talent. His lecturing skills were leaps and bounds above his mere mortal colleagues on the Cornell faculty. His soaring oratory mesmerized students and drew standing room only crowds to even his early Saturday morning lectures.
>
> My heart sank earlier this week when a Cornell friend texted me that he saw word of Lafeber’s passing on Facebook. One of his many protégés, media critic Eric Alterman, lamented the passing of his mentor. Many Cornell alumni like me join him in trying to honor the impact he had on our lives — in my case, almost four decades ago.
>
> Professor Walter Lafeber was something of a legend on the Cornell campus in the 1980s. Students spoke in hushed tones about “The History of American Foreign Policy,” his lecture class that regularly attracted more than 400 students and had to be moved to a large auditorium usually reserved for rock concerts. I saw the “Grateful Dead” in the same venue as his class; Lafeber gave a better show.
>
> Students would shuffle in early on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (!) mornings to be certain to get a seat and to be ready with their pens and notebooks as soon as Lafeber finished writing his 3-4 outline points on the front board.
>
> And then, like a seer ready to convey oral history to his disciples, Lafeber would manage to keep the whole class spellbound for the next 40 minutes, listening intently and taking copious notes. He himself never used notes or any visual cues — he’d simply seamlessly weave a tale about some American foreign policy period in the 19th or 20th century that would illustrate an important narrative. The Cold War with Russia, the failed intervention in Vietnam, the long-brewing Korean War — all these earlier conflicts would come to life in the confines of Lafeber’s class and by the time he wrapped up his lecture like a bow around an ornate gift, you would look down and see that you’d filled at least eight pages of your spiral bound notebook with well organized notes on his well crafted lecture. Studying for exams would be easier because Lafeber was so meticulous in laying out the important points and putting them in a sequential, digestible narrative.
>
Among the many things I admired about Professor Lafeber were two telling anecdotes, one of which I’ve never been able to verify but it sounds plausible and added to his mythology as a giant in foreign policy scholarship. I was told once that 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern had Lafeber on his short list to be named Secretary of State. Think of how modern American history would’ve changed if instead of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger we would’ve had George McGovern as President and Walter Lafeber as his foreign policy emissary in a late-stage Cold War era. I’d like to think things might’ve ended earlier in Vietnam, we would’ve meddled less in Central America and the brewing hotspots in the Middle East might’ve been calmed down by Lafeber’s cool, even-tempered Midwestern style.

The other anecdote I heard is verifiable: when it was time to pick a History Ph.D program after completing his MA at Stanford University, Lafeber turned down Harvard’s offer. He instead matriculated at University of Wisconsin because “the study of history at Wisconsin had a heritage going back to the time of Frederick Jackson Turner of encouraging people to think differently [about history],” according to Lafeber’s entry in Wikipedia. Turning down Harvard, Lafeber once reportedly said with no ego, was “the best professional advice I ever received.”

One of the historical thinkers that influenced Lafeber was Charles Beard, whose work by the 1950s had fallen out of favor. Beard suggested that American history be looked at through an economic lens to discern political motivations. When I was contemplating writing a senior history thesis, I recall Lafeber told me to check out Beard and his work. I was intrigued by Beard’s economic interpretation of the constitution and how property ownership may have been the main motivator of our Founding Fathers, rather than high minded idealism. Lafeber encouraged all of us to think differently.

Last year, after I watched the 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan and his epic reign as the MVP of the Chicago Bulls, I remembered that Lafeber had once taken a bit of a detour from his scholarship on the Cold War, Central America and the Korean War, to write a very insightful book in 1999 about Michael Jordan’s impact on global capitalism. Lafeber always spoke about being a Chicago Cubs and Bulls fan growing up so it made sense that he combined his passion for sports and international relations to write a seminal book on how one global sports figure (along with Nike and other brands) spread capitalism to places like China and other parts of the globe. Lafeber’s book was entertaining and extremely insightful — for one week while I read it last Spring I was transported back to his classroom in the early 1980s at Cornell.

When Lafeber officially retired from full-time teaching in 2006 he gave a farewell lecture in New York for his legion of loyal students. Within a day of its announcement, the 1000 person auditorium at the Museum of Natural History was filled up, so the organizers decided to move it to the Beacon Theatre on the upper West Side which seated more than 5000. That, too, filled up rapidly.

I’ll never forget that evening just 15 years ago — the auditorium was buzzing with quiet anticipation, just like his Saturday lecture classes. Lafeber strolled onstage in his muted gray suit and tie and proceeded to give an incredibly insightful lecture describing where America had gone wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq just a few years earlier and why he had a pessimistic view of then President George W. Bush’s ability to get America out of these two interminable wars, much like his predecessors mistakes in Vietnam and Korea.

At the end of that final lecture, 5000 former students, some in their late 50s, rose as one in a thunderous standing ovation. Through my moist eyes I saw others wiping away a tear at the sight of this Jordan-like Professor hanging up his sneakers one last time, but leaving the stage at the top of his game.

A few years ago, I saw Jerry Seinfeld perform his masterful comedy show at The Beacon Theatre, where just a decade earlier I had witnessed my college advisor’s Last Lecture.

Lafeber’s show was better.


Tom Allon is a 1984 graduate of Cornell University.

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