Sad news arrived on Thanksgiving morning that my beloved professor and lifelong friend, Dick Polenberg, passed away last night after a long, valiant struggle with Alzheimer’s that robbed us in his final years of his beautiful, analytic mind.
I first laid eyes on Professor Polenberg as a wide-eyed freshman at Cornell in the spring of 1981, just months after my generation of liberal students experienced the shock and disappointment of a sweeping Ronald Reagan victory in the 1980 presidential election against incumbent Jimmy Carter.
In the dark days of the past four years, I have tried to comfort my children that when I was their age, our country went through a period of disappointment with Reagan, but that we emerged a stronger nation in the 1990s with a new era of leadership with Bill Clinton-Al Gore.
But in 1981, sitting in the fourth row at cavernous Bailey Hall, I watched the masterful Professor Polenberg pace the stage for about one hour telling compelling stories from American history in the mid-20th century. His lectures were so interesting and so fluid that it was hard to take proper notes and absorb his unique storytelling powers at the same time.
Alger Hiss. The Rosenbergs. Roy Cohn. JFK. Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights victories.
This parade of American history leapt off the stage and in his mellifluous style, Polenberg riveted over 1000 students in the auditorium. My friend David and I used to try to arrive 15 minutes early to class so we could snag a good seat in the first five rows, rather than be relegated to the Bailey balcony. I was more motivated to get close to the stage in his class than I was when Grateful Dead tickets went on sale at Willard Straight later that semester.
Like so many freshman at Cornell, I started to doubt my academic abilities that semester. What passed for easy “A’s” in high school came under more rigorous scrutiny at Cornell and “B’s” and “B+,s” started littering my academic record.
But when I handed in a paper in Polenberg’s class, a review of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” in the voice of RFK, a brilliant assignment, I received the academic recognition every insecure freshman craved. In a lecture class of so many students, grading was done by the graduate teaching assistants. But when I got my paper back, in addition to my TA’s high grade and praise, were these simple but deeply meaningful words from Professor Polenberg that I’ll never forget: “Sarah showed me your paper and I’m glad she did. You really captured RFK’s voice in this assignment.”
I felt like I was levitating when I walked out of class. A Professor I had come to idolize like so many of my fellow classmates, had actually read my paper and liked it.
Maybe I did belong at Cornell.
Sophomore year, I asked Polenberg to be my advisor. He said he’d be delighted to but perhaps with my interest in foreign policy I’d be better off asking Professor Walter Lafeber? He was right but from that meeting in his office we developed a relationship that was unlike any other I ever had with a teacher or Professor: we started playing basketball together every week at Barton Hall. They were fun, competitive sessions; Polenberg had a great outside set shot, a relic of the 1950s when he came of age in Brooklyn. In the spring and summer, our friendly athletic competitions gravitated to the faculty tennis courts. He loved to lob the ball way over my head if I rushed the net and would laugh out loud watching me scramble back to the baseline to futilely try to return his perfectly placed shot. It was so much fun and I felt privileged to have such a unique relationship with one of Cornell’s leading scholars.
When I became ill in the second semester of my senior year and had to go home for serious surgery six weeks before graduation, Professor Polenberg swooped in and spoke to my four professors to arrange for me to write my final papers over the summer as I convalesced at home in New York City. He didn’t have to do this, but he insisted on taking this burden off my plate as I focused on my health. His intervention allowed me to graduate officially in August so I could seamlessly begin graduate school at Columbia Journalism School in September.
Once again, Professor Polenberg had saved me academically at a time when I really needed help. I never forgot that truly kind gesture.
But being a mensch came naturally for Dick Polenberg. A classmate of mine told me that was able to get Cornell President Frank Rhodes to autograph his graduation speech for her mother who couldn’t attend in person because she was ravaged from chemotherapy. Another friend went to Polenberg when she felt sexually harassed by another Cornell Professor. Polenberg didn’t hesitate to jump in and saved her from this predatory man.
After graduation, we stayed in periodic touch. Every five years, when I came back to Ithaca for reunion, I never failed to drop by his home on Orchard Street to catch up on our lives. He and his lovely wife Joanie were always so welcoming and eager to hear about my career and my burgeoning family.
In recent years, when my daughter briefly attended Cornell and my stepdaughter matriculated at Ithaca College, there were bittersweet visits. The Alzheimer’s that ravaged his fertile mind, made it difficult to have long conversations with him. But even as his short l-term memory was failing, we were able to occasionally reminisce about the classes I took with him, including “Anarchism in American History,” and some of my classmates he still remembered.
I’m writing this tribute on the morning of Thanksgiving, as the smells of Turkey and gravy and yummy pies wafts from our kitchen. It occurs to me that today is a truly meaningful day in my life-long relationship with Professor Richard Polenberg.
I am forever grateful for him and for that fateful day that I walked into Bailey Hall, one of more than 1000 freshman and sophomores who looked forward each week to receive the wisdom and historical perspective he imparted so eloquently.
May his memory be a blessing to his family and the tens of thousands of students he touched in his own way these past four decades.
Tom Allon is a 1984 graduate of Cornell University.