Forty years. That’s how long it’s been since I was a freshman at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and had the great good fortune to take World Literature with Mr. Stephen B. Humphrey.
One day as Mr. Humphrey stood before the class, he looked intently at us over his eyeglasses. He cocked his head and lifted a hand in a cautionary gesture.
“Birds once flew where you now sit,” he said, “and they will again.”
Mr. Humphrey was a small man, short and thin, dressed always in a jacket and tie. He was birdlike himself in some ways, like a kestrel, moving his head from side to side, alert, eyes noting everything.
His command of the classroom seemed effortless. One day he came in and wrote on the chalkboard, “I have laryngitis,” and conducted a rousing class discussion without uttering a word.
He had graduated from Saint John’s in 1929, returning to teach in 1936. Apart from some time before and during World War II, he taught there until his retirement in 1982.
For many years he was a faculty resident in the dorms and took pains to get to know those in his building. He was always generously available to students.
Like countless others before me, I regularly made my way to his small suite of rooms in Bernard Hall, seeking advice, lingering for conversation about books, baseball, politics, current events.
Somehow, even in his 70s, Mr. Humphrey lived amicably and contentedly in a dorm that housed approximately 100 students aged 18 to 22.
The one thing he could not abide was the sound of bouncing basketballs. The erratic, maddening noise echoed loudly throughout the four-story, concrete building, interrupting work, reading, conversation, peaceful rest.
Filled with umbrage, Mr. Humphrey took to stairs and hallways, stalking the thoughtless culprits. A brief but stern remonstrance followed. It is possible, too, that the basketball underwent a temporary change of ownership.
I wonder now how he dealt so graciously, for decades, with the constant flow of youthful earnestness knocking at his door. With rueful hindsight, I realize that I was so naïve as to be almost unbearable, and surely I was not alone. But it was his own fault that students continued to seek him out. Those who knew him agree: He never seemed impatient or bored, but always interested and encouraging.
Over the years, I’ve thought often of Mr. Humphrey: his absorbing classes, his interest in students and campus life, his firm friendship, his generosity of spirit.
And I’ve thought about what he said to us in class that day. Everything crumbles: forests, mountains, buildings, people, even entire civilizations. In time, almost everything vanishes, nearly everything goes to dust. Birds fly through.
But knowing this, he still made time for us. He made us feel that we, and our lives, had significance. That we had something to contribute. That in our own way we could do our part to make the world better for others.
Mr. Humphrey has been gone a long time. He retired after my junior year and died just a few years later.
But I firmly believe the impact of his life will go on. Some things do last. I think of the way he helped innumerable students over the decades. How he broadened our views of the world through literature and conversation. How he offered friendship, respect, thoughtful encouragement, sound advice.
These gifts he gave us live on. They still light our lives.
We can follow his example. We can, all of us, pay attention to others. Be loyal friends. Encourage and help one another.
We can light the lives of others. And they in their turn. And on again.
So even when we’re long forgotten, some of our gifts will live on. Flying through.
Barbara Mader of University Place is a specialty bookseller selling collectible children’s books. She’s one of five News Tribune reader columnists in 2019. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org