A Rare Collection: Lessons Learned from Dick Macksey


Well the room we’re in now used to be a garage.
It gradually filled up with books, so now we call it a stockroom, and the problem of
retrieval comes up every so often. Partly because a lot of people use the
books and we put them down sometimes where we’ve used them. Students joke about what
they find here: an autographed copy of Canterbury Tales, or presentation copy of
the Ten Commandments. And it has in it books of everyday but also
some books that are dear to me because they’ve been used by my teachers, they’re
by former students and colleagues and friends. There’s a little bits of
yourself that are scattered around the library Richard Macksey was sort of a legend at
Hopkins even when I was there in the early sixties, when he probably could
have been a movie star in his day. He had an incredible presence about him. In the first year that I had him, he used to
ride a Harley-Davidson to class, and I remember one class he was late, and we
were in the basement of Gilman, and we saw him pull up, jump off the motorcycle,
practically run into class, rip off his aviator glasses put him down, and say,
“sorry, you’re paying for this.” You know, to apologize for being late.
He was just an absolutely brilliant dashing young professor with a beautiful
wife Catherine, the whole package. I asked a friend of mine, “who is that?” He said, “don’t you know Professor Macksey?” His wide-ranging knowledge awed me at first. I told my father I’d
had class with a brilliant professor Richard Macksey, and he said, “Richard Macksey?”
And he couldn’t believe it because when he was at Hopkins a few decades
earlier, he had taken Richard Macksey and he was incredibly influential for my father.
At times we were just sitting there listening to this fellow making a few
notes in the hopes that we would understand you know four days later what
he had actually been talking about because it was so brilliant. The range of
subjects and the number of languages that he spoke in a class. I don’t know
how anybody knows six languages, I mean that’s crazy.
I mean I have trouble with English. He would hand out sheets of his own translations for certain things that we
were reading, which is typical of Dick to want to give his students
the best and to be able to do that. Dick really is the jewel in the Hopkins crown.
You know the famous Milton Eisenhower quote, which is asking Dick Macksey a
question is like going to a fire hydrant for a glass of water, which is a funny
quote but it doesn’t include the generosity of the person. As a humanities
major he was my advisor, and his door is quite literally always open. He would
host seminars in his house until 11:00, 12:00 at night. You would
be influenced by his incredible library, and his whole lifestyle became part
of his teaching. And it was a kind of exhilarating atmosphere and you were
simply engulfed in books. You felt like the spirit of the books was there with
you. I was invited to his house some time by the end of freshman year and my jaw
dropped open, and I go back to that same house over thirty years later, my jaw
still drops. It just, it is a book lover’s haven. It’s just one of the happiest
places in the world. He has books to the ceiling, his entire house is a library.
He has a collection of rare books and first editions that is of great value and
he’s been so incredibly generous as to donate that collection to the university.
The house of course is just rife with treasures: the Proust copy of Swann’s
Way, the first editions of Faulkner and Henry James and Edith Wharton. The books
in the house are just kind of a reflection of Dick’s mind. He is truly a
Renaissance man, and his house reflects that. See, what was
special about him as a teacher of writing, as a teaching of literature, is
that he taught it through the eyes of the writer. And we talked a lot about the
act of writing as an attempt to capture the human experience, and to understand your
own narrative, to understand the larger themes in the bigger picture. Just the
idea of not limiting yourself to any particular one way of thinking. I mean, he
started the Humanities Center that Hopkins sort of covered all the
branches of the Arts and everything. And he did play a part in the movie
we shot at Hopkins. He was the person who brought the first
class here in film studies, African American studies, women’s studies as well.
And he taught over in the medical school. I think what he did was open up
everybody’s eyes to the idea that life is really interdisciplinary. I don’t
think Dick believed that there should be boundaries in knowledge, his life has
been moving beyond, seeing connection. There’s no topic in the world that
bores Dick, and he can regale you with stories that no one else can ’til 3:00
in the morning. And I think he just lived on about three hours sleep and pipe
smoke for decades. He was indefatigable, the conversations went on for hours
and hours, and when you were done you were not exhausted at all, you were just
invigorated, and your mind was going and that’s probably how he’s lived
his life, with so many thoughts going around in his mind that he
can’t sleep. I think he feels that that sleep would be a waste of time when
there’s so much to do and so many people to educate in the best possible sense of
that. I learned lessons from Dick as a teacher and as a person. I think as a
teacher it’s the sheer fun of learning and as a person, watching Dick, who
truly outshines everybody in terms of just the power of the intellect, be so
kind is a wonderful example. His manner is to be optimistic,
enthusiastic, and to act with a certain humility. He’s one of those active minds that’s constantly learning, and he makes you feel like he’s learning from
you as well. That he was always interested in us, not only what our ideas
were but interested in us as people, and you had a sense that you with somebody
who actually cared. That’s unusual with somebody of his brilliance and stature.
And one of the reasons, I don’t know why I’m emotional about
this but I am, I guess. Dick will have created a legacy at Hopkins that
combines not only his philanthropy but more importantly his inclusiveness, and
in terms of his his relationship with students, I think that legacy continues.
Meeting Professor Macksey definitely helped me make my
decision as to applying early decision. Professor Macksey was so impressive and so
down to earth, and I came away from that I would be very happy at Johns Hopkins.
He is truly the epitome of what a Hopkins professor is and I think we all
think of him as the great guru. Dick has been here for over 50 years, so that
means for 55 to 60 percent of the life of Homewood, Dick Macksey has been at the
epicenter of the humanities of the school. For me, Richard Macksey is an
institution. I don’t think there will ever be another person like Richard Macksey.
He’s absolutely one of a kind, as a teacher, as a person. And I think
everybody if they’re lucky in their lives, they have two or three great
teachers, and he’s one of those in the lives of anybody who comes in contact
with him.

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