By Brett C. Vermilyea
The panelists were as varied as the liberal arts they represented. There was a Hollywood director, a research scientist, a venture capitalist, an international relations lawyer and a Tony Award-winning actor.
They were five of the 10 Binghamton University alumni celebrating “Bold Ideas. Brilliant Careers. 60 Years of Harpur College” on stage Nov. 14 at the Lincoln Center’s Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse overlooking a sunny Manhattan skyline.
Moderated by Owen Pell ’80, the panel explored “how we create, how we relate and how we remember” by sharing how Harpur experiences and a liberal arts education formed the basis for their exceptional careers.
“Harpur has shown ability year after year to do what a great liberal arts education is supposed to do,” Pell told the crowd of nearly 100, “which is prepare all of us to go out into the world and take the damn place by storm.”
That’s exactly what Andrew Bergman ’65 did, writing Blazing Saddles, The In-Laws, Honeymoon in Vegas and Striptease. (He also directed the last two.)
At Harpur, “we had to read every major book from the Odyssey through A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” he said. “It was a total immersion in that kind of literature. … Many years later, they are still a frame of reference.”
By connecting him to the classics, Bergman’s professors added richness to his already cutting humor. It was just 20 years after World War II, in which many professors served. The country was emerging from the constricted ’50s as the cultural whirlwinds of the late ’60s were beginning to stir.
Meanwhile, two countries with a nuclear arsenal capable of annihilating the planet were facing off. Bergman remembered watching President Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech on television with a couple of hard-drinking, chain-smoking professors.
“After it’s over, [Professor] Fred Loch turns off the set and says, ‘If there’s a nuclear war, I’m canceling my classes tomorrow,’” Bergman said to a laughing audience. “And that was Harpur in the ’60s. That was the essence of it.”
One by one, the panelists told stories of professors who changed their lives.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson ’78 is the Tony- and Obie-winning actor who wrote, directed and performed Lackawanna Blues. (He now plays Captain Roy Montgomery in ABC’s Castle.) He told of arriving at Don Boros’s acting class one day and, instead of doing the assigned monologue, he performed a piece about his life growing up in an upstate boarding house, abandoned by a drug-addicted mother.
After some back and forth about the deviation from the assignment, Boros acquiesced, and “I spilled all this out about my life in this one 10-minute or 5-minute rant,” Santiago-Hudson told the audience. “A stream of consciousness just came out of me, and people looked at me completely different. That was the beginning of Lackawanna Blues.”
Venture capitalist Joel Kellman remembers skipping an 8 a.m. political behavior class when his professor showed up in the cafeteria and said, “Joel, it’s time for class. You must come with me.”
Moderator Pell noted that the time and effort to “herd the cats back into the classroom really says something powerful about the school.”
But the panelists had less-than fond memories of a few professors. Santiago-Hudson remembers being told to quit writing (it made him try harder). And Kellman remembered Nathan Hackman. “He was a very tough guy,” he told the crowd. “On my final paper he wrote ‘D minus. You’ll never make it in law school.’ That was so hurtful at the time, even for as much of a smartass as I was.”
Years later the line still stung, so Kellman called Hackman. He said, “Professor Hackman, my name is Joel Kellman. You probably don’t remember me.”
The professor responded slowly, “Joel, I remember you very well.”
Kellman reminded the professor of what he wrote on Kellman’s final and went on to list his successes: first in his law school, a job in the best Wall Street firm, starting his own successful financial company.
“[Hackman] didn’t answer,” Kellman recalled. “And I realized he was crying. He said, ‘You know, that was my first semester as a teacher, and I didn’t know what to do with you. You were so smart and I couldn’t get you to work. And it just frustrated me, and I just decided that maybe I didn’t have it as a teacher. And your telling me this is just so moving, is just so wonderful. I’m so happy for you and I’m so grateful for you for making this call.’
“That was something special,” Kellman said.