Spring 2013

Ruler of history

Gerald Kadish retiring after 50 years


Feature Image
Jonathan Cohen
Gerald Kadish leaves Binghamton University in May after 50 years of teaching history.

After History Professor Gerald Kadish teaches his final class, Assessing the Tokugawa Era, on May 10, he will throw away the last of his notes and shred five decades’ worth of grade sheets, one for every student he has ever taught. After Commencement, he’ll decide what to do with the academic robes that his mother bought him. And there will be all those books to move. Books about ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece and Japan. Books that can be measured in square yards and tons.

It’s easy to imagine that if his sixth-floor office were any higher, the Library Tower might tilt.

“He sits behind his desk, with mounds of books and all sorts of Egyptological paraphernalia spread about the room, and you sometimes feel like you’re talking to a sympathetic colleague and other times you feel like you’re talking to the high priest of Ma’at,” says Andrew Scholtz, associate professor and chair of the Classical and Near Eastern Studies Department.

Ma’at is the ancient Egyptian concept of truth, balance, law, morality and justice, personified as a goddess who wears a single feather on her head.

“He’s fond of wearing a Ma’at feather pin,” Scholtz says.

Learning how to teach

Kadish joined Harpur College in 1963, fresh out of the University of Chicago graduate school, but with one small gap in his résumé: “When I got here, I had not had one minute of teaching experience,” he says.

But that wasn’t what raised eyebrows.

“The first thing Glenn Bartle said to me when I came for my interview was, ‘I see you’re divorced.’ I thought, what kind of opening gambit is that? I told him I was getting married again, and he was visibly relieved. He worried about predatory male faculty; I’m not sure he understood about predatory female faculty.”

Kadish taught western civilization and ancient Greek history his first semester, modeling his style on his own favorite teachers.

“He made the material come alive,” says Lawrence Berman ’75. “He was a hard teacher, and he had this aura of being so learned. But he was fair.”
Berman remembers being late for a final because he overslept.

“I was really panicky,” he says. “He put me in his office and said, ‘do your exam.’ I was so scared. He was so calm. He took away my fear.”

Today, Berman is the Norma Jean Calderwood Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He is one of a handful of Kadish’s students who have made a career in Egyptology, despite Binghamton having no graduate program in it. Kadish has outlived at least two of them.

History of the historian

When Kadish the historian came to Binghamton, he already had quite a history of his own.

“I went to the Bronx High School of Science and I was surrounded by geniuses. Two of my classmates have won the Nobel Prize in physics — Sheldon Lee Glashow and Steven Weinberg. The rest are doctors, scientists, a general and very few lawyers, thank goodness. I learned intellectual humility because I wasn’t quite in that category.”
After high school, he studied chemistry (“It was not for me.”) He apprenticed as a tool and die maker. Then he enlisted in the army.

“The Korean War was over and I said, ‘Take me, I’m yours.’ And because I spoke German, they sent me to Germany, in that wonderful oxymoron called military intelligence. I spent 17 months there and that’s when I grew up.”

That’s also when he read James Henry Breasted’s History of Egypt — in German (“which I still have, up there, top shelf, last book on the left”).

It changed his life. After the army, he earned a history degree from Hunter College, then went to the University of Chicago where he studied Egyptology, which he loved, and ancient Greek and Roman history, which would get him a job.

At Binghamton, he has taught western civilization; ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian history; the ancient Near East; hieroglyphics; and ancient law and society. An avid reader of Japanese history, Kadish began teaching it 10 years ago.

“My chair introduces me as someone who teaches everything nobody else teaches,” he says.

Kadish says his only unfinished business is that he didn’t publish much, choosing, instead, to teach as many classes as he could, edit professional journals and be a resource for colleagues.

“He’s willing to be involved in different projects and help people. He goes to people’s talks. He’s very generous about saying yes to things,” Scholtz says.

Kadish chaired the Classical and Near Eastern Studies Department from 1974 to 1979 and the History Department from 1982 to August 1984 and again, as an interim, in 1988–89 while the chair was on sabbatical. “That year was the worst year of my entire career,” he says.

There were politics. There was turmoil. “I had to reign over that nuttiness,” Kadish says, sounding still disgusted. “I vowed I’d never be chairman again.”

“Gerry has been greatly respected,” says John Chaffee, distinguished service professor of history and Asian and Asian American studies. “I see him as a kind of a mensch in the department; he has knowledge of a great deal of our history and, with a cool head, is able to see things clearly.”

Kadish was named a distinguished teaching professor in 2007.

Nothing escapes him

Kadish doesn’t speak in generalities; he dots his i’s and crosses his t’s with details:

—As a grad student in Chicago, he rented a room from a medieval studies professor whose wife, Francis Cate — “a nice Southern lady, very genteel” — said to him, “’Now Gerald, when you’re a teacher, when students come to your office, if it’s a female, do not close your door.’ It turned out to be very good advice.”

—He and his wife arrived in Binghamton $3,750 in debt — $2,500 for her student loans, the rest borrowed from her father to buy a car. “I didn’t learn to drive until it was time to come here. I passed the driving exam on my birthday in 1963, then drove to Pittsburgh, where we stayed with her aunt and senile grandmother, who was 103.” His starting salary: $6,990.

—His favorite era was the 1960s. “I had some extraordinary students. When you have someone like Camille Paglia ’68 [author and social critic] in your class, there’s no boredom. She was a piece of work; intellectually remarkable. The other person in those classes was the late Patrick O’Neil ’69, MA ’73, MA ’79, MA ’80, PhD ’93, MA ’01, this huge man. Patrick was brilliant, and those two were at loggerheads politically; she was very liberal and he was very conservative and they’d just battle, which was fun.”

And he’s known every president, he says, ticking off his opinions: Glenn Bartle had the good sense to step aside when others took his vision of a four-year liberal arts college and ran with it. Bruce Dearing was a placeholder, whose first speech to faculty reminded them that one could publish and perish. Peter Magrath was a smart fellow who left too soon (and his return was wonderful). Clifford Clark’s leadership skills came late in his tenure. Lois DeFleur moved the University ahead in many ways, but perhaps stayed too long. Harvey Stenger has good instincts; he’ll do fine.

At the dedication of the Harpur Wall of Excellence, during Homecoming 2012, Kadish spoke about the difference in scale of Harpur then and now. “We had fewer than 2,000 students … fewer than 100,000 volumes in the library.” Now the University has more than 15,000 students and the library about 2 million works.

One thing that has declined, Kadish says, is the intellectual intensity of students.

“The students today don’t excite me as much as they did in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. It’s not a dumbing down, it’s just different attitudes. There’s not so much fun in learning.
One thing that most faculty acknowledge is that students coming in these days can’t write a single coherent, clear sentence.”

Is it possible that he has changed?

“Yes,” he admits, “it’s a little of both. As I’ve gotten older, I’m a little crabbier.

“But it’s really been fun for the most part. I like talking to students. They’re very interesting.”

Kadish’s plans for retirement include traveling and writing. He still has things to say about ancient Egypt. And he hopes to visit Japan with his fiancée, Jocelyn Mallett. They met in October 1961 at her wedding; he stood up with the groom. Kadish and Mallett, both widowed, have been together the past five years and will marry at the end of May — yet more proof that for Gerald Kadish, history never grows old.