Tate, J. O. (1997, February 14). Ode to Oder: A Personal Remembrance. Lionís Voice, pp. 1, 4.

Ode to Oder: A Personal Remembrance

by James O. Tate

In the first place, we remember that Irwin Oder had retired from his full-time professorship of government before he became an emeritus professor and senior adjunct. And then he stepped aside completely. And soon after, he stepped outside never to return— but also never to be forgotten.

At the ceremony at which Irwin Oder’s emeritus status was conferred, there was no mention of the salient fact that he had been, thirty years before, the Dean of what was then Adelphi-Suffolk College. That omission passed over a lot of ground and many lives. Irwin Oder regarded it as his primary responsibility in those days to hire the best available people to make up the faculty of what would soon become Dowling College. He said, “I hire individuals, “ and he did. Clinton Trowbridge, Henry Radetsky, and Robert DeMaria have left the College, but they were superb teachers and fiery individualists that Irwin Oder had thought they would be. John Gschwendtner no longer lives. David Adler, Stephen Gillman, Byron Roth, Sandra Moneferrante, yours truly and others still teach at Dowling and remember who brought them here. Irwin Oder did more to establish the tone of Dowling College, probably, than any other individual, by his insistence on the imaginative investment and academic standards that he structured in that consolidating wave of faculty recruitment. He was the Dean when the curricula gelled, the disciplines grew, and the College affirmed its identity. For his decisive, elevating, and consequential judgments, Irwin must be recognized and thanked.

What, as Dean, Irwin Oder accomplished was a matter of character and conviction. To remember Irwin is also to remember his personality and even in this he was a leader in asserting the best values. In some sense, those values were associated with his elite Ivy League education. When the students at Columbia trashed Grayson Kirk, president of their university, Irwin merely reflected that he had studied political theory with him and thought he was a gentleman. It takes one to know one.

To know Irwin was to know how much he thought about his field — about Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Smith, Marx and many another. Irwin knew who Henry Kissinger was before the world did and liked to reflect on the career and writings of Samuel P. Huntington as well. Buit while he was a professor of political science, he was also a man of the world who did not neglect to stop and smell the roses. He was a traveler, a reader, and a music lover. He was a lousy golfer. He was a good amateur pianist and singer, and a star of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas that Carlo Lombardi and his players used to produce. Irwin liked to play and sing the sheet music of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and George Gershwin, so that I once had a chance to say to him, poker-faced, “It seems we’ve stood and talked like this before, but I can’t remember where or when.”

Irwin also delighted in the production of Prokofiev’s War and Peace which he saw at Covent Garden, but he finally concluded that his favorite modern opera—this her related with a leer—was Berg’s Lulu. I told Irwin he was a lulu himself. He was also a Marxist—a Groucho Marxist. He liked to be called “Rufus T. Firefly” and all the other names he knew from A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, Duck Soup and all the rest.

But Irwin’s mind was not satisfied even with Groucho and Jerome Kern. He and Clint Trowbridge planned for years to give a seminar on Saul Bellow. Irwin later re-read his Henry James and always wanted to talk about that. He went back and reviewed his considerable knowledge of music, listened to Schnabel complete, and told me that Elgar’s Second Symphony was better than Mahler. As he said to me, “You can’t live without art.”

Irwin Oder’s final service to Dowling College was to see to it that he left the Political Science discipline in the best shape it has ever been. Carlos Cunha, Scott Roulier, and John Martin hold the fort now, and that is as it should be—the way Irwin wanted it. Hiring the best people he could find, he went out as he came in.

Irwin Oder aced David Adler’s “corner test”: “If he makes you smile when you see him coming around the corner, he’s a good guy.” Irwin did that with spiffy style and unfailing humor and sometimes with a creamsicle in his hand. No member of this academic community ever said to us more ambivalently and powerfully that we have to be serious and we must have fun. We will always miss Irwin. But we will, as we look around, see what good he left us. When we laugh again we will remember him: Henry Kissinger blended with Groucho Marx, with Henry James in one hand and ice cream on a stick in the other. Since Irwin won’t be here, we will ourselves have to remember not only him but the values he espoused and lived by. There are no better ones than those exemplified by Irwin Oder, professor and clown, musician and mensch.

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