Late last year, I received an e-mail announcing a symposium celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Folklore and Mythology Program at Harvard University. As a member of the first class to be awarded degrees in the program, and as the only member of that class to have gone on to pursue graduate study and a career in the discipline, I responded to Professor Stephen Mitchell, the current director of the program, that I would be interested in attending and, if he thought it would be appropriate, presenting a paper on my fifty years in the field. Much to my surprise, Professor Mitchell asked if I would consider delivering the keynote address for the symposium, given that I had been present at the creation of the program and was still somewhat actively involved in the discipline! I agreed to do so on the condition that I would be allowed to accompany my talk with a PowerPoint presentation, noting that Professor Don Yoder, my dissertation adviser in the Folklore and Folklife Program at the University of Pennsylvania, always said, “If you have enough slides, you don’t have to have anything to say!”
While I was excited to have the opportunity to share the highlights of a career that had included teaching at Wayne State University and Western Kentucky University, serving as an Arts Specialist with the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, and finally working as a curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and as Executive Director of the Cedarburg Cultural Center and the Milwaukee County Historical Society in my native Wisconsin, I also had an ulterior motive for attending the Folklore and Mythology Program’s fiftieth anniversary celebration. In addition to being reunited with some of my classmates and colleagues, I hoped I would have a chance to visit once again with Professor Gregory Nagy who had been my Senior Tutor and the adviser on my undergraduate honors thesis. Since Dr. Nagy had served as the director of the Folklore and Mythology Program for a number of years after my graduation, Professor Mitchell assured me that he would be in attendance and that we would have a chance to reflect on those early years and all that had happened since!
I first met Greg Nagy during my sophomore or junior year at Harvard when I was fortunate to be a member of his class on Homer’s Odyssey. As Folklore and Mythology majors, we were required to select minors to pursue, and given my background at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee—a fine Jesuit institution which prided itself on providing a classical education—I doubled down on my efforts to make myself almost completely unemployable after college graduation by augmenting my Folklore and Mythology major with a minor in ancient Greek! About midway through the semester, Dr. Nagy, now well known for his undergraduate and online course on “The Hero,” was involved in a serious car accident, and all of us were concerned that we would be left to complete the course with a “substitute teacher”—likely an older member of the Classics Department faculty lacking the energy and enthusiasm of Dr. Nagy! Much to our surprise, after only missing a week of classes, Dr. Nagy returned to the classroom, head still bandaged like the fifer in “The Spirit of ’76,” and remained with us through the end of the semester, exemplifying all the characteristics of the heroes he would later celebrate!
Building upon the relationship which we had developed during the Odyssey class, I was fortunate to have Dr. Nagy as the advisor for my undergraduate honors thesis. While I honestly cannot recall how I settled on the topic, I selected “The Origins of the Goddess Ariadne” as the subject of my paper. Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete who provided the hero Theseus with the sword he used to slay the fearsome Minotaur and the thread that led him out of the labyrinth constructed to house the creature that was half man and half bull. During the several months that Dr. Nagy and I labored over linguistic and epigraphical evidence for the goddess’s emergence as a separate entity from Aphrodite, he could not have been more encouraging and supportive. He even loaned me his Greek typewriter to prepare the necessary passages to be quoted in the thesis—after all, these were the Dark Ages, before interchangeable fonts on your computer or even interchangeable balls on an IBM Selectric! In addition to offering advice regarding the content of the paper, Dr. Nagy regularly corrected my somewhat tentative writing style—not “the goddess appears to have been” but rather “the goddess was”—and supported my theoretical arguments. Perhaps more important than anything he taught me about Ariadne, he taught me that I had a voice and gave me confidence that I had something to say, and for that I will always be grateful!
Unfortunately, after submitting my honors thesis to the Folklore and Mythology Program in late March of 1970, all hell broke loose on college campuses throughout the country. Four students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio on May 4 during a rally protesting the Viet Nam War, and many colleges and universities—including Harvard—were subsequently shut down by student bodies that went on strike! Like many of my classmates, I returned home for a few weeks in the hope that the campus unrest would simmer down and allow graduation to proceed as scheduled. When I finally returned to campus, I discovered that Dr. Nagy had done such a fine job shepherding me through my honors thesis that I graduated Summa Cum Laude and was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa, and these honors subsequently brought offers of graduate fellowships in the Classics at Yale and in Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. However, the hiatus which interrupted the end of my last semester kept me from meeting with Dr. Nagy and offering him the thanks he so richly deserved for all his support and assistance over the previous several years!
As I was reviewing my PowerPoint presentation in preparation for the Folklore and Mythology Program’s fiftieth anniversary celebration, I was delighted to look up and discover that, as promised, Greg Nagy had joined the group of faculty members and alumni of the program who had gathered for the celebration. Despite the nearly fifty years that had passed since last seeing each other, it truly seemed as though it had only been a few days since we last spoke. As gracious and charming as ever, Greg made my wife Heather feel welcome and comfortable in the midst of a nerdy group of academics. And, before I could thank him—either privately or publicly in my presentation—for his support in preparing my honors thesis, Greg recalled “The Origins of the Goddess Ariadne” as my topic and realized that, indeed, his involvement with the Folklore and Mythology Program extended back ten years farther than the beginning of his tenure as director of the program in 1980!
During the course of the two-day symposium, Greg asked if I still had a copy of my honors thesis. As luck would have it, I had recently come across two copies of the paper while in the process of renovating our basement and clearing out a lot of old books and other material. I told Greg that, in addition to the thesis, I still had the evaluations of the paper written by Professors Albert Lord and David Bynum of the Folklore and Mythology Program and by Professor George M.A. Hanfmann of the Classics Department. Much to my surprise, he asked if I would submit it for consideration by the Publications Committee of the Center for Hellenic Studies, with the possibility of it being made available on the Center’s website. Though I protested that a forty-seven-year-old undergraduate thesis could hardly pass for anything like contemporary Classical scholarship, Greg reassured me that the quality of the research and the elegance of the presentation made my work worthy of consideration even after the passage of so much time. Happily, the members of the Center’s Publication Committee concurred with Greg’s assessment of the value of my thesis, and I now have yet another kindness for which to thank him!
Robert T. Teske
To my father, Roland J. Teske, Sr.