Studio portrait of Sid Salter.
(photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)
Columnist Sid Salter pays tribute to longtime Mississippi State University professor Dr. Robert Wolverton.
For a man who taught and understood the intricacies of Latin, there can be no higher praise for Mississippi State University icon Dr. Robert Wolverton than to assess his life and work by the old Latin proverb docendo discimus – “by teaching, we learn.”
The phrase is the motto of many universities and government entities worldwide. It is attributed by some scholars to the Stoic philosopher Seneca – although that attribution is far from universally shared.
But what does it mean? To many, it is a paradox – to become a great teacher is to remain a student; to be a great student is to teach.
When he died Dec. 15 at his home in Starkville at the age of 94, there was no confusion in Wolverton in the concept of that Latin phrase. He was a master teacher who held the admiration and respect of faculty, staff and students, but he also possessed what T.S. Eliot called “an experiencing nature” in that he surely and intentionally learned from his students and told them so.
In a higher education career that spanned 70 years (including over 40 years at MSU), Wolverton never lost touch with his love of classroom teaching as a classicist. At State, he served as a professor of classics and the university’s vice president for academic affairs and other administrative roles.
The Indiana native held academic positions at the University of Georgia, Tufts University, and Florida State University. Wolverton held a bachelor’s degree from Hanover College, a master’s from the University of Michigan and a doctorate from the University of North Carolina. He also received an honorary Doctor of Letters from the College of Mount St. Joseph.
At MSU, Wolverton was in 2004 named a Grisham Master Teacher, the university’s highest teaching honor and in 2014, he became the first recipient of the College of Arts and Sciences Legacy Award, an annual honor that now bears his name. The rotunda in the Old Main Academic Center was named in his honor – an architectural feature that thousands of MSU students pass daily on the way to and from their classes.
So how important is the influence of Latin teachers in developing the minds of young scholars? Here’s what Mississippi’s legendary novelist Eudora Welty – winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom – said:
“It was my first-year Latin teacher in high school who made me who made me discover I’d fallen in love with it (grammar). It took Latin to thrust me into bona fide alliance with words in their true meaning. Learning Latin fed my love for words upon words in continuation and modification, and the beautiful, sober, accretion of a sentence. I could see the achieved sentence finally standing there, as real, intact, and built to stay as the Mississippi State Capitol at the top of my street.”
I came to know Dr. Wolverton first in the classroom when I was privileged to study Ancient Greek and Roman history under his guidance and later to reconnect with him during my own MSU teaching days. I still have the textbooks from the course he taught me and the experience of being in his class was nothing short of theater in the round.
Beyond his academic skills, Dr. Wolverton was an encourager and an inspiration to faculty and students alike and was an icon of civility and integrity. He was a great father and grandfather and his devotion to his beloved wife, Peggy, was inspiring. Mrs. Wolverton died in 2019 at the age of 89 in the 67th year of their marriage.
In 2016, Wolverton granted an interview to MSU’s Alumnus Magazine in which he shared with editor Susan Lassetter his thoughts about his life and work: “People ask me why I keep doing this and it’s because there’s so much joy,” said Wolverton. “No one can say I don’t have enthusiasm for my field, but I have equal enthusiasm for my students.”
“It’s almost a cliché but it’s true: I think most teachers really, really, really enjoy the interaction with their students. That’s what keeps us going, keeps us young, really.”
Docendo discimus – “By teaching, we learn.” Thanks for teaching us, Dr. Wolverton.
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