Last Lectures: Prof. Wally Englert [classics 1981–2018]

We salute retiring (and not-so-retiring) professors.

By Cecilia D’Anastasio ’13 | April 8, 2019

It’s hard to imagine a Reed without him. For decades, Prof. Wally Englert taught incoming students how to chant the first line of Homer’s Iliad in ancient Greek—a tradition that indoctrinated generations of Reedies into the idiosyncratic, playful rigor that defines the campus. He also introduced them to Lucretius’s monumental epic On the Nature of Things, an influential account of philosophy, physics, psychology, and the pleasure of learning and living a moral life. (Englert was the ideal guide to the epic—he wrote the translation.)

For a renowned scholar of ancient philosophy, these things are not just an academic pursuit; they form the moral landscape for a patient and empathetic educator. Now, after teaching at Reed for 37 years, he has retired.

Englert came to Reed in 1981 after earning his PhD from Stanford and teaching at the University of Michigan. He soon fell in love with Hum 110 and Reed’s “intense” liberal arts environment.

“I loved working with students of all majors who might not ever take a classics course,” he says. “I wanted to be a teacher where people felt open about expressing their views. It’s not about trying to get everyone to the same place, but to have everyone feel that they can come to the opinion they think is most warranted.”

His goal as a conference leader, he said, is to cultivate a “place where people feel like they have a stake and that their voices matter in the conference.” He estimates he’s led conferences with 2,000 students at Reed.

Englert is the sort of professor who is unlikely to tell a student they’re wrong, even if it’s abundantly obvious. More often, he’ll lightly question their thinking until they realize—apparently on their own—that there’s a better interpretation of a text. It’s a style that might sound familiar to Reedies who remember reading Plato. “He controls the classroom discussion beautifully while giving students lots of space to roam, and brings out the best in everyone,” says former student Brett Rogers ’99, now a classics scholar himself. “Wally is very good at making you do hard things without realizing how hard the task really is, and students often share with me that he makes you want to succeed because no one wants to disappoint him.”

“He’s an extremely respected scholar, incredibly skilled and beloved professor, the best colleague you can imagine,” says Prof. Ellen Millender [classics 2002–]. “Imagine—16 years and I’ve never heard him badmouth anybody, ever.” (One former student explained that he’s only once seen Englert get upset, and it was at a slow-working printer, which he called “stupid.”)

For Wally, Reed is a kind of mechanism for working on oneself and bettering oneself, all the time, repeatedly, not just at the start,” says Prof. Nigel Nicholson [classics 1995–]. “That is what makes him a great teacher and great person.”

In retirement, Wally will be taking bike day trips, volunteering in Portland, and spending time with his grandchildren. He’ll also be finishing his upcoming book on Cicero’s philosophical works, which were intended to make philosophy palatable to hard-headed Romans. “What Cicero was trying to do was convince his Roman readers that, far from being a waste of time, studying philosophy is an essential part of what it means to be a good human being,” he says.

For his retirement party, Englert’s students and colleagues performed a parody of Euripides’s tragedy The Bacchae, affectionately called The Wacchae (written and directed by Brett Rogers). In the play, a cult forms around the hero Waldonysos after he successfully defends the merits of teaching ancient Greek. “Some profs are rigorous, and some are kind, but rarely are they both rigorous and kind,” exclaimed Millendesias (played by Prof. Millender). No truer words have been said of Englert.

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