Letters to the Editor - Within The Family
In the Spirit of Reunion
Shortly before this issue went to press, we received the following letter concerning an appearance during Reunion '99 by Charles Van Doren, who had been invited to speak before the Class of '59. As many of you recall, Van Doren, a professor at Columbia and the son of the legendary Mark Van Doren, achieved national celebrity in the late 1950s for an extended series of victories on the television quiz show Twenty One. In 1959, Columbia accepted Van Doren's resignation after he admitted being given answers for the program in advance. This letter eloquently reflects the spirit of what was only Van Doren's second visit to the Morningside Heights campus in the past four decades, an appearance that drew a standing ovation from the appreciative audience:

On June 6, Charles Van Doren returned to the Columbia campus quietly and without notoriety. No major university campus had been the recipient of his vibrant voice and keen intellect in the 40 years since his fall from grace as the titular heir to the famous Van Doren legacy. Yet, there he was, lecturing to us, the class of '59, at our 40th alumni reunion. It seemed it was only yesterday that we had filled his lecture hall to learn about Aristotle and Plato.

In this vast expanse of 40 years, only the physical changes of the participants marked the distance of time. Slender, with scholarly white hair and fine, pinched features, upright posture and steady voice, the lecturer was in full command of his audience, duly noting their attentiveness, curiosity and respectful awe. He had never left.

However, the familiar content of the lecture had changed. Ostensibly present to tell members of his new/old class how to fulfill their remaining lives intellectually and socially, his story of the journey of one mind was clearly an allegory of his life, a life shaped by misfortune sown by the gods. The absence of good fortune was despair; like Virgil's Aeneas, one plunges to Hell and must return with great difficulty along a tortuous path to Heaven. To achieve celebrity status was analogous to fame without honor. Aeneas would eventually attempt to heed his father's advice --to study justice and not scorn the gods.

The message, no matter how poignant, was dwarfed by the messenger, both by his presence and his irrefutable decision to share this painful odyssey. There was no mea culpa, no apology, only the refrain of the classics now being rekindled by a decent and sincere soul emerging from a tragic experience. The author of The History of Knowledge emerged before us from a lacuna of 40 years to touch us intellectually and emotionally. In the end, our applause and his tears brought his journey full circle, overlapping our lives and making us wonder what might have been if the gods were not so quick to judge and so slow to forgive.

Michael J. Messer '59, M.D.

Concord, Calif.

An excerpt from Van Doren's remarks to members of the Class of '59 begins on page 30.