Remembering Carl Hertel
For more than thirty years Carl Hertel and I taught at Pitzer College in Claremont. Although we were in very different fields, and in many larger institutions might never have met, we saw each other regularly for a variety of reasons. After we had both retired we continued to meet occasionally and when we did we often looked back on experiences we had shared.
One event that we could never recall without smiling was the Irish Festival in 1967. At that time the Irish poet W.R. (Bertie) Rodgers was teaching at Pitzer. Carl managed to persuade someone in the college to put up money to bring a number of distinguished Irish writers that Bertie knew to Claremont to discuss Irish literature. It would probably be accurate to say that it was a roaring success—much of the roaring being fueled by plenty of food and drink. One speaker was accused of maligning someone else’s uncle; a faculty member at a sister college had to be physically restrained from punching Conor Cruise O’Brien in the parking lot; some speakers were not sober enough to deliver their speeches. It was a very Irish affair. Throughout it all Carl remained outwardly calm and tried to maintain some order amid the chaos. Afterwards he admitted that he would not have attempted such a venture if he had known in advance what it would be like, but in many ways it was a success.
If the Irish Festival was unique in Carl’s experience, it was not untypical of his approach to life. He took students to the desert and even to Mexico; he organized a summer program in Santa Fe; he directed students in erecting various unconventional structures on campus. He was willing to take risks and frequently had tricky situations to deal with. But generally Carl outwardly appeared calm, concealing his anxiety within. I only saw him angry when he was frustrated by the obtuseness of those who tried to block his plans.
At his retirement ceremony in 1994, there were tributes from many students and many different kinds of students because Carl’s great range of interests and enthusiasms attracted a wide variety of students. He was a much loved teacher and he returned that affection with patient attention and consideration. He was a prominent figure on campus with his long flowing hair and beard that would have been been as appropriate with a prophet’s robes as with his jeans and cowboy boots.
One of my earliest memories of Carl is of a visit to the house that he and his wife Sue had in the foothills above Glendora. It was a remarkable house with an oval living room filled with folk art and Sue’s vivid paintings of their life on the walls. There were children and animals everywhere: horses, dogs, and cats. It was hard to believe that these two artists could do anything other than manage their family and their property, but they were both constantly active in their professional careers.
When Carl was retiring I gave him a copy of a painting by the Argentine artist Pedro Figari. Figari’s paintings are vivid representations of life in Argentina at the end of the nineteenth century. The picture I gave him is entitled El Gaucho Candioti, and I presented it to Carl saying he was “the last of the gauchos.” For some reason, this characterization appealed to Carl and he would often refer to himself in this way, but sometimes, when he was in a complaining mood, he would refer to himself as Old Groucho.
I shall miss Old Groucho, as will many people who knew him, but we had the privilege of knowing him and being influenced by him. The twelfth-century Persian poet Rumi wrote:
Look at your eyes.
They are small,
But they see
Carl’s eyes weren’t particularly small, but they saw enormous and marvelous things and he helped many of us to see some of those things.
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