The Michigan Alumnus 549
Professor Wenley: A Student Impression
By Joseph R. Callaghan, '31, of Battle Creek
Very few, I think, ever called him Professor. The word was too long. Besides, he wasn't really a professor: he was just a teacher and a friend. So to us he was simply Wenley; by that was he known and loved.
I did not know him intimately—nor long. The first time I ever saw him was at a Freshman smoker given during my first week at the University. He talked about his recent European trip, but I don't remember what he said. All I can recall now is a head scantily covered with graying, nearly white hair, and a face that was kindly. The next encounter was when I, a sophomore, enrolled in his introductory course in philosophy. At the conclusion of that first brilliant lecture—a success ive alternation of sparkling satire and profound truth— a senior sitting next to me exclaimed, "That's absolutely the best lecture I've ever heard on this campus." And I could not help agreeing with him. From that day on I listened each week from a fourth-row bench up in West Gallery to two equally brilliant lectures. And learning that he usually took the "Monday at 3" quiz section, I was able to sit under him for a third hour of even more scintillating comment upon life and its "gulli ble participants."
After class when four or five gathered around his desk, he would say, "Come on into the office." We would follow him into the old room in South Wing: "Sit down," drawing out a cigarette, lighting it, and leaning back in his chair. "Now what is it?" Then would come our questions and his answers. I can still see that sharp, deep intake of the smoke of the refresh ing cigarette; he seemed to draw it to the very bottom of his lungs. Then the thin, bluish exhalation. Yet de spite the thinning hair and the numerous wrinkles he seemed to exhibit a most exhilarating spirit of youth fulness. Perhaps it was the keenness of his intellect. More, I think, it was his eyes. You could not probe their depths. They were sunken beneath bushy eyebrows into deep, black-ringed hollows; and when he talked to you, they gazed straight into yours. You could not look into them for long; yours were the first to drop, his never dropped.
Nearly six feet in height, his large head with its firm chin was the dominant impression. In spite of the odd-looking black bow ties and the spats which he oc casionally wore, it was the face which immediately drew your attention. I have sat for ten minutes staring fixedly at that face, so engrossed that I could not take a note. His voice was full and rich—deep; he could al- ways be heard, even by those on the furthermost benches. And his smile, except when it came in connec tion with irony, was all warm kindliness.
He was an idealist; and while skeptics may scoff, I cannot help liking him for it. Philosophy to him was not a dull series of abstract terms and technical "isms." It was a concrete attitude. —toward life and toward its problems. And how he labored to make that attitude clear to us! He was exceedingly firm in his beliefs— even dogmatic. Up in the old office one day he said to me: "Everyone in constructing his philosophy must pass through a period of complete skepticism. He must sift his beliefs. But after he's done it, then what he has he has." And he brought his clenched fist down onto the old table as if to shatter it. Well, what Wenley had he had; he hung on to it with a grip that was relentless. I used to, be greatly amused by his pragmatic insistence that the ultimate purpose of all life and living is to achieve some worth while goal, that only those of us who possess the will to strive unceasingly to realize that goal are entitled to distinctive merit. Happiness to him was merely a side issue. Al though I disagreed with him in this—and in many things—sharp ly, I was forced to admit that through it he built more real char acter at Michigan than did any other man. Certainly, his own life was a concrete application of his principle; yet I am sure he re ceived his full measure of happi ness out of it too.
Never. I believe, have I heard any man receive a more genuine delight out of swearing. He swore prolifically and profoundly, and I think it pleased him immensely to hear our answering roars. He de lighted in shocking—and we in being shocked. One day a student asked him if philosophy was practical. Looking directly at us, he hesitated a bare second; then laconically with all the vehemence he could muster came the reply. "Thank God! No!" Again, in ex plaining coherence as a criterion of truth, he said: "If I were to say that I saw eight horses going down State street yesterday, you would say, 'It is not likely, but it is quite probable.' But suppose I said that yesterday I saw two mermaids driving two dinosaurs down State Street. You'd immediately say (a pause), "Hell! the man's crazy'." But the moment the laughter had subsided, straight as an arrow would come the point illus trated. He never allowed us to forget that, entertaining as his stories were, they were not an end, but a means to an end.
His insistence upon complete attention often result ed in the dramatic. One day he discovered a student reading a book during the lecture. He broke off in the middle of a sentence, stepped down off the platform, clown the aisle, took the book away from the abashed youth, and standing in the center of the room, delivered a five-minute comment in biting sarcasm upon "don keys" who were not only unintelligent but discourteous as well.
He had a habit in his lectures of leaving us in doubt. At first it annoyed me greatly; after a while it made me think. He asked innumerable questions, rarely an swering any of them; and many a laboring sophomore puzzled his head to seek their solutions. Thus did he stimulate our thought. Therein lay his singular power; he made philosophy a living thing, something we could see—and use—in our everyday life. He transformed his lectures into not tedious, but interesting instruction. From his definitions of time and space to those bril liantly trenchant dissertations upon Detroit (he called it the modern Sodom) there was not a moment of dullness.
He had some— not all—of the elements of the snob. Born into all the traditions of caste which the English heritage includes, he was saturated with a narrowly aristocratic outlook. It left its mark, and he could not escape it. He denied emphatically that all men are born equal, en titled to the same education and the same treatment. He laughed uproariously—and. I am afraid, arrogantly—at his Ann Arbor household "servants" because they persisted in calling themselves "help." He was, moreover, decidedly egotistic; there is no getting around the fact. When he told us about his signing a hotel register "R. Mark Wenley and valise" immediately after a famous American philosopher who had written "and valet," he loved to sense our admiration of his wit. But withal he possessed in finite courage. Recently he great ly angered a distinguished University of Columbia philosopher in reviewing his book by saying that he had "taken 419 pages to prove that birds of a feather flock together."
When he was visiting the University here before accepting his appointment, he inspected the physical lab oratories. At the conclusion of his examination he turned to the Director, "You have excellent equipment here, much better than we"—referring to the labora tories of Lord Kelvin. "Yes', came the Director's reply, "but we have no Lord Kelvin." It's the man that counts. We of Michigan still have our philosophy de partment, but we no more have Wenley. To me it can never be the same: to me philosophy is Wenley. He used to talk a great deal about immortality. While stressing the fact that it was all a question of pure faith, he defined it as "the continuance of personality after the physical dissolution of the body." Well, if that be immortality, Professor Wenley is immortal. It will be many years before the memory of his vigorous spirit can fade.