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Professor Wenley: A Student Impression

Robert Mark Wenley
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.