A Classic Scholar
Gone for almost 70 years, William Abbott Oldfather endures at Illinois.
One day prior to World War II, a group of outdoor enthusiasts from the University of Illinois were playing softball when an angry bull burst onto the scene. As players fled before the charging beast, one of them, William Abbott Oldfather, a classics professor, picked up the bat and fought the bull like a matador, dodging its horns and landing blows as the animal barreled past. Finally, the bull fled, and the game resumed.
Asked later, Oldfather said the incident had been exaggerated, according to a biography by Michael Armstrong (MA ’87, classics; PhD ’93, classical philology). It was, he said, not a very large bull.
Such was the impression left by Oldfather during his 36 years at Illinois, before his tragic death in 1945. Various sketches portray him as a goateed, cigar-chomping, German folksong-singing star athlete with a larger-than-life personality, but most of all he was known as the greatest American classical scholar of his era, whose methods of studying literature changed the field.
Ariana Traill, head of the Department of the Classics, says that even though Oldfather has been gone almost 70 years, his presence remains in the department.
He was instrumental in acquiring the vast collection of texts in the Classics Library at Illinois, which is still recognized as one of the top three of its kind in the country. And his prestige and distinguished research established Illinois as a center for philological inquiry—the study of how literature and language developed—that continues today.
“His legacy certainly does continue,” Traill says. “Oldfather’s masterly text and translation of the philosopher Epictetus is on every faculty member’s shelf and his portrait still hangs on the wall, reminding students of his connection to our program.”
Born in Persia (now Iran) in 1880, to Presbyterian missionaries, Oldfather (a descendant of Daniel Boone) moved to southern Indiana as a boy. He earned degrees from Hanover College and Harvard, and he worked as an instructor in classics at Northwestern University before arriving at Illinois in 1909. Married and a father of two daughters, he remained at Illinois for the rest of his life, serving as department head in the classics from 1926 to 1945.
Combative and opinionated, Oldfather often rubbed people the wrong way, but friends recalled that below the exterior was a sensitive and observant person. His devotion to his field was renowned. As he drove from place to place, his wife, Margaret, would sit in the passenger seat and read scholarly texts aloud.
He acquired a taste for German culture and scholarship (he would become fluent in German) that he followed for his entire career. In fact, he remained devoted to studying German scholarship even when it was literally unsafe to do so, during the nation’s two world wars against the European power.
In 1917, federal agents accused Oldfather and several colleagues of disloyalty to the United States, but at a public hearing that ultimately exonerated Oldfather, he insisted that his love was for German scholarship and not its government, according to Karl Max Grisso’s biography of former Illinois President David Kinley. Oldfather opposed Fascism, and during World War I he even served on the Committee on Public Information, which was created to build American support for the war.
Oldfather wrote hundreds of influential publications and was even known to scour the countrysides of Greece and Italy for his research. Other prestigious universities clamored for him to come there as a speaker or visiting professor.
“Oldfather wrote books that last,” wrote William M. Calder III, professor emeritus of classics at Illinois, in Illinois Classical Studies. “He held that no one had the bona fides to write about ancient literature or thought until he had published at least one critical index verborum and a critical text ‘from the ground up’ of one Latin and of one Greek author. Oldfather sensibly preferred authors off the beaten track because there were not so many manuscripts and there still was a lot to be done with the text.”
He was also remembered for his vivid teaching style, complete with his “growling laugh” and his methods of creating independent minds and a spirit of inquiry. Oldfather is known as the first to teach ancient athletics, according to Calder. Part of the final exam in that course involved participating in track and field events on the Quad.
For years, he led students and colleagues on outdoor excursions, known as the Saturday Hiker’s Club. In the evening they would gather around a fire and listen to him speak. It was during one of these excursions that he fought the aforementioned bull, and on May 27, 1945, he was canoeing with a student near Homer, Ill., when the craft capsized. The student made it to shore, but Oldfather was dragged under the surface by an undertow, and drowned.
Richard Lattimore, Oldfather’s former student who went on to become a renowned classical scholar and poet, composed a poem, “Memory of a Scholar,” after Oldfather’s death. It’s placed just below an oil painting of the professor, placed prominently in the Classics Library at Illinois.
“You, my professor, you before my face,” reads the poem, in part, “unrolled the script of scholars, put in place / Traube and Vahlen, Leo, Reitzenstein, / and set the stars for all our lives to steer them by.”