Two Bobs, R.I.P.

This has been a tough week for members of the Princeton University community. The comparative literature scholar and translator Robert Fagles died at the end of last week, and the classicist and former President Robert Goheen passed away yesterday. I was closer to Bob Goheen, but both Bobs were deeply admired friends of mine, and I want to notice the ways in which they modeled similar academic virtues –- each in his own way was a dedicated collegiate scholar-teacher.

Bob Goheen became President at such an early age (37) that he never had time to fully develop his scholarship, but they both operated in the upper ranges of scholarship. They were both products of elite college and graduate education — Goheen entirely at Princeton, Fagles at Amherst and Yale. They both spent their entire teaching careers here in Princeton. And that rootedness in a college place marks them as special in this era of academic butterflies. They were dedicated to this institution and committed to its students. They also shared some important character traits –- ironic dispositions, steadfast loyalty to friends, discriminating taste, quiet determination. They were both democratic elitists — and I mean that as an entirely affirmative judgment.

In the end, Bob Fagles will be remembered for his capacity to relate Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles to broad modern audiences, although he was also the founder of our Comparative Literature Department and a considerable literary scholar. I will of course always remember Bob when we replay the remarkable CD’s of his Greek translations when taking long trips in our car. But mostly I will remember how humble and decent this great scholar was to those who were not his equal.

Bob Goheen was famously the president who brought Princeton (pretty belatedly) into the 20th century. He was the leader who finally confronted the mean-spirited elements in our history, and led the college in the direction of openness and toleration when confronting gender, race, and war. His was not an easy task in a traditional college that valued loyalty to its traditions over both democratic ideals and academic prowess. Bob built the platform on which Bill Bowen, Harold Shapiro, and Shirley Tilghman have constructed a great modern university. And so far as I could tell, he never called attention to himself.

Bob was important to me personally as a Robertson Hall neighbor (I was proud that we were for a time two of the three senior fellows in public and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School), but mostly he was my model of concern for institutional responsibility in higher education and philanthropy. When I was beginning my scholarly work on philanthropic foundations, Bob, then president of the Council on Foundations, reached out to me and helped me gain access to the foundations I was trying to study. He worked with me on an important Princeton doctoral dissertation fellowship program during the last decade of his life. He read many of my drafts and enlivened many dinners. He was the ideal college citizen. He was a new-style old-fashioned academic, and I admired him so much.

Return to Top