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Partial to Home: All things ancient

 

Birney Imes

 

 

While most of us would declare the study of Latin and Greek terra incognita, Bob Wolverton would argue vehemently otherwise. 

 

Wolverton, 92, professor of classics at Mississippi State University, has been a regular traveler in the ancient world since he was a ninth grader in Shelbyville, Indiana.  

 

There, after enduring two years of industrial arts in the seventh and eighth grades and facing more of the same ("I was awful at it."), Wolverton saw Latin as a way out. He still waxes nostalgic about those high school encounters with the ancients.  

 

"By the second year we were reading Julius Caesar. He was magnificent. Cicero (who) we read the junior year set the standard for prose. My senior year we read Virgil. It's like listening to Beethoven." 

 

Since 1977, when he was hired as v.p. for academic affairs at MSU, Wolverton has held forth on the classics, first as an administrator, then professor and now as an instructor and revered elder. Earlier this year, MSU named the rotunda in a newly constructed classroom building for Wolverton. 

 

"Sixty-five percent of our vocabulary comes from Latin," Wolverton said. "(It's) hard to say it's a dead language. 

 

Wolverton speaks about classical antiquity with the enthusiasm of a teenager newly in love. 

 

"It's not only Greek and Latin but all the ancient world," he said. "One thing I love about it is you're at the beginning of everything. No matter where you start, you have to go back to the classics." 

 

Ask Wolverton a question and chances are your answer is coming by way of an anecdote or a reference to Greek or Latin.  

 

"About 10 years ago I had a student, a transfer from Arizona State, a junior. He said, 'Dr. Wolverton, I want to drop your class.' I asked him why. He said, 'This is the first class I've ever taken I can't b.s. my way through.'" 

 

"That student (with a degree in the classics) is going to have a world of opportunity," Wolverton said, " because that student is going to write well, speak well and think well. 

 

"The discipline of the mind; you can't b.s. your way through that." 

 

The arc of Wolverton's career as a student, from one of two children born to a single mother in small-town Indiana to studying with the nation's pre-eminent classicist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is, well, inspiring. 

 

"My dad disappeared when I was 2," Wolverton said. "We were very poor. If it hadn't been for the policies of FDR and the Salvation Army, we would have starved." 

 

Wolverton was working in a grocery store his senior year in high school when he was recruited by a Dr. Mars Westington who taught the classics at nearby Hanover College. "Isn't that a perfect name for a classicist?" Wolverton said. 

 

After his study with Dr. Westington, Wolverton did post-graduate work at Michigan en route to UNC. While working on his doctorate at Chapel Hill, he took a year off for an assistant professorship at Florida State to bolster his finances. There he met his wife Peggy; he refers to her with affection as his "Florida souvenir." They raised four children as Wolverton ran an academic gauntlet that included teaching and administrative positions in Georgia, Massachusetts and Ohio. 

 

As Wolverton talked, I took in his office decor, the "carpe diem" coffee mug (among many others); a small figurine of the she-wolf that nursed Romulus and Remus, the mythological founders of Rome; the certificate noting his honorary presidency of the American Classical League, an organization of college and high school classics educators.  

 

After almost two hours of conversation (tempus fugit), Wolverton said, "I've really enjoyed this." 

 

As we were walking to the door Wolverton paused. "I would say we've had a symposium, but we've not been drinking. The word symposium comes from the Greek "son" which means together and "potes" which means drinking."  

 

No aqua vitae. Ah, maybe next time. 

 

 

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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