Requiescat in pace, Magister Rus

In the spirit of Stephen Colbert’s eulogy for his mother, I’d like to share some stories today about my high school Latin teacher, Dr. Vladimir Rus, who passed away this past week.  We never called him Dr. Rus; he was always simply Magister.  So it was easy to forget what his usual name and title was.  One day, after another teacher had popped into our classroom to ask him a question, one of my classmates to ask, “Magister, what is your doctorate in?”  He looked a little abashed and told us, “I am sorry to tell you, it is in German.”  He seemed to be worried that we would feel cheated that it was not in Latin.

 

When his Newsday obituary was published, I found out the origin of his accent:

Rus was born in [Czechoslovakia in] 1926. During World War II, he endured forced labor under the occupying Nazis, removing rubble and bodies after air raids in Munich.

After the war, he attended law school at Prague’s Charles University. But “after the Communists assumed power, they asked — and asked is probably a euphemistic way of putting it — if he would essentially be a spy on his law teachers, which he declined to do,” Tom Rus said.

Instead, Vladimir and his older brother Svata crossed the border into Germany. Because Svata had the only winter coat, he traveled northwest to England; his younger brother headed south to Italy, according to a family legend.

Rus spent two years in a displaced persons camp before sailing to South Carolina, where he became a University of South Carolina undergraduate.

 

I had him for Latin after he was technically retired.  I overheard him ask the department chair incredulously why the school did not have a record player (he wanted to play us “Gaudeamus Igitur”).  After the first class of the year, a group of us gathered incredulously in the hallway to compare handouts.  “This isn’t a font, right?  These are actually typewritten!”  And, most notoriously, Magister seated us in meritocratic order.  Just like there’s first chair in an orchestra, he had us sit in sequence according to how well each of us could answer the question “Scisne latine?”

 

In addition to simple dialogues and stories, Magister sometimes pulled out surprising texts for us to practice translation.  A few lines into a dialogue he handed us called “Quis erat in primum?” I realize I was reading Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” sketch.

 

Later in the year, we had a less pleasant translation task.  Magister ended up hospitalized for about a month.  The way the foreign language chair told it, he had noticed that his feet were swollen and wouldn’t fit into his shoes, so he called his doctor, and the following dialogue ensued:

“Doctor Rus, it sounds like you’re having symptoms of kidney failure.  I need you to come in right away.”

“Very well, it is a three-day week at school.  I shall be able to see you on Thursday.”

“Doctor Rus, I said it sounds like you’re experiencing kidney failure.  I need you to come in right now!

We sent flowers to the hospital, and he sent back a thank you note, in Latin, with footnotes to define and note the declension of any words he hadn’t taught us yet.

 

He never used our first names at all.  I was always Discipula Libresco in that class.  When one of the two Gabrielles came in one day with a late pass (“Please excuse Gabby…”) he read it over and began chortling.  He proclaimed, “I see your name is Gabby.  I shall have to call you Loquax!”

 

Sometime in the spring semester, one of the senior girls (Discipula Cohen – not her real name) had cut class a few times.  We were all still nervous about Magister’s health, and, I, for one, felt a little panicked as he stumbled at the beginning of class and peered with confusion at my classmate.

“Who are you?”

“What?”

“Who are you?”

“What?  It’s me, Discipula Cohen!”

“Who?”

Discipula Cohen!  I’m in your class!  I have been all year!”

“Perhaps it has been so long since I have seen your face… that I have forgotten what you look like.”

 

It has been eight years since I have been in Magister’s classroom, and he is still indelible.  He was in love with languages and with teaching.  In high school, I had a number of teachers who tried to mollify students or apologize for their own curriculum — trying to show us that they were on our side.  But Magister began each period without any doubt that he was teaching us something beautiful and valuable, and I found his joy infectious.  When I’ve spoken to old teachers and friends, I tended to ask, “Is Magister still teaching?”  His reverence for his subject was startling and lovely.  I’m so grateful he shared it with so many discipulorum Magister.

 

Vivat academia!
Vivant professores!
Vivat membrum quodlibet;
Vivant membra quaelibet;
Semper sint in flore.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    What a wonderful tribute. I enjoyed reading this.

    • grok87

      +1

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Beautiful Eulogy.

    But the more I read pieces like this from you, the more I realize that a huge part of my problem with certain aspects of American society is that East Coast liberalism is truly a foreign country to me. Latin in high school? We could barely keep the Spanish instructors funded in my high school.

    I also notice that the urban/rural divide often greatly affects pro-life and hetero/homo issues. Almost as if one could easily think a chicken and an egg are two different species quite easily if the only place the individual has run into either is in a supermarket; or as if one could be more accepting of gay marriage if one grew up utterly ignorant of the idea that it takes a male and a female to make a child.

    • evets nellik

      Hang on. Are you seriously suggesting that proponents of same-sex marriage are somehow *more* deficient in education? And yet you claim to be shocked at high school Latin, as if such edumacation were beyond your ken?

      Youse trollin’… :)

      • TheodoreSeeber

        No. What I am saying is that many proponents of abortion and homosexuality have replaced experience in the real world with education. If anything, they’re MORE highly educated, but at a cost- significantly less real world experience.

        I am shocked by high school latin from my liberal side- in 1992, Measure 5 passed removing schools from property taxes in Oregon and tying them to the roller coaster ride of income taxes instead (thus tying schools to the business cycle, with less than 180 days of schooling a year, let alone extras like art, music, and latin!). But even before that budgets were being cut- I remember seeing 1960 copyright dates in my high school textbooks in the late 1980s.

        The farm boy might be completely illiterate- though in today’s world, it’s hard to program the GPS on the tractor to link to the State Soil Samples database for down-to-the-centimeter permaculture if you can’t read.

        But the farm boy has a lived experience that urban humans simply do not- he understands nature in a way that urban populations cannot. Therefore arguments like “a fetus is not a human person because an acorn is not an oak tree” are ridiculous to him- he’s planted oak trees for shade, for firewood, for building materials and he knows quite instinctively that the acorn is indeed an oak tree, the egg is a chicken, the seed is the plant, and the fetus is a human being who deserves to be considered a person.

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com/ Christian H

    I wish blogs had a “Like” button. I have nothing to say but to express appreciation.

  • Tom

    This only strengthens my view that Latin is a brotherhood. And it seems we have lost a most illustrious member. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dlr90NLDp-0

  • Y. A. Warren

    This was a teacher with a TRUE VOCATION! We need so many more of them.

  • evets nellik

    Thanks for this. I will strive, as a newly-minted Latin teacher, to carry on in good stead with the eloquent example you set out to describe. That phrase about unapologetic and infectious enthusiasm, is something I have felt and will work to nourish, as it will do my students good, as Magister Rus’ did for you.

  • XanderT

    Magister Rus was truly a one of a kind professor and this is a well-written take on the experience of being his student… thanks for sharing, you put into words what I could not.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X