Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Great Man Passes

TigerBlog can't remember if it was at Conte's one night, maybe with some combination of Pete Carril or Bill Carmody or John Thompson or Howard Levy or Joe Scott (or all of them) at the next table.

Or maybe it was during an interview on the radio at halftime of a basketball game. Or maybe in the Jadwin Gym lobby. Or in the supermarket. Or in a restaurant.

It didn't matter where you saw Marvin Bressler, because the whole world was his classroom. Time after time, TB would run into Bressler, and time after time, Bressler would say something that would stick.

Like the time he said this: "Anything worth talking about is worth talking about superficially."

TB has always been fascinated by how historical figures like Ben Franklin and Mark Twain and others were famous for saying pithy things. TB is pretty sure Bressler is up there with any of them.

"There is no crisis," he was famous for saying, "to which academics will not respond to with a seminar."

TigerBlog received an email yesterday with the subject line "Marvin Bressler" and was pretty sure what it meant.

Bressler, who had been in hospice care, had passed away. He was 87 at the time of his death.

Immediately, a flood of memories of time spent with Bressler came flooding back, and, as the man himself would probably have appreciated, it made TB smile, not cry.

Bressler, for those who don't know, was a longtime sociology professor at Princeton. He began teaching at the University in 1963, and he didn't retire until 1994. Even after that, he remained a constant presence at the University up until his death.

TigerBlog met Bressler in 1989 and was immediately impressed by the man with the shaved head, the pipe and the ability to turn whatever setting he happened to be in at the time (Contes? Jadwin?) into a graduate-level seminar on any subject you liked.

"If you start out with the idea that ..." he often started conversations. He often took positions in discussions that were completely opposed to the ones he actually believed, simply to provoke thought even further.

TB has never met anyone else quite like Marvin Bressler. Whatever room he was in, he was its emcee. Whoever was around wanted to talk to him, to go greet him. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him.

He was extraordinarily funny. He was extraordinarily warm.

His connection to Princeton Athletics was very deep and very strong. He was great friends with Carril, though he actually predated Carril with the Tigers.

In fact, Bressler served as an unofficial adviser/friend/confidante with a young Princeton point guard from Reading in the Butch van Breda Kolff era. That player obviously was Gary Walters, who went on to be an assistant coach at Princeton and for the last 17 years, the Director of Athletics.

Early in his time as AD, Walters began the Princeton Academic Athletic Fellows program, which he based on his relationship with Bressler from his own undergraduate days. That program has grown to identify many faculty and staff members at the University and match them with Princeton's 38 varsity teams, and thousands of Princeton athletes have been able to develop a relationship similar to the one that Bressler and Walters had.

"It's always good to have an adult to talk to," Bressler once said about the program. "Of course, you don't always know which one's the adult."

In further tribute, Walters also created the Marvin Bressler Award, the official wording of which is:
"Awarded to that member of the Princeton family who, through heartfelt support of the University’s student-athletes and coaches, best embodies a belief in the lifelong lessons taught by competition and athletics as a complement to the overall educational mission. Awarded in the spirit of Marvin Bressler, professor of sociology, 1963-94."

Bressler, like TigerBlog, was educated at Penn before spending his career at Princeton. Bressler grew up in Philadelphia and spent a great deal of time at Connie Mack Stadium; TB once gave him a book about the stadium that had been written by a former professor of his at Penn.

In the 21 years that TB knew Bressler, they had exactly one disagreement, over, ironically enough, the misuse of a word. It was a disagreement that was resolved within minutes. A few days later, before a men's basketball game at Jadwin, TB and Bressler joked about the incident, and then it was back to business as usual.

The rest of the time TB knew Bressler, he looked at him as a giant of a human being, one who touched so many, one who spent so much of his life laughing and making others laugh.

TB wrote about him often, including here on TigerBlog itself. Most recently, he wrote about the time he ran into Bressler while he was buying yogurt.

Sociology is the study of society, or, in other words, the study of people.

Marvin Bressler was in the perfect field. He spent 87 years studying people, entertaining people, learning from them, teaching them.

"The best teachers," he said, "are the ones from whom you continue to learn long after you've left their classroom."

TB never took a class from Marv Bressler, but he feels like he's spent years in his classroom. He also feels like it'll be a long time before he stops learning from what Bressler taught him.

Marv Bressler is worth talking about, and you can't talk about him superficially.

TigerBlog will miss him.


jdd91 said...

thank you for this. it is perfect. i will read it a thousand times and think each time it is perfect. and you are right-- he would prefer us to smile as a response. smile, and hold a seminar. thanks for getting it so very very right.

Anonymous said...

And what was the one word you disagreed on? Who was right?

Princeton OAC said...

The word was "verbose," which TB never knew had a negative connotation to it. Dr. Bressler pointed it out as such and then, after reviewing its usage, suggested that perhaps TB had been on with what he said. Then we laughed and never mentioned it again.