As part of annual tradition, the Alumni Association of Hobart College and Alumnae Association of William Smith College honored the late Professor of English Deborah Tall, Professor Emeritus of Biology Joel Kerlan P’89 and Professor Emerita of Religious Studies Mary Gerhart with Distinguished Faculty Awards during Saturday’s Reunion weekend events.
“Any president would be supremely proud of these faculty members,” said President Mark D. Gearan. “They have truly distinguished themselves and this campus as they have continued the tradition of excellence at Hobart and William Smith.”
Tall came the Colleges in 1986, serving as a teacher of literature and writing until she passed away in 2006 after a battle with breast cancer. John D’Agata ’95 spoke on behalf of his former professor, mentor and friend. Together, D’Agata and Tall created the Colleges’ literary journal The Seneca Review. Tall also helped D’Agata engineer his own major that fused rhetoric and art, science and music in a combination that fostered something Tall recognized in him – the talented writer “with hybrid tendencies.”
D’Agata recalled a fax that Tall sent, a copy of an article about a book written in a style similar to D’Agata’s own, unique style. Across the bottom of the fax, Tall inscribed had a few, simple words: ‘John, you are not alone. Lose no sleep.’ “That afternoon while Deborah was not on campus, she was living a life – then she briefly interrupted it for me,” explained D’Agata of the fax’s impact. “No one had ever taken the time to let me know they took me seriously as a student, and because of that I hadn’t taken myself seriously.”
To this day, D’Agata still has the fax – framed in his office – a reminder of what it means to be a teacher; that it only takes a small gesture to influence someone. “It requires generosity to care enough about students to understand them,” said D’Agata.
Accepting the award in honor of his late wife, Professor of English David Weiss spoke of Tall’s amazing gift to recognize true talent in her students. Weiss also announced that next year, The Seneca Review will host the first Deborah Tall Prize for the lyric essay in honor of Tall and her passion.
Kerlan P’89, who served his students and the HWS community as a professor of biology from 1971 to 2002, led the biology department into an age of experimental biology, introducing new courses and techniques, stressing the importance of procedure and approach over facts.
Dr. Richard Cytryn ’75, P’14 offered remarks on the impact Kerlan had on his college career – and the impact he had on all his students. He recalled Kerlan’s steadfast dedication to the campus in the form of summer programs and aiding students doing honors research, and he spoke of the influence Kerlan’s approach to biology has on him to this day. “He taught me that being a student is a lifelong process,” reflected Cytryn. “He provoked and fostered student inquiry and research, and taught me that the answer is not always important – it’s forming the correct question.”
Bearing numerous letters from alums who were eager to share their appreciation for their former professor, Cytryn read the words of Muta Mathai ’96: “Joel helped me grow academically and transformed me as a person. I can say with authority that he is truly an alright guy.” As well as those of Michael Sergi ’95: “Professor Kerlan took an interest in my personal abilities, and offered me strength and support to follow my dreams when I needed it the most.”
“It’s an overwhelming experience,” remarked Kerlan on being presented the award by his former student.
“I always tried to get my students to ask themselves who they were and how they could make the world a better place,” said Kerlan. He thanked the faculty and staff who helped him grow during his time on campus, emphasizing how the Colleges had nurtured him as a professor and had given him many happy memories and moments.
Gerhart came to the HWS campus in 1972 and taught courses on religion, women’s studies and a number of interdisciplinary topics until 2005, reaching a vast amount of students with her intelligence and outlook on life.
“My first class when I came to HWS was ‘Myth, History and Theory,’ with Mary Gerhart,” recalled Dorothy Wickenden ’76, who presented Gerhart with her award. Elaborating on the woman -and friend – who introduced her to gardening and so much more, Wickenden thanked Gerhart for fostering her love of learning. “I saw religion, history and politics in a new light – it was a thrilling introduction to college life.”
“Mary is a formidable scholar, but the least pedantic person I know,” explained Wickenden. “She has a gentle, but persistent way of coaxing the best out of her students.” In fact, Wickenden, who now serves as executive editor of The New Yorker, credited Gerhart as being a major influence in the writing of her latest book, “Nothing Daunted.”
“Every student who has ever had the privilege of having Mary as a professor will says the same thing – she is magic in the classroom and the best teacher they have ever had,” said Wickenden.
Gerhart reflected on the tradition of giving plants that she had learned in her small hometown; a tradition that she saw everyday she spent on the HWS campus. “There is a remarkable kind of gift-giving at Hobart and William Smith – there is life-giving,” said Gerhart to her students and colleagues. “For all of these life-giving memories I have received, these gifts which have so changed my life, I thank all of you.”
For more information about each of the DFA recipients, visit http://www2.hws.edu/article-id-14001.
The Alumni Association of Hobart College and the Alumnae Association of William Smith College jointly award the Distinguished Faculty Award, which was established to emphasize the importance that graduates of these Colleges place on the contributions of outstanding faculty members of the past.
According to the alum councils, “It is our way of recognizing and honoring those who were our mentors, who molded us and nurtured us during our intellectual awakening, who taught us our limits and challenged our capabilities, and who inspired the best in us. More than anything else during our college years, outstanding teachers made the experience so valuable, and we recognize these professors as worthy of particular distinction and honor.”