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Faculty Profile

The Watch and Word


For twelve years Sully Stamm's German class has been a refreshing oasis in many a dull schedule. Probably the ablest teacher among hte German Department's younger set, the Spark Plug of Sever Hall has proved to a generation of Harvard men that the teaching staff still has some life in it. The scholarly, bright-eyed, wise-cracking little bachelor is a Harvard man himself, and is rather sorry to be leaving the old place. However, he has achieved a good deal in Cambridge; not only a Ph.D. and a bald spot but the friendship of hundreds of students who have known him as a scholar, teacher, and pal.

The German Department's personality kid was born thirty-four years ago in the rural outskirts of Norwich, Connecticut. He spent a delightful childhood playing among the railroad ties and stealing apples, and at an early age impressed his teachers with his wisdom and precocity. After class hours the bare-footed lad would work his way into a circus by watering the elephants, or would pensively watch the village blacksmith as he laid the foundations of the Weltanschung which he later passed to his students. His chief ambition at this time was to run around like his older brother, who belonged to a college fraternity.

At the age of twelve, Stamm (which is German for "sprout") was working his way through grammar school as a long-distance cattlewalker, receiving a small compensation for driving Old Lady Sachs' cow to and from school and leaving it in a neighboring pasture. It was during this period that he met Rosie. Even today Stamm thinks occasionally of those school days. "Everybody give a deep sight for Rosie," he says, and led by Teacher, the class heaves in wistful unison. On the way home from school he would slow his steps that Rosie might overtake him; and when she did, he would feign surprise, and gently close his "De Bello Gallico." Then, chaperoned by Sachs' cow, Sully and Rosie would walk on together. Rosie was beautiful, with golden hair and deep blue eyes. But she moved away to New York and the plot sickened.

"I picked Harvard," he says, "because I liked to study." Passing up neighboring Yale, Sully arrived in Cambridge in 1924, and paid his first visit to Boston in the fall of the same year, when the Old Howard chorus was still in its prime. The Athenaeum did not impress him, however; he still complains that the strip-tease act is always the same. "There is nothing new under the veil," he recently told a class as he tied on his philosophical beard.

Easily blitzkrieging Group I, he spent four enjoyable years as a undergraduate. He joined the Glee Club, but never went to any of the concerts because it was too much trouble to put on full dress. He never went to Radcliffe, either, preferring Cambridge High and Latin, and his Norwich correspondence.

Following his graduation in '28, Sully spent a year in Munich as a Sheldon Travelling Fellow; since then he has been teaching German at Harvard. In his home at 18 Mt. Auburn Street, he reads the Old Testament in the original, saves pennies in brass pig toward his record collection, and murders Beethoven and Haydn on the piano which stands in his bedroom beside a bust of Groucho Marx.

Stamm is thoroughly good-natured, never having unloosed a temper in his thirty-four years. Occasionally, when a class grows a little too boisterous, he tries to coll in with an expression of dour authority. But a student warns, "Temper, temper, little man!" whereupon Teacher breaks into a smile, snaps his fingers and says "Darn it!"

Yet Stamm is fundamentally a serious teacher and philosopher. He believes that emotional and intellectual solidity requires experience with pessimism, such as is represented by Schopenhauer and Calvin. His balanced view of man is summed up in a characteristic dictum: "There is something ridiculous, pathetic and sacred about every human being."

It is his friendliness and his appreciation of humor, combined with a sincere personal interest in each of his students, that has made him a truly outstanding classroom personality. Men like Stamm, who are born teachers because they are born lovers of life and lovers of men, are exceedingly rare.

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