Just over two weeks ago, I learned that HD Cameron, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus in the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan, had passed away on July 17th. You can read a wonderful tribute to him written by Professor Ben Forston here.
Professor Cameron was the best teacher I had at the University of Michigan. If you talk to a few Michigan grads, you’ll hear them say the same thing. For decades Cameron taught the Great Books courses that were required for first-year Honors students at Michigan. I’ve run into multiple Michigan grads who, when I told them that I studied Classics, immediately started gushing about Cameron. One told me how vividly she remembered the first lecture that Cameron gave in her first year, in fact the very first lecture of her college career. When I reached out to some friends to tell them the news, one of them (Alex Tullo, my roommate in my freshman year who ended up majoring in physics) responded, “He taught me how to read, or at least, how to engage with literature. I remember a lecture on the death of Hector…” It’s not that unusual to hear that kind of thing about him from former Michigan students.
I wasn’t an Honors student at Michigan in my first year, because I was a very lazy high school student, so I never took Great Books. Cameron taught me Greek: Homer in the 4th semester of the Greek sequence (Winter 1996), and Thucydides (book 1) in my senior year (Winter 1997). He was an incredible Greek teacher; it was only in his classes that I felt that I was really reading and understanding Greek and not just translating it. The only time I have ever understood ἵημι is when Cameron laid it out, on the fly, from its reconstructed proto-Indo-European forms to the Attic. Any time I made a mistake, I immediately knew that Cameron would ask me about it until I ironed it out. I messed up some 3rd person plural aorist passive ending and I remember studying the form that night, knowing that he would ask me what the verb would look like in 3rd person aorist passive.
This might sound harsh, but it wasn’t; he was incredibly kind and patient with all his Greek students. In Homer he’d leave time for us to read Homer at sight, so that we could get better at reading it on the fly. I was reading at sight when I ran into a word that I didn’t recognize. “I don’t know this word,” I said glumly. Cameron said, patiently but insistently, “Yes, you do.” “No I don’t.” “Yes, you do.” “I really don’t, I promise you, if I knew it I would tell you.” Finally, Cameron said, “If you were going to transliterate it into English, how would you do that?” I said, “M – Y – T… oh.” (It was some form of μῦθος). He wasn’t just patient with my Greek, he was patient with me: we argued around in circles about whether the graduate students at Michigan were right to walk out. We went round and round about the proper way to pronounce ancient Greek names. He wanted us to pronounce how to pronounce Νικίας (Nicias) as Nishus. I flatly refused. I remember him saying, “The way that you pronounce Greek names is by transliterating them into Latin and then pronouncing them as if they were English, so the way you say Νικίας is Nishus” and I just kept saying, over and over, “No, that’s the way YOU say it!” (Yes I was a super annoying student).
He was also very formal. I was always addressed as “Mister Nakassis” until I graduated. I ran into him at Espresso Royale on State Street before I left Ann Arbor in the summer of 1997, and was shocked when he called me by my first name. He seemed to me back then very professorial in every way, especially in dress and in manner. In the Thucydides class we used a draft of his commentary, published in 2003, in which had written, “This is a lollapalooza of a sentence“. My friend Jen Harvey objected to his use of the term lollapalooza, and explained to him that it was now universally known as the name of a music festival that was no longer cool. Cameron furrowed his brow and exclaimed, “That’s terrible! They ruined a perfectly good word!” Once he expressed excitement that he got to wear “his tiger suit.” We all looked at each other, eyes whirling, in terror of what his tiger suit was (his Princeton regalia). Another time we tried to convince him to watch the X-Files (which is what three of us in the Thucydides class would do every Sunday night before we turned to reading Greek); he seemed baffled but also extremely pleased by our attempt, which was certainly doomed to fail, to persuade him.
I’m not sure what these stories, these fragments, amount to. I regret that I never knew him well; he had a massive impact on me nevertheless. When I taught Greek for the first time, I thought about how he taught us, how he was around us. I will never pull it off, mostly because I’m not the teacher that he was. But I try.