When I arrived at the University Heights campus at NYU at the age of seventeen in January 1945, I was astonished at its beauty, the wonderful landscaping and the architectural wonders that fully realized my fantasies of what a college campus should look like.
World War II was in its European death throes and the ASTP boys in uniform were, if memory serves, still active on the campus. The trip from Brooklyn from the Kingston Avenue IRT station to Burnside Avenue was more than an hour and the walk to the campus another fifteen minutes. I didn’t mind. I was teethed on the subway. My family never owned a car.
My parents could never afford to pay for campus dormitory housing and having traveled to High School by subway, I did not find it a hardship at all. By every measure I was attending a real college on a beautiful campus in a jewel of a setting high above a sparkling river. Sadly, it is no longer part of NYU, a historical mistake in judgment.
I registered for an accelerated course which would mean that I would earn my degree in two years eight months. Life was uncertain for a seventeen year old in that time. In less than a year, I would register for the draft and the prospects for ending the war with Japan were not promising. The Japanese although pushed back to the mainland were apparently determined to fight to the end.
At that stage in my life I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had just graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, an elite school that filled its ranks from students who had passed a rather difficult test and allegedly had a high enough IQ to pass the demanding courses. It took me one term to determine that I was not very interested in technical matters. Besides, it was an all boys school, a feature not very attractive to a young student whose testerone level was rising precipitously. I went through classes like an automaton, graduating somewhere in the lower half of a class of more than 700 graduates.
I was captivated by the Heights campus, made friends easily and, by some miracle of oratory and what must have been a deftly written speech I was elected President of the freshman class. This election produced a clipping in the campus newspaper that my father carried in his wallet until the day he died. I loved my days on campus and proudly wore the uniform of the ROTC. Unable to afford much else, I worked after classes in all sorts of odd jobs. I did not think this a hardship or unusual since I had worked after school ever since I was eligible for working papers when I was fourteen.
All freshman courses were required curriculum. But it was my course in English, taught by Professor Don M. Wolfe that, in retrospect changed my life forever. Many college students can cite similar experiences, the mentor, the inspiration, the great teacher who took the student under his or her wing and made the crucial difference, who pointed the way to a fulfilling and prosperous career.
Although I read compulsively and diligently, mostly the great adventure stories for boys that I found on the shelves of the Stone Avenue children’s library in Brooklyn I had never seriously imagined myself as a writer of the imagination. Nevertheless, in retrospect, I believe the spark must have been there. Perhaps it was my mother’s example. She was an inveterate customer of the lending libraries that were all over Brooklyn in those years, where for pennies a day you could rent all the novels that you could consume. It was part of her regular routine after the housework was over to concentrate on novels. Returning from school, I found her always with her nose in a book. If that was the spark, Dr. Wolfe was the one who provided the kindling.
He was not robust, nor did he have the propensity to charm his students with professorial humor or was he a master of the sardonic rebuke. He was pleasant and businesslike, hardly warm and fuzzy. He was clearly a dedicated teacher, but he was not given to socializing with students. He was not mesmerizing, but it was obvious that he loved teaching. I had no knowledge of his past or his background. He had arrived in my life full grown as himself, sent my way as a kind of miracle.
He assigned compositions and encouraged us to stretch the use of the language to create imaginative imagery and use muscular words to tell our stories and create our plots and descriptions. He was extremely diligent in his reading of our material. When I would receive one of my compositions back, he wrote his criticisms in red ink scrawls and you felt dead certain that he had read every word. It was through those red scrawls that I interpreted his message. You can write, son. Keep at it.
He did not single me out as anyone special in the class. Indeed, I can’t remember that he ever singled anyone out at all, but receiving those critiques, mostly words of praise and encouragement, clipped and copious, was all I needed to make my lifetime decision. I don’t know if he ever knew the impact that these tiny critiques made on my life, but he kindled something deep in my psyche, an ambition that still burns inside of me to this day. Is that not the ultimate reward for a dedicated teacher? For that reason alone, I will always love my alma mater.
I got an A in freshman English and, in fact, in all my English courses, two of which stick in my mind as essential building blocks in career, the European novel taught by Professor Ranney and the Bible as History taught by Professor Baer who was the Dean of the College of Arts and Science in those years. I extend to them my belated gratitude.
Believe me I am not exaggerating the impact of Professor Wolfe and the enhancement of the other professors. I was not as successful in my other courses, especially the sciences. Summers as part of my accelerated program I went to Washington Square, but none of the Professors there made as much of an impact on me as Doctor Wolfe.
A year after graduation I followed Dr. Wolfe to the New School to take a creative writing course. By then I was committed to spend my life writing novels, short stories and plays. Taking his course was like the icing on the cake. In my class was Mario Puzo and a number of other writers of great talent who I feel certain were equally inspired by Dr. Wolfe. At the New School, Dr. Wolfe arrange for the publication of a number of short story collections. Included in those anthologies was the work of remarkable talents among them Puzo and William Styron.
Was he aware of the fact that he was the greatest influence in my life? Perhaps in the lives of others as well? I doubt it. Sixty two years after my encounter with Dr. Wolfe, I credit him with continuing to be the greatest influence on my life and work.
Even today in my still very active career, he is still my teacher and guide. I cannot write a single sentence without wondering what Dr. Wolfe would say about it in his red ink scrawls.