I have had the privilege of studying with some outstanding teachers. The names that immediately come to mind are these: Rudolf Schnackenberg, professor of New Testament at Wuerzburg, Germany, Wolfhart Pannenberg, professor of systematics at the University of Munich, and professor Leo Scheffzyk, professor of dogmatic theology at Munich and later named Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Munich. However, my favorite professor and teacher was the Rev. Gervase Beyer, a Conventual Franciscan friar who possessed a M.A. in philosophy.
Gervase was unique for several reasons. He could be as tough as nails in the classroom, yet down deep, he could be very caring. It seems that when God was giving out gifts, Gervase was given more than a bountiful share. Yet, for some reason, Gervase had a pessimistic view of life. To John Donne’s favorite line, “No man is an island," Gervase once said, “Every man is an island, with at most a leaky rowboat.”
Gervase had the knack of bringing out the best in me. He was the ultimate motivator, though his methods were unusual. He pushed students to the limits of their intelligence, yet students generally liked him, though he was similar to a Drill Instructor in the Marines. A “C” grade from Gervase was equivalent to an “A” in most other classes.
One day he gave us a list of words to memorize. The next day he asked me what the word “concatenation” meant and I confessed my ignorance. For homework, I then had to write out the word and its meaning a hundred times.
Gervase taught me Latin, Logic, and Persuasive Speech. The Latin class was an advanced one, since I had four years of Latin in high school. I spent almost two hours a day preparing for next day’s class, though not all of my classmates had my diligence. We studied the Odes of Horace, some lines of which I can still remember after 55 years.
It seems to me that Gervase broke every pedagogical rule known to seasoned educators. If a student came to class unprepared, he would be isolated from the class and put in a special section of the room. The student would not be called on to answer a question nor could he dare ask a question. The poor student was, in effect, sequestered from the activities of the class. Surprisingly, no one ever objected to this treatment. However, students in that special section would prepare extensively for next day’s class to avoid being embarrassed a second time.
In his course on Persuasive Speech, Gervase taught me how to put the most inflection on certain words, and how to pronounce words correctly. For example, he pointed out that the word, vegetable, had four syllables, not three. He also taught us how to do research. He brought us to the library, acquainted us with the card catalog, and answered the questions we had about writing a term paper. He also suggested that we write down our thesis on an index card and refer constantly to that card so we could remain on target with our thesis rather than getting side-tracked.
Under his guidance, I did research on one of my favorite authors, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a journalist. In reading Chesterton, I noticed how much he used the semicolon in his many writings. Thus, I wrote my first term paper on “Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s Use of the Semicolon.” Gervase loved my paper and this gave me the confidence I needed to continue to do research and writing to this day.
Gervase possessed a terrific sense of humor. He once called on Jack, who did poorly on a test, saying if you don’t improve “I’ll flunk you so low a pancake will look like the Empire State Building.” To another student, Gervase quipped, “Bubba, you need not come up to the front of the class to receive your grade. I’ll roll it down to you.”
Gervase’s interests ranged over many domains. What made him so inspiring as a teacher was this: he felt at home discussing Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, as much as novels and true stories like Antoine du Saint Exupéry’s book titled, "Wind, Sand, and Stars."
Gervase came out with some memorable phrases that could pass as aphorisms. He once said that “One never graduates from human nature.” Another time he asserted that “No one has a monopoly on wisdom,” and conversely “No one has a monopoly on stupidity.” I have found myself repeating these gems of wisdom to my students over the years.
Gervase died in 1981 when he was only 64 years old. Though he died at an early age, his memory lives on in the minds and hearts of those like me, who venerated the ground on which he walked. I miss him dearly.
Richard Penaskovic is an emeritus professor at Auburn University, who taught religious studies for 30 years.