Professor Charlie Bassett Remembered
After the death of Charles W. Bassett, Lee Family Professor of American Studies and English, emeritus, the editors of the Colby Echo asked alumni to send in remembrances of this renowned and beloved professor. The Echo shared many of these letters with Colby.
Charlie was my great friend for four decades. He was a terrific teacher, and someone who truly understood the meaning and importance of community in a liberal arts college. We team-taught together eight or nine times—and when we team-taught, we both were leading the class at the same time. Friends used to ask, “Who’s doing the listening?” In those classes, I learned more about teaching—lessons on how to lead students to learn—than I have from anyone else. Charlie’s reputation was as a popular teacher—funny, engaging, irreverent—but he was really a master teacher in every way. And his love for Colby and the Colby family was without bounds. His entire professional life was dedicated to helping students to learn and to building a community among Colby faculty, students, and alumni.
Louis “Sandy” Maisel, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government
I came to Colby in 1973 as that dreaded entity, A NEW CHAIR FROM AWAY, to “take over” a troubled English Department. Charlie, a year older than I and possessed of plenty of administrative savvy,
could easily have been resentful and recalcitrant. But of course he was not, he was grown up and supportive. And remained so for thirty plus years. We disagreed and argued, but his commitment to Colby and our students was never in doubt. Nor his good will and intelligence.
I’d like to ventriloquize a bit, to give Charlie the last word. It’s about us, his grieving friends.
Seamus Heaney’s most recent collection , HUMAN CHAIN, has a poem called “Miracle,” commemorating that moment, just after a stroke, when his friends carried him to the ambulance:
Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in--
Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher handles
Slippery with sweat. And no let up
Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable
And raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing,
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait
For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool.
Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity
To pass, those ones who have known him all along.
Doug Archibald, Professor of English, emeritus
I’m sorry to hear of your misfortune. Numerous thoughts came to mind on contemplating your suffering. I feel for you and will “hold you in the light”.
I love you very much. It’s not too much to say so. You helped me numerous times and I’ll never forget your words and admonitions.
I worked in the English Department Office my senior year with Harriett (in addition to being a English major) and you were the English Chair. “Christensen...” you growled as you walked by. I loved to hear you say it. You engendered in me a love of literature in the courses I took with you. Numerous gems come to mind in quick succession. Hearing you speak of Seymour’s naked feet in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” explained the story and emotions in a way I’m sure is unique to your tutelage. And then there was the penultimate proclamation, thereby saving my ass, when I needed your signature the week before graduation in order to bypass an English requirement I’d avoided, “Christensen! You’re bucking the system.”
Thank you very much for your accumulated knowledge, your enthusiasm and your care for others. You are a cornerstone in my foundation. Your voice bellows to me daily. It is...I just spent twenty minutes trying to find the right word for your voice. Sepulchral? No. Resonate? Somewhat. There is no word for it. There is no word nor phrase to capture or contain Charles Bassett. I don’t know what it was you set off to accomplish in life nor can I speak to your success or failure in this regard, as you must have time for reflection currently. However, let me assure you that in diverse places our children are regaled with Bassett tales and our wives roll their eyes over yet another story. Our affection for you is apparent. I was touched in a profound way and for this I am truly grateful.
Gary Coles-Christensen ’89
I simply smile and laugh when I think about Charlie Bassett, who preferred teaching us all of Harry "rabbit" Angstrom than writing the great American novel. He enabled us to carry cocktail conversations to this day. Vivid in my mind is a class that started, shortly after he'd corrected the first round of papers. Basset barged into Lovejoy 100 and pleaded that we learn how to write "however" in proper context. He then proceeded to grab a piece of chalk and in two foot letters on the blackboard, spelled it out for us:
Thanks, Charlie, I have never made that mistake again.
Jenny Frutchy '76
Charlie Bassett expressed his affection for me with the warmest acts of physical violence to which I have ever been subjected. After the midterm exam in American Short Story class, I walked to the front to retrieve my exam. As I picked it up, he called out my name, "Gerard?" I nodded and he thumped me on the back. Hard. "That was a good exam."
The same scene greeted me after the class's major essay. "Gerard, good paper." Except this time, my teeth rattled a bit. When I introduced my parents to him at graduation, he hit me so hard that I had trouble getting a breath. He nodded to my parents. "Gerard. Good kid." I miss him already.
Michael Gerard ’92
I shall dearly miss my friend and colleague Charles Bassett, despite his quaint habit of calling me “Tietenberg” rather than “Tom” after some 20 plus years of close friendship. Having an enduring friendship with this true legend was so much fun I never even gave it a second thought until this moment.
Tom Tietenberg, Mitchell Family Professor of Economics, Emeritus
Powerful yet gentle, Charlie Bassett had the ability to engage students from any discipline. When he smiled, we smiled. When he laughed, we laughed. In truth, the words Colby and Charlie are nearly synonymous. Therefore, let us say together, "Hail, Charlie, hail."
Diane (Pearce) Kew ’89
My name is Jeff Baron, and I was the president of the Class of 1993. I am proud to have called Charlie Bassett my friend for 21 years, and I will greatly miss his presence in my life.
When I first met Charlie during my freshman year at Colby, I recall a somewhat gruff exterior with a smile that let you know it was just a facade. I took five classes with him during my four years, despite my being a Government major. Each one taught me something new about the literature we read, and about Charlie's amazing capacity to humanize the works.
I also was fortunate enough to know him outside the classroom. We laughed during the innumerable chats in his office. We cried when Charlie lost his beloved Carol to cancer. We reveled together at my wedding in New Orleans. We cheered during the many Red Sox and Patriots games we attended. We marveled as I became a father of two girls who also had the pleasure of knowing Charlie.
Probably the greatest thing I was involved with, as it relates to Charlie, was the formation of the Charles W. Bassett Teaching Award, given each year to the most outstanding faculty member as voted by the senior class. The award, created by the class of 1993 and first presented to Charlie himself, has come to symbolize the highest honor a Colby Professor can receive for their teaching efforts. I can think of no better testimonial to a man who touched so many to serve as the namesake for such prestige at an institution he called home for more than 30 years. I am so thankful for the role I played in that effort.
I talked to Charlie last week for just a couple of minutes -- enough to tell him how special he was to me and that we wished him comfort. I knew that conversation was likely our last.
Goodbye, Charlie. I miss you already.
Jeff Baron ’93
Charlie was one of a kind. A good man and a great teacher - so funny, wise and generous. What a loss for all of us. The world is greatly diminished by his absence, but forever enriched by his presence and his legacy. He had a profound and lasting impact on my life and I will miss him dearly.
Recently I was organizing some drawers and came across some bundles of correspondence from my junior year in Edinburgh, including a couple of notes from Bassett - one encouraging me to tackle a senior thesis and another approving my topic, agreeing to advise the thesis and warning me (having made a mid-term course change at Edinburgh) to never, EVER try to get credit from him for another Am-Lit 'survey' course. Seeing his handwriting and 'hearing' his voice again made me smile. He helped me discover American literature, history and culture and examine them individually and collectively in a way that is still a passion of mine today. I went on to graduate programs in American Studies at William and Mary and Irish History and Literature back at Edinburgh. He inspired me, challenged me, encouraged me and made me laugh! He was key to my development of intellectual courage and curiosity. He made me want to teach - a path I didn't take professionally after some exploration and some time in grad school - but a passion I bring to bear in other parts of my life, especially with my daughter. Charlie was an important part of my Colby experience and influenced me well beyond my time on Mayflower Hill. My life has certainly been richer for what I have learned from him.
I remember sitting in his office and him saying, "You can WRITE, kid! BOY, can you write." I can't describe how that felt, but it still plays in my head and gives me confidence to this day, nearly 25 years later.
I've spent much of this week, since the news of his death, alternately smiling and weeping. It's too sad that he is gone, but I have so many joyful memories that make me smile through the tears.
Be at peace, CB. I am proud and fortunate to count you among my treasured friends.
Mary Jane (Carty) Brown ’88
As an American Studies major in the late sixties I knew Charlie Bassett before he became a legend, but not before he was a great teacher. He was for me the embodiment of the Colby teaching experience, thoughtful, personal, insightful and honest. When he wrote a recommendation for me shortly after graduation he tempered an otherwise enthusiastic assessment with an observation that success had come in “workmanlike” fashion. He said nothing about brilliance; and for me, the inference was that I better keep working hard. I did - and the lessons learned with Charlie Bassett have served me well for a lifetime.
Daniel Ouellette ’71