I learned today from friends and on social media that one of the most influential professors I knew during my time at Carroll College, Father William Greytak, just passed away. Greytak was already a legend at Carroll before I arrived, one of the amazing history professors at Carroll who had almost total command of their subject matter and who had been teaching at the school for decades before I’d been born.
When students remember history teachers fondly, they often talk about teachers having the ability to make history come alive, a gift Greytak certainly possessed. I can still vividly remember his lecture about Ivan the Terrible and the dreadful cavalry that roamed the Russian countryside during his rule and his ability to masterfully convey the complexities of 19th century Europe. We had textbooks for his classes, but they were largely unnecessary, as Greytak covered the material in such detail in his lectures.
It was, of course, his lectures that made Greytak such a powerful figure. You’d enter the classroom and see a set of notes written on the board behind him, the outline of the lecture that would follow. Precisely at the time class was slated to begin, he’d offer a prayer, and then launch into a lecture that lasted until the scheduled end of the class. I’ve never seen a professor or teacher like him: he never seemed rushed, never failed to get to the end of his material, and never had time left over at the end of class. There were few questions asked, because most of the students were as enthralled as I was, and busily writing down the details of the lecture for the whole period, but when one of us did ask a question, it became clear that the lectures only scratched the surface of what Father Greytak knew, because he understood connections between figures and events that were far behind what we were capable of absorbing.
I had always loved history, but Greytak’s classes transformed the experience of history for me, and offered powerful counter-evidence to the popular narrative that students don’t learn history from lectures. We absorbed and processed so much in that class, because of his ability and because we didn’t want to let him down.
I have to credit him, too, with making me a much better student. For too much of my academic career, I relied on being clever rather than being prepared for exams, an approach that simply did not work for his classes. For tests, we’d be given, in advance, four BIG questions about the period of time we were studying. I remember poring over my notes, writing detailed outlines over and over to lock the information in my brain. While years later, I can admit that I may have deliberately scribbled a Russian name or two I couldn’t remember how to spell on occasion, the crucible of those tests helped me understand that being an academic meant being prepared. I use a version of his tests in my classes still today.
Father Greytak didn’t accept excuses for being unprepared for his classes. Every 2-3 class periods, he’d give a quiz covering the lecture from the preceding class, a simple check of your attendance and attention. While my attendance throughout my college years could best be described as intermittent, I simply didn’t miss Greytak’s classes, both for fear of shaming myself on one of those quizzes and because I didn’t want to miss a word he said.
He was also a teacher in another important sense: he cared about his students. My first semester at Carroll was difficult. My grandmother became ill and died, throwing me into sorrow and financial panic, as her generosity was responsible for my ability to pay for school. Right at the same time, I became very ill with a bad stomach flu some of my friends might remember for its legendary potency, and I missed a lot of class. The high scores on my quizzes started to slip, and one day, at the end of class, I remember Father Greytak walking over, smelling of what must have been Old Spice, and putting his hand on my shoulder before asking me what was going on. I told him briefly about what I was experiencing, and he simply told me that he knew I would get back on track and that I was an excellent student. That was all I needed to hear, just a moment of comfort and belief, which was a lot to offer someone who didn’t know how to ask anyone for help.
Why write about Father Greytak on my travel blog? Well, he had this delightful tic in his personality that anyone who’s ever taken one of his classes certainly remembers. While lecturing, he’d often make a remark like “when you visit Rome…and you will,” helping us see that perhaps he believed we could become as well-traveled and knowledgable as he had become. When I finally started traveling a few years ago, when I got to Rome and Paris, and Dublin, it was hard not to think about Father Greytak’s faith that I would, indeed, get there one day.
When I think back on my Carroll experience, I always think about a few of my professors who were intellectual titans. Each had a different approach to the classroom, from Greytak’s brilliant, perfectly constructed lectures to Dr. Wittman’s ability to draw students into discussions on topics as diverse as Edward Abbey and Leonard T. Hobbhouse. I’ll never, on my best day, lecture as well as did Father Greytak, but there’s nothing wrong with having heroes to aspire to be more like.
Generations of students at Carroll were so fortunate that he shared his humanity, wisdom, and knowledge with us.