By Airiana Rendon
When I first met Professor Oppenheimer, he was my English professor. Our class readings came from an anthology of plays and short stories that included everything from Shakespeare’s MacBeth to Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart.” One story we discussed was Flannery O' Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard To Find.” It was a short piece about a family taking a road trip and a grandma who would not stop complaining. But things took a turn when they got pulled over by robbers. You may have thought she’d finally shut up at that point, but she didn’t. And the whole family, grandma included, were murdered.
When I read the story, I felt that grandma had it coming. Like hey, don’t mess with the guy who has a gun in your face is all I’m saying! The topic turned into a big discussion in class, and what stuck out to me about it most was Professor Oppenheimer. He really let me and my other classmates talk and stand by our points, he just simply guided. In many ways, that discussion, and the trust he had in us to lead it, is what inspired this piece. Which sets out why it's important that this is written about Professor Oppenheimer. He passed away last year. I was one of the last students to have him as a professor. I want to help preserve his legacy at this school.
Professor Oppenheimer was a special kind of professor that truly believed in the mission of CUNY: Make a good education accessible. Professor Oppenheimer taught at the City College of New York (City College) in the English department for over 50 years; He was a fixture. He taught, mentored and inspired generations of students. Him and his love for literature and teaching will live on through us, the ones lucky enough to be taught by him.
I only knew him for a short time. He got sick and had to leave in the middle of the semester. I remember him as nice. Very nice, but a bit rough around the edges. When I had him, I was going through a lot of suffering in my personal life. I just felt under attack by life and kept falling behind on homework. I talked to him about being behind on homework; He said it was ok and didn’t care about the reason, then promptly stopped me from explaining myself. He just said, “turn it in when you can.” Which made me feel like oooh ok he’s nice, he’s chill, but the way he didn’t want to hear a reason and how he cut me off made me think, very nice, but a bit rough about edges.
When I said this to his mentee, colleagues and children, they laughed and agreed. Speaking to the people closest to Professor Oppenheimer makes me wish I had the chance to get to know him. It only takes a google search to learn of his accomplishments: Books, Journal publications, poetry, and stunts teaching abroad. But we students don’t usually know much about our professors, just the pieces they show us.
So let’s talk about what he didn’t show us or tell us, something we can only find out through the people that knew him outside of being a professor.
Professor Donaldson was Professor Oppenheimer’s mentee. Being that Professor Donaldson’s thesis was going to have a medieval theme, he asked Professor Oppenheimer, a specialist in medieval literature, to be his advisor. The two started meeting weekly.
Professor Donaldson speaks highly of Professor Oppenheimer, who quickly evolved from his advisor into a full-blown mentor. Specializing in Medieval literature is very specific, so I asked Professor Donaldson if he ever found out why Professor Oppenheimer chose this route.
“ No, it's a question I regret not asking him…I always assumed he went into Medieval studies because he seemed to have an appreciation and ability for all literature.”
His colleague, Elizabeth Mazzola, also spoke highly of him, and took over for him after he stepped down from head of the English department. Mazola said similar things to Professor Donaldson: Professor Oppenheimer was a great professor, writer, lover of poetry and cared about City College and its students quite a lot. She emphasized how tirelessly and constantly he was writing and teaching. He seemed to just run on passion for his work.
Mazzola spoke of her early days at City College and being one of the few women.
“The English department was full of men wearing tweed, and Oppenheimer was one of them, but he really went out of his way to be friendly towards me. We shared a similar passion for poetry, Shakespeare…”
His passion for English, literature, and education drove him. So, when I spoke with his two children, Rebecca and Julie Oppenheimer, I was not shocked at anything they said about him.
They spoke of their father fondly, appearing happy to reminisce about the good times they had. I was not surprised they were his children; Julie is a script supervisor for movies like, School of Rock, and later opened the number one gymnastics gym in the city. Rebecca works at the Natural History Museum in astrophysics. You can see the passion their dad passed down to his children. They've accomplished and cared so much, just like he did.
They described him as silly, saying that he did not take things too seriously. At night, he would make up stories for them. The three of them even watched Cheech and Chong: Up in Smoke long before they should or could have understood the crude jokes. But they loved every second of time they got to spend with their dad. I could tell from their words alone that Professor Oppenheimer was just as passionate about being a father as being a writer and professor.
I asked his daughters if there is a word that captures their father’s life, and what they take away from it.
“In one word?” Rebecca asked, “He was a complicated man, so kinda hard to do that…but I think what I just said is the most important…follow your passions.”
“Well, I mean, to say one word, ‘nonsense’, he used to say that a lot,” Julie added.
Professor Oppenheimer was an impressive man, who cared deeply about City College, an underdog institution in the CUNY system, filled with black and brown students who just want a chance at a quality education that won’t cost an arm and a leg. He left quite an impact on everybody who got to know him, and if I will take only one thing away from writing this article, it is that I was right to wish I got to know Professor Oppenheimer better, and for longer.