In Memoriam

Dr. Eliot Wirshbo
January 1948 – July 2019

In the final weeks of my first course in the Revelle Humanities sequence, Dr. Eliot Wirshbo appeared at the front of the class wearing his green Army jacket, a relic from his time as a medic in the Vietnam War. He made a pitch for studying Greek or Latin and the benefits of reading our course’s texts in their original languages rather than in translations. As an incoming chemistry major, I didn’t think that was a good enough reason to fulfill my foreign language requirement with Greek or Latin instead of, say, German, but a funny thing happened on my way through the Humanities sequence: I discovered that I liked discussing literary texts, especially from Greek and Roman authors.

In my sophomore year, I took a risk and enrolled in Beginning Latin with Dr. Wirshbo. I performed OK in that course, but would have stopped taking Latin had it not been for Dr. Wirshbo’s sharp humor and entertaining personality. His high standards made me more disciplined in my study habits and I came to trust his advice on preparing for class: read, re-read and then read a third time. With his guidance, my language skills improved and a spark was lit in me; I added classical studies as a second major and extended my time (and tuition payments!) to complete both degrees. Had it not been for Dr. Wirshbo’s influence and support, I might have missed out on such an enriching education in both the sciences and liberal arts.

Dr. Wirshbo was both a uniquely comical and challenging instructor who cautioned you not to call him “Professor” (his official title was “Lecturer”), sipped on a juice box in class, enjoyed a good nap in his office and generously hosted end-of-the-quarter parties. When it came to teaching Greek and Latin, he did not oversimplify the complexities of these languages—doing so would only bring frustration in the end. His goal was that students read original texts with accuracy and facility. That way, he said, “an enterprising student can form her own ideas about things,” rather than perpetuate inherited ones.

Dr. Wirshbo taught for four decades of his life (37 years at UCSD), and he was scheduled to teach this academic year. It is clear that he loved teaching, working with students inside and outside the classroom and advocating for the humanities. If you tried to thank him, he would display impatience, say something sarcastic and then ask you to get back to translating the text in front of you. You might fall into an instructive argument with him or a hilarious conversation that continued on a walk through campus.

This was the Dr. Wirshbo I knew, the man who inspired me to go to graduate school in Classics, earn a PhD and become an educator myself.

In a world that increasingly questions the value of the Humanities, classics and even higher education, I say this: These things have the power to open new horizons for you, to challenge you to become an engaged, critical thinker, and to change the course of your life, especially if you are lucky enough to find a teacher like Eliot Wirshbo. Bona fortuna!

–Kerri J. Hame, Revelle ’89 taught Classics at SDSU from 2006 to 2011. She is a nonprofit administrator and independent scholar in Oxford, Miss.