In 1983, a colleague at work suggested I might be interested in a new masters program at Washington University in St. Louis. It was the Masters in Liberal Arts, and it had been designed for “older students,” people who had been out of school and working. I looked into it, talked with the program coordinator, and decided to try it. It was only one night a week per class, and my employer generously subsidized college-level courses as long as they were part of a degree program. I figured it was extremely low-risk; if I didn’t like the program, I could simply stop.
The deal clincher was what my colleague said about the professors who taught in the program. They were among the very best professors at the university; in fact, there was something of a waiting list to teach MLA courses. The reason: the students were older, more experienced, firmer in their convictions, more inclined to challenge the teacher, and interested in the subject being taught for its own sake.
I signed up for a course entitled “Science, Creation Science, and Pseudo-Science,” taught by Dr. Michael Friedlander of the Physics Department. It was essentially a philosophy of science course. Dr. Friedlander, with a South African accent with a British university overlay, was a physicist specializing in cosmic rays. He was also known for having participated in anti-nuclear protests at the university some 30 or so years previously. He had gotten himself into some difficulties with the students at the time because he supported peaceful protests only, believing they would accomplish far more.
This was my test course, to see if I would stay interested enough to continue. I found the subject fascinating and challenging. I found Dr. Friedlander to be personable, funny, thoughtful, kind, and respectful, even when he disagreed with you. I was completely charmed. He was my introduction to the MLA program, and he turned me into a committed fan.
A year or so later, I saw he was teaching another MLA course, this one in a partnership with another professor. The course was “The History of Science,” and it was every bit as good as the first course I’d taken.
I can’t say I became close personal friends with Dr. Friedlander. But we’d often talk before or after class. His office door was always open, and he seemed to be one of those teachers who actually liked students and like teaching.
When the time came for graduation in 1988, I asked Dr. Friedlander to be one of the three MLA professors who would lead my oral discussion. The “orals” weren’t really like an oral exam, but more like an extended discussion, for the professors to see what it was you had learned through the program. And he was just as charming and funny in that discussion as he was in class. With Dr. Friedlander, what you saw is what you got.
This past Sunday, I saw his obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He had retired many years ago. He was 92 at the time of his death. The funeral home had a link for the service livestream, and I was able to watch it. His rabbi conducted the service, and his son, daughter, and a grandson spoke. I was especially moved by the grandson’s words. I told myself that this was a man who was loved by his family.
I can also say, from experience, that Michael Friedlander was well-liked and deeply respected by his students. He left a legacy of character: why kindness matters, how we can respect each other no matter our beliefs and politics, and why it’s important to be able to laugh at ourselves. He had an impact on my life, and I will be forever grateful.
Related: Washington University’s obituary.
Top photograph: Dr. Michael Friedlander.