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Friday, July 25, 2014

First and foremost, he was a great teacher

The registration line for his Russian history course snaked down the hall and nearly out the building. When I learned last week that L. Jay Oliva died at age 80, a wash of memories attended my sadness at his passing.

Professor Oliva, as he preferred to be called, even after he became president of New York University, was a rock star, a natural-born teacher, who made Russian history a thrilling and challenging class. His star was just ascending when I met him in 1964, when he was 30. I was a 17-year-old freshman at NYU Uptown, as it was known, the university’s Bronx campus.

Professor Oliva’s class embodied all my romantic notions of what a great college course should offer, and more. He knew how to make Russian history read like a thriller, which of course, it was much of the time. And he did what great teachers do: he enlightened and he inspired.

I’m not sure kids go off to college these days the way I did. I picked NYU Uptown because, unbelievably enough, it was a gem of a campus in the midst of a rundown Bronx neighborhood. If you had dropped in from another place, you could believe you were in a typical American liberal arts college. Opened in 1894, the 40-acre property was designed by Stanford White, who created neo-Classical buildings that seemed to have stood for hundreds of years. It was an elegant campus, with a traditional quad surrounded by graceful old buildings like Gould Memorial Library, with its grand rotunda, and an open-air colonnade that looked out over the Hudson River and the Jersey Palisades.

My dorm, Silver Hall, was quite advanced in that it was co-ed. The co-ed part was defined by young men and young women living in the same building, but in separate wings, without mutual access. One day a week we were allowed “intervisitation,” three hours during which we could host guests of the opposite sex in our rooms. Lots of Johnny Mathis tunes drifted down the hall during those hours.

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