Remembering my history professor, Fr. Richard Leonard, S.J.

Fr. Richard Leonard, S.J. was our teacher in History of the Modern World, which roughly covers the Industrial Revolution to the World War II.

In the first day of class, Fr. Leonard asked us to write our row and column number on the upper right hand corner of our class cards.  We will use this number in all our exam papers.  Those at the back will submit forward and his paper will be placed below the next person.  After all the papers will have reached the first persons in each row, the one in the last row will give his stack of papers to the next row and so on.  The reverse order will be used to distribute back the papers.

“Once you understood the system”, Fr. Leonard said, “you shall praise the man who invented it.”

Fr. Leonard himself, who else?  Very systematic.  Very orderly.  I tried to reproduce his system in my classes, but I always failed.  My mind is still not attuned to such military precision.

“During the lectures, no one will be allowed to ask me questions.  If you are under Fr. Laihiff, he will encourage you to ask questions, because he uses the Socratic method.  But I use the Lecture method.  You came here to learn from me, not I who shall learn from you.  I don’t want to spend the rest of the hour answering one student’s question.”

Call it hubris.  But I call it style.  This man knows what he is saying and you better listen.

“I have a cabinet full of lecture notes. I can lecture for years without stopping. ”

Fr. Leonard read history books and when he finds some nice quotes or useful information, he types them up in bond paper sheets.  He uses no computer but a typewriter–the wonder of the bygone age that instantly prints the characters as fast as your fingers press the keys.  The fastest computer then was still 386 and Windows 95 was still two years in the future.

“Half of the exam will be based on the lectures; half will be based on the book.”

This forced us to read the book even if he does not lecture on them.  This also forced us to listen attentively to his lectures because they are not in the book.   In a 100 pt exam, 50 pts are multiple choice based from the book and 50 pts are 10 essay questions worth 5 pts each.  Each essay should not exceed one sentence.

Fr. Leonard is an actor and a storyteller on the classroom stage.

Once he talked about a holocaust of a group of Jews:

“If you are a coward man afraid to die–and I know one and that is me–you would clasp your hands and drag your knees as you try to entreat the SS guards to spare you from the gas chamber.”  And Fr. Leonard would act it out, with sobs of “Please, please, spare me!”  Then Fr. Leonard would straighten up and say, “but these Jews are different.  They sing and dance towards their death.”

At other time, he talked about the war of Russians and Germans:

“You know these bayonetts.  They can be very effective when they got thrust in your guts.  The Russians have an army armed with bayonetts attached to sticks.  They charged against the German flank and the Germans gunned them down.”

Sometimes he will give a quote out from memory:

“There was a writer who said that in the next war (World War II), the weapons of war will be so terrifying that men will no longer march in columns.  Instead, they will dig trenches and live in foxholes.  And true enough.”

Before the last day of classes, he informed us that we can ask anything on the next meeting.  I was not able to come.  I should have come, just for the experience of hearing a great history teacher answer questions out of nowhere.

I will miss Fr. Leonard.  He died about a year after he taught us.  But I learned a lot from him.  I still love history.  I still read history.  I am still a student of history.  Those who never learned history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.

About Quirino M. Sugon Jr
Theoretical Physicist in Manila Observatory

2 Responses to Remembering my history professor, Fr. Richard Leonard, S.J.

  1. aloyzaga says:

    Pope, I, too, had Fr. Leonard as my teacher. It was a joy to be in his class and I always felt his tribe was slowly diminishing. Academics can be among the most serious or most joyful of pursuits…
    Fr. Leonard made sure our journey was both. Toni

  2. Richard Cavosora says:

    Fr. Leonard, was my history professor in 1981! One of the most effective and thorough lecturers I have ever come across. He gave me a B because I was always late for class, but it intrigued him that I aced all his exams and quizzes. Of course, you have to be a history nut to ace Fr. Leonard’s tests.

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