When I began to reflect on the things that I might say this morning about Dr, Alatis, a gentleman I knew and I respected for nearly 40 years, a few thoughts kept returning to me. They were his enthusiasm, his dedication and his kindness.
Since word of Dr. Alatis’ passing spread across the campus and in the greater academic community, the one comment I heard, again and again is that we shall not see his like, again. I think that is absolutely true, because his natural gifts were also shaped by his times.
A child of the depression from a Greek-speaking community, his youth was spent with one foot in the world of Greek immigrants and the other, in the English-speaking society in the public school system. As a child he was cast in the role of what would be called today a community interpreter, serving as a bridge for his parents and neighbors with the English speaking government, perhaps foreshadowing his life’s work.
He also absorbed information like a sponge, and had a remarkable memory which made him a talented story teller. In tough economic times he became “well and widely read,” as he told me once, in lean circumstances, the school and the public library were always warm, well-lit and had plenty of books for the asking. He found this an amazing gift, and as technologies changed with the times, he was also glued to the radio, then the movies, television, and finally, the internet.
In the space of a very brief conversation he might well quote Chaucer, Shakespeare, Katzanzakis (I had to mention Zorba the Greek somehow), skits from the golden age of radio, favorite films, and whatever was on television the previous night. So to go from the Canterbury Tales to the most recent episode of The A-Team, without time to catch your breath, was a very real and dizzying possibility.
Even following his official retirement from Georgetown, in 2012, to meet the terms of the contract, I was called upon to give a talk on a topic about which Dr. Alatis was expert. I telephoned him and asked about a stump speech he had delivered many times. Although physically weakened by illness, when I described what I was looking for, he recited the exact passage I sought, give me the title and author for the reference, and the color of the binding of the book so I could readily find it in the library.
‘Til the end of this days, as Chaucer wrote, “gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.” Dr. Alatis’ professional career was formed in a time when the government had an expanded role for the study of languages through the NDEA. He was an enthusiastic supporter of these efforts, in his time in the Government, and later at Georgetown.
He had a real talent for bringing federal funds to Georgetown which created and sustained new programs, often providing scholarships and fellowships. At every opportunity he delighted in reminding George Chapman and Lou Baker that the Linguistics Department had more active Federal grants than Biology and Chemistry combined. Those gentlemen did not share in this delight.
With Georgetown and with TESOL, and later the Joint National Committee for Languages, Dr. Alatis brought a passion to the fore which could not be suppressed. Like Hubert Humphrey, he was a happy warrior, always trying to find ways to support language learning and teacher training. He travelled the country and the world with this message, which struck a chord with those who shared in his conviction that these efforts lead to a more just and peaceful society and world.
And like a prophet who is not honored in his country, where in our office he was just “Dr. Alatis,” I can assure you groups and individuals regularly made pilgrimages to 455 Nevils and later, 303 ICC, to speak with “The Great One.” He may not have rivaled Elvis or the Beatles, but he did have his following. I think today he might have been a YouTube sensation.
Dr. Alatis’ enthusiasm for life and his work was genuine. He loved being Dean, Professor, Executive Director, Chairman, and so forth. Though he had as much ego as anyone and delighted in knowing that in Germany, the formal form of address to a Dean was O Spectabilis and would point out that it meant “notable, admirable and remarkable!” But he always said it with a smile, and he never forgot where he came from.
When his work and travel led to meetings with prime ministers, politicians, artists and Nobel laureates, he would remark that only in America, and at Georgetown could this happen to a kid from the steel mills in Weirton, West Virginia. Full disclosure — Dr. Alatis did admit that he’d worked in those mills himself for less than a year. But he did have quite a variety of jobs. All these years later, the one that still has me smiling was that while a graduate student at the Ohio State University, he worked as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. The comedy more or less writes itself.
A beneficiary of the GI Bill, he would also point out that his World War II service was largely restricted to duty in a psychiatric ward of the Chelsea Naval Hospital. where his job was to help keep patient calm and when necessary, assist in sedating some to them keep from injuring themselves or others. In less politically-correct times, he would allow as how this turned out to be excellent experience for his role as Dean.
In all the years I worked for him, the one criticism that was leveled at Dr. Alatis was that he was “too kind.” He hated to say No to a student, a faculty member, or a good idea. I would agree at times that this kindness was to his detriment. Still, with the passage of time, I have come to accept that for a student, employee or colleague, of the range of possible shortcomings in a leader, mentor or friend, to be kinder than was warranted was a forgivable offence.
Father Healey, while President of Georgetown, after the conferral of degrees, would note that the graduates were where they are today by standing on large shoulders. Similarly, many of the people here today and thousands who have come here, are beneficiaries of his efforts on behalf of so many. Our senior faculty in languages and linguistics were recruited, tenured and promoted under his watch. Distinguished Programs were created, nurtured and excel today thanks to his care. TESOL, a small organization at its creation, thrives today thanks in part to his care and attention.
When his life remaining to him could be measured in hours, not days, I visited him in the hospital. As I took my leave I thanked him for what he had done to me and also for what he had done for so many. As was noted at the outset, we shall not see his like, again. May his memory be eternal. Thank you.