oberlin alumni magazine  
In Memory of Andrew Bongiorno
A godson's tribute offers an intimate look at life and lessons with this beloved Oberlin professor. by Andrew Ward '68 / photo by Aaron Levin '68


andrew bongiorno Of the ten members of the Ward family who attended Oberlin College, I was the only one to flunk out. For me, Oberlin proved too loaded a proposition, too burdened by the ghosts and expectations of my family's past. No one as thoroughly embodied the nightmarish impossibility of my living up to my heritage as my godfather, Professor Andrew Bongiorno. During the worst years of my life, his very existence was a kind of reproach. From the time I first began to speak, I had called this slender, fond, soft-spoken man Uncle Andrew, and it was not until I was almost in my teens that it occurred to me that we were not blood relations. Andrew never asked that he be my godfather, nor that I be named after him. As a devout Catholic he was always a little puzzled as to how he was supposed to see to it that this child of lapsed Protestants should attain the stature of Christ. But beyond the height requirement, there was the matter of my schooling. In a verse he composed on my first birthday, Andrew predicted that as the son of a college dean I would eventually become an austere contemplative, but he urged me first to "eat your porridge" and "suck your bottle, then proceed to Aristotle."

By the time I entered Oberlin, however, I still hadn't proceeded to Aristotle, and my attitude around Andrew was one of tongue-tied shame and embarrassment. I would sit choking in the rarefied atmosphere of Andrew and Laurine's book-lined living room, where they sat expectantly, poised on the edges of their chairs, searching in vain for some tiny sign of an intellect pulsing under my downcast brow.

As Andrew heard from his colleagues of his godson's absences and delinquencies, he dutifully reported all to my parents. When I was on the verge of flunking elementary Italian, he arranged for me to come to his office on Wednesday evenings to sit before this translator of Castelnuovo, this legendary explicator of Dante, and miserably conjugate, say, the present tense of the verb andare.

But after all he tried to do to help me, I dormire'ed through the final exam, and as I limped through my last semester of academic probation, I found I could not face him. If I glimpsed his papal figure strolling down East Main, I would duck into a store until he passed. When Oberlin finally cast me out, I could not bring myself to tell Andrew in person but instead left an anguished little note under the door to his office, where, I am ashamed to say, I could see him sitting, correcting papers at his desk.

I tiptoed off into limbo as Andrew proceeded into one of those protracted retirements in which Oberlin seems content to exile its greatest teachers. (It used to pain him to receive invitations to the annual "at home" at the president's house, where the guests were all from town. "It is an invitation I wish I were spared," he once wrote me. "It serves only to make me feel more than ever a stranger in a place that was once my home.") He wrote sometimes to inquire about my progress down the path of least resistance. But we did not really correspond until ten years later when he began to come upon my writing in The Atlantic Monthly.

His praise for my essays and parodies was like a benediction, and for years I used to frustrate the copy-editing departments of a whole string of magazines by passing everything I wrote through the Bongiorno sieve. I still have the little typed scraps he sent back, noting the page and line numbers where he'd come upon a colon doing the work of a semi colon, an independent clause indecently displayed without a comma, a heedlessly misplaced modifier. He saved me infinite embarrassments, and gave me a leg up with my unsuspecting editors.

"I have concluded," he once told me when I began to show signs of progress, "that you were never uneducable, Andy. Only unschoolable."

It was not until the early '80s when I decided to write a novel about India, that Andrew's influence became less professorial and more godfatherly. As I fantasized my way into the perilous and sometimes dismal world of 19th-century India, I began considering seriously for the first time questions of suffering and free will. When I periodically lost my nerve, I began to turn to Andrew more and more, until we were exchanging long epistles on faith and the mystery of God's purposes.

As the merciless architect of the world my characters inhabited, I guess I didn't believe in God so much as identified with Him. I asked questions a lesser professor might have dismissed as sophomoric: Is God just and all-powerful? Or unjust and all-powerful? Or not all-powerful but only just, in which case, who needs Him?

If God were just and all-powerful, Andrew replied, then His justice was the very mystery Andrew himself embraced. He assailed the notion of an all-powerful, unjust God as the Byronesque excuse of the guiltless, tragic hero. And, he gently suggested, if God were just but not all powerful, then perhaps the question was not whether we needed Him but whether He needed us.

In my unbelief I had always felt as though I were feeding from somebody else's trough. Andrew was pleased when, after he had taken such pains with me, I finally concluded that I was not an atheist nor even an agnostic but what he called "an alienated Christian."

"Let me confide to you," he once wrote, "that I was born five months and 24 days before the death of Queen Victoria. Doesn't that explain everything?"

No, actually, it didn't. It did not explain, for instance, how a man, who until his early middle age thought homosexuality had expired with the ancient Greeks, could recognize in his extreme old age the workings of God's grace in the grotesqueries of Flannery O'Connor's parables or make his way past what he called the "blood-and-guts" propaganda of D.H. Lawrence's short stories to a "well of English undefiled." Though there was nothing in the way Andrew lived his life that would have ruffled the most decorous Victorian, he was a man of the 20th century.

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