At least two men who were known for wearing turtlenecks died last week. While Steve Jobs receives the kind of farewell that typically conducts American presidents down the River Styx, you probably won’t hear about Herman Sinaiko’s death on your evening newscast, or Slate, or CNN, or the Huffington Post. But those who heard the University of Chicago professor talk about Plato, Aristotle, art, criticism, beauty, knowledge, theater, and so many other subjects, will agree that with a single discussion, he could change something inside you, or rather, draw out some quality or thought that you didn’t know was in you.
Sinaiko was hailed at UChicago for his dedication to teaching undergraduates. He was one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had, one of the most humane people I’ve ever known, and a magnetic speaker. Listening to Sinaiko was, I imagine, like listening to Cicero or Demosthenes. The measure of this man was that he, in his greatness, didn’t make me feel small. Rather, he made me feel great as well, and that I could do great things.
I used to attend rock concerts frequently, mostly smallish venues with medium wattage artists, stars who would show up occasionally on the radio and in Rolling Stone. Artists you could walk up to after the show, and who would sign an autograph and shake your hand. And though I invariably did approach them and ask them to sign my CD liner notes, it was always an awkward affair. What would I say to these people who didn’t know me, whom I would probably never talk to again? You were amazing? Thank you?
In June of this year, I was at the University of Chicago for a day, and I happened to see Mr. Sinaiko walking rather jauntily on campus. I hadn’t seen him in over ten years. I wanted to walk up to him and re-introduce myself, but I didn’t. I suppose I was embarrassed to approach this monumental man who probably didn’t remember me, and tell him . . . tell him what? You were amazing? Thank you?
I wish I had gone up to him and interrupted him just briefly. I would have told him that I took two classes with him, and in that short time, he left me with this indelible message: it is noble to help the helpless. It was the ethics not only of a humanist intellectual but of a comic-book superhero. I think in the minds of many of his students, he was both.