Maroon football

Short answer

School of hard knocks

This issue’s alumni question: What was the toughest lesson you learned while you were in the College?

We asked the recipients of Alumni Association awards, as well as the broader alumni community, to share their stories of the times they got schooled.

Compiled by Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93


Socrates teaches that intellectual humility is a virtue. Chicago taught me that the virtue is never gained save through moments of brutal intellectual humiliation.

A few that I’ll admit to: A fumbled sophomore-year presentation to the great historian Karl Weintraub, AB’49, AM’52, PhD’57, which he brought to an abrupt close by saying, in that heavy German accent of his, “Obviously, you’ve never read Ortega y Gasset.” (Obviously I hadn’t.)

A political debate over dinner in Burton-Judson, where a guy named Sean Nixon, EX’97, cut me off as I was struggling to make my point. “You have,” he said, “the verbal acuity of shampoo.” I still haven’t recovered from that one.

An earnest discussion with some friends at the Medici, talking about Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals or some other great book. A graduate student—I’m guessing he was from the Law School—walked over to our table and said, “You guys are a bunch of losers!” Which shut us up right away, not because he was so rude, but because of the wrenching realization that maybe he was right.

Bret Stephens, AB’95
Professional Achievement Award


It was French. Always enamored of that language—spoken on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean and by the haughty intellectuals on this side—it was with supreme self-indulgence that I registered for French I. Having already studied Spanish in high school, it seemed that now was the time to become truly educated.

My error in judgment was evident the first day of class. It appeared that everyone in the room had already been studying French their entire lives. The professor pranced among the desks with delight, French colloquial phrases pouring forth, all enunciated with proper tongue placement for all to observe and then to emulate. I, of course, was speechless.

Thinking that sticking with it was what college was supposed to be about, I continued in the course and fell below the acceptable grade point average required to keep my scholarship. Off the cliff; into the abyss.

The journey back began by working full time on campus for Jeff Metcalf, AM’53, then dean of students at the Graduate School of Business, whose support allowed time during the day to attend French classes. Taking French as an employee was made possible by the University’s tuition remission policy. Working days, never missing a class, I studied nights. With flash cards, reading everything French (newspapers, magazines, books), repeating dictation sessions (over and over), and joining in the spoken language sessions, I passed with a very high grade.

It was time to try to reenter the College and work toward graduation. I will never forget the kindness of the man in the Bursar’s Office. He assisted my readmission and arranged some financial assistance. Thanks to many helping hands along the way, I am a graduate of the College of the University of Chicago. It is still a thrill for me to be able to say that.

Judith Munson, AB’63
Alumni Service Award

Consumption function

I was from a small rural northern California town, not a big Wall Street Journal enclave, on the first female academic-athletic scholarship (swimming). Due to the scholarship, I was asked to help with activities at Ida Noyes. My job was to make name tags for attendees as they entered. I was dutifully doing this, using my best handwriting, when a man in a bow tie brushed by. I called out to him. He did not stop. I ran after him. He told me, “I think they will know who I am” and gave me a smile. I decided not to tackle him. It was Milton Friedman, AM’33.

C. Noel Bairey Merz, AB’77
Professional Achievement Award


The best opportunities can’t be planned for, which means you’re often wildly unprepared. The internship I had for three years at the Field Museum came out of an effusive conversation about arrowheads during a random dinner I had with a postdoc. I showed up on my first day with no training or any relevant qualifications. I ascended the steepest learning curve in my life.

The greatest opportunities I had in college were always ones outside my expertise, that I didn’t have a good skill set for, or that made me uncomfortable. It was precisely because I couldn’t imagine myself in them that made them so great but also so scary and intimidating.

Jenna Beletic, AB’07
Young Alumni Service Award


I came to the U of C with the intention to study economics, a concentration that would lead to a rewarding job postgraduation. This dream came to a quick halt fall quarter of second year when I dropped Econ 200 for Beginning Poetry Workshop.

This was a big leap for me—sacrificing a more practical concentration for something pretty much the polar opposite. It became the first of many creative writing classes. The most surprising lesson was how practical the skills I picked up were—lessons I apply every day in my work as an account executive at Google. Besides improving the quality of my writing, I learned how to give and receive open and honest feedback. Embracing the risk was worth it.

Luke Rodehurst, AB’09
Young Alumni Service Award


In the early years of the resurrected Maroons football team, many of us players attended practice on an irregular basis. Some of us assumed we could outsmart opponents with our superior IQs. It didn’t work. We lost game after game. The next generation of Maroons used their superior IQs to learn the playbook as well as Plato and Shakespeare.

Jeff Rasley, AB’75

Observation, interpretation, and integration

One hard lesson ...

In my third and final year, 1946–47, Joe Schwab, PhB’30, SM’36, PhD’38, finally made it clear to me that smarts aren’t enough, that discipline and hard work are essential, and that I didn’t have them. In the College’s capstone OII course (Observation, Interpretation, and Integration), Schwab shredded my offerings in class and in papers, and I was lucky to get a C—my only one and the most instructive. No one, before or since, has shaped my scholarship as quickly or as effectively.

Edgar (Ted) Mills, PhB’47, DB’53


Sometimes in life it seems like you’re surrounded by people just trying to bring you down. Then you pick yourelf up, brush yourself off, and defeat Macalester 26–7, Homecoming 2013. (Photography by Tom Tian, AB’10)