To understand why Stephen B. Oates is my favorite teacher, you have to go back to the day of my birth, February 12, 1963. While it was my first day of personhood, it was also the 154th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. When I became literate, I began reading the many—mostly myth-laden—biographies of Lincoln for young readers. I memorized the Gettysburg Address and became a certifiable Lincoln nut. To this day he is one of my personal heroes.
While in high school, I read the most current biography of Lincoln, Oates’ With Malice Toward None, published in 1977. It remains my favorite life of Lincoln, and I have probably read it five or six times in its entirety. When I went to college at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1981, I found out that one of the most popular (and therefore hardest to get into) classes was called “The Civil War Era,” taught by none other than Stephen B. Oates. It took until the second semester of my junior year, but I finally got in.
To call Oates a great lecturer does not adequately capture his teaching abilities. He was an orator, and a dashing one at that. A slim southerner, he was always meticulously prepared, impeccably groomed, and nattily attired in a three-piece suit. His voice, tinted with a slight Texas twang, rang out through the lecture hall, its pitch climbing with his enthusiasm and on points of emphasis.
He used to say that he was glad there were no windows in the hall, because he didn’t want us to see or think about 20th-century Amherst during class; he wanted to transport us to 19th-century Washington, DC; Antietam Creek, Maryland; Chancellorsville, Virginia; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. And he did. Every day, I would walk out of class and feel like a time traveler beaming into an era I didn’t recognize.
The most memorable and moving day for me was the class when Lincoln was assassinated. Oates began the class with the end of the war, with Lee’s surrender to Grant and Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction, and gradually guided us to Ford’s Theater on the night of April 14, 1865, where the English comedy, Our American Cousin, was being staged. As the play began, Oates told the room of studious note-takers, “Put down your pencils. You won’t forget this.” And then his words brought history to life. Lincoln was shot. The next morning he died. By the time Secretary of State Edwin Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages,” I felt I was there in that tiny room where the great man drew his final breath. When class was dismissed, I couldn’t move. It was as if someone in my own family had just died. Not until students started streaming in for the next class did I gather my stuff and walk out into the jarring reality of 1984.
As a Lincoln fan, I had read and watched the assassination innumerable times in books, films, and documentaries. But never before—and, thankfully, never since—had it been so real to me. Never had a class left me so emotionally drained. If they gave Oscars for lectures, Oates would have gotten one that day.
The following semester, I took another class taught by him, “American Biography.” This was a much smaller class and allowed close daily interaction. At the end of the semester, I was able to tell him how much it meant to me to study with him, and for many years after I graduated we maintained a personal correspondence. As a writer, a teacher, a man—and even, perhaps, as a medium—Stephen B. Oates has always inspired me.