In Memoriam, Charles Walker Bassett.

To the Colby Community:

I write, with great sadness, to inform you that Charles W. Bassett died last night after a long bout with cancer.

Charlie came to Colby in 1969 as an assistant professor of English and a scholar of American literature, and I hardly need to tell anyone receiving this message what a profound impact he had on the College, on his students, and on his colleagues. It is entirely fitting that an award given each year by the senior class to a member of Colby’s faculty, an award that celebrates outstanding teaching, is named for Charlie; he will be remembered by many Colby alumni as the finest teacher they encountered on Mayflower Hill.

I know that many in the Colby community will be moved in the coming days and weeks to discuss Charlie’s accomplishments here, and of course that story will be told in our publications. What may get lost in the personal reminiscences of Charlie as teacher and mentor is recognition of his central role in the development of Colby’s American Studies Program, which he built into an nationally recognized model for such programs at liberal arts colleges. Eugene Leach of Trinity College said of Colby’s program under Charles’ leadership, “The achievement was, in short, to build in the space of less than a decade a program that inspired more enthusiasm among its students, and more loyalty among contributing faculty (despite all their competing academic audiences), than any other small-college program I have ever seen.” Professor Leach – in a letter he wrote in 1994 in support of an award nomination — put his finger, too, on how the achievement happened: “The heart of it was Charlie’s teaching,” he wrote, “passionate, engaged, learned, light-hearted but firmly holding to serious purposes, attentive to students’ interests and needs while also holding students to the highest of standards.”

Charlie retired in 2000 as Lee Family Professor of English and American Studies but continued to teach part-time in the Integrated Studies Program for another half-decade. The title of his occasional column in the Echo said it all about Charlie and Colby: “I’m Never Going to Retire.” He even played host to a WMHB radio program in his later years, specializing in jazz and swing music.

Charlie’s wife, Carol Hoffer Bassett, who taught for many years in Colby’s math department, died in 1995. He is survived by his children, David and Elizabeth, and grandchildren. Details about remembrances for and of Charlie will be forthcoming. Flags on campus will be lowered in his honor.

Amid the solemnity and the sadness, however, we really can’t honor Charlie unless we smile. You simply have to smile when you think of him pacing in the classroom or on the soccer sidelines – and not keeping his opinions to himself about the team’s performance – reading ghost stories to students on Halloween along with Jenny Boylan, or telling Colby magazine, when Carol fell ill, how it felt to be the object of Mayflower Hill’s deep affection. “I guess that’s the glory of a place where you know your students, where you know your friends are your friends,” he said. “I know that sounds trite, but it’s true.”

Sincerely,

Bro Adams
(President, Colby College)

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5 Comments

  1. Posted October 20, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I could write at length about my personal memories of Charlie Bassett; here is one such story…and I apologize in advance for hijacking your comment section:

    I took at least one course with Bassett from sophomore year through senior year, and he was, like my other professors, constantly disappointed in me because I was too shy to participate in class. I had his EN 353, the course non-English or -American Studies majors took so they could get the Bassett Experience (this must be capitalized!), in Lovejoy during my final year at Colby. Most of the 100 or so other students didn’t know many literary basics, which could be frustrating. One afternoon, Bassett was particularly insistent that he get a response from someone, ANYONE, to a simple question. I — annoyed that we were at an impasse over a triviality — was the someone. “Rip Van Winkle,” I mumbled, speaking out loud for the first (and last) time in my history as an English major.

    Bassett went silent. I’d swear the color even drained from his face, briefly. Once he regained his faculties, he yelled, almost breathless: “What? WHAT?! KARON?!” And as he did so often, he rubbed his hand over the red patch in the middle of his forehead and messed up his already quite messy hair. As though I had said the most profound thing he’d ever heard, he shouted, “Karon’s right! Rip Van Winkle!” And he went on and on like that until I could sink no lower in my seat.

    Bassett was so proud — whether it was of me or of himself I’m not sure — that I had participated in his class that afterwards he went straight up to his office in Miller and told another of my beloved English professors, whose feelings were so hurt he didn’t speak to me for a couple of days.

    On my final exam, Bassett wrote this: “You are too young to remember the song ‘Three Little Words.’ Of course, being a popular song, the words were ‘I love you.’ They were more important than ‘Rip Van Winkle.’ But you don’t have to love me or God or truth or beauty, Karon. You’re still good.”

    But he was wrong; “Rip Van Winkle” was at least as important as “I love you.” Surely Charlie Bassett understood that my version of the three little words was my way of saying, “I love you, as, I am sure, did all of us who knew him. It was impossible not to.

  2. Laura Senier, '90
    Posted October 21, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Like generations of Colby students, I’m sure, when I think of Charlie, I am flooded with memories. I vividly remember the day I dropped my English major. I needed the department chair’s signature (Bassett was acting chair of the English department that year), and I went to Judy’s office, because his door was closed. She told me I could knock, but I said no, I would never dream of interrupting him, but she insisted. To my horror, Bassett yanked the door open and snarled, “what is it?” Even more horrifying was the fact that Ed Kenney was sitting in his office (I was taking his 222 class that semester). I tried to beat a hasty retreat, but Bassett snatched the form from my hand and said, “what is this?” I squeaked out, “it’s just a form to drop the English major.” Ed sat up and said, “oh, no, Laura … is it my fault?” It wasn’t, really, it wasn’t. I just had decided I didn’t want to carry both that and the American Studies major. When Bassett heard I was staying with American Studies, he said, “oh, well, at least you’re still in the family,” signed my form and sent me on my way. I think of him often.

  3. Katherine Meuse
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Professor Bassett,
    I had hoped to finish this letter before you shuffled off this mortal coil. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it. I struggled too long trying to say just the right thing. However, now, it seems that whatever I could have said would have been just the right thing. I hope you’re reading this wherever you are.

    Several weeks ago, I was thinking of you. For no reason in particular, I was recalling a lecture you gave in your Hemingway & Fitzgerald class during my senior year at Colby. You told a story about an older man in a convertible at a red light revving the engine, when an attractive young woman stepped off the curb, leaned over to him and said, “Sorry about your penis.” How ironic that just a few weeks later, I should receive a message from Jenny Boylan that you have been battling prostate cancer. Funny, but not.

    After hearing from Professor Boylan, I started to recall my first days at Colby, having transferred from Mount Holyoke. I had the good fortune of getting into one of your classes. On the first day, you explained to us how you had fallen off of your roof, and I remember thinking to myself, “This guy is crazy. What an absolute nut…I like him.”

    What I didn’t know then was just what an incredible gift you would give me, a gift that you gave to all Colby students who had the good fortune to learn from you. Above all, you always believed in our goodness. Not only that, you told us you did. Not many people are that brave. When I was in seventh grade, my science teacher, Mr. Sweetser wrote in my yearbook: “Don’t be afraid to let your smarts show some day. You may find it a real thrill.” I don’t know that I was brave enough to follow that advice until I got to Colby. As a result, some of the best writing I did was for the classes that you taught. It was amazing to watch you work because you did that for so many. Bassett, you had a kind of magic that many aspire to, but few realize.

    I remember hearing a quote from you around the time your wife Carol passed away (cited here too in this memorial post): “I guess that’s the glory of a place where you know your students, where you know your friends are your friends.” The love that you received from Mayflower Hill is a reflection of the love you gave to all of us, a love that was pure and endless. Although your intellectual accomplishments were significant, there is no accomplishment greater than the love that surrounded you because of who you were and what you did. That will be your legacy. May your spirit live on at Mayflower Hill and in the lives of those you have touched.

    Katherine Marshall Meuse, Colby ‘95

  4. admin
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    These comments are beautiful. Thank you.

  5. Karen St John
    Posted November 18, 2010 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    If one thinks living life is listening to the chords struck in our hearts, and the music we play for others. Charlie” Bassett’s touch, it would seem, will subtly yet powerfly pluck human heartstrings for many years to come.

    I am very sorry for the loss of your friend. I am also very glad for what he has touched in you, and thus those around you…

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