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.”
(President, Colby College)