The Pulse: The teacher who opened a mind

It's the time of year when our attention turns to graduates and their commencement speakers. But at a lunch with a friend last Friday, our conversation was about the often unacknowledged: the teachers for whom we're grateful.

I said that I'd been fortunate. My list is long, a product of a sound, K-12 education in the Central Bucks public schools, followed by four years at Lehigh University and three more at Penn Law. There are so many to whom I owe so much. But one in particular.

David Curtis Amidon Jr.

David Curtis Amidon Jr.

Truth be told, I was admitted to Lehigh as a legacy by virtue of my father and brother having received degrees before me. Before I arrived on campus, a fraternity brother (of my own brother) recommended that I use an elective to "take anything" taught by Professor Amidon. So sound was the advice that I ended up taking a course with him every single semester - eight different enrollments. I've never read so much nor thought so deeply.

Professor Amidon's reading list was enough to bankrupt you in the university bookstore. It was nothing for him to require the reading of a half-dozen books per semester. The payoff for me came in the form of an academic awakening. My subpar SATs were forgotten when, four years later, I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, largely due to his tutelage, and was accepted at an Ivy League law school.

What I didn't tell my friend at lunch is that a few years had passed since I'd spoken to my mentor. So I called him that very afternoon and learned from his wife, Ann, that she'd been meaning to reach out to me. Professor Amidon is recovering from a stroke and is also dealing with the debilitating effects of diabetes at a rehab facility in the Lehigh Valley.

Last Saturday I visited unannounced.

Amidon will soon be 78. Despite the physical setbacks, his mind remains razor-sharp. I turned down the Fox News in his room so that we could have a political conversation of our own, and took note of the loss of his trademark beard. He'd always looked like Marx while speaking like Lincoln.

The first sign that he hadn't missed a beat came when an orderly walked into the room to check on him. My professor introduced the man to me by name, adding that he hailed from Cameroon and was desirous of being a doctor. That's pure Amidon.

See, the first day of class was always a treat. He'd slide his finger down the roster and proceed to tell each student more about their ethnicity and hometown than any of us knew ourselves. This was pre-Google. He could do that just by studying a surname. Ethnicity and genealogy mattered to him, and his interest was infectious. He was such a revered figure at Lehigh that they created a special platform - the department of urban studies - consisting of one faculty member, him. And when he retired in 2008, after more than 40 years of instruction, so too did the department.

I used to access his office after hours, in Room 358 of Chandler-Ullmann Hall (circa 1883), via a rickety wooden stair, to find him always ensconced amid his books, which were stuffed floor to ceiling, each acting as a sponge for the aroma of his cigars.

But class is where he shone. Actually, "professor" doesn't fully describe him. He was a "lecturer" in the finest sense of the word. And each hour-long assemblage was a command performance. Thirty years later I can still recall the registrar's numbered listing of his courses, such as "US 363," which was a class called "Philadelphia: Development of a Metropolis." This was no recap of our Founding Fathers. We read George Lippard's 1844 novel, The Monks and Monk Hall (582 pages!), and E. Digby Baltzell's Philadelphia Gentlemen, among others.

And a class trip via a van he drove one Saturday morning bypassed the Betsy Ross House and Liberty Bell in favor of a stop at Laurel Hill Cemetery to read tombstones of prominent Philadelphia families. Lunch was at the Famous 4th Street Delicatessen, where, in a second-floor room, proprietor David Auspitz was our guest lecturer about the city's modern political scene. (My later friendship with Auspitz is something else for which I thank Amidon.)

"I feel like a spectator now," Amidon said from his hospital bed last Saturday. "I can't stir things up the way I used to."

He'd done plenty of that. Amidon himself had a personal political transformation from a Frisbee-throwing '60s leftist to a 1980s conservative. I knew him only in the latter stage. In a freshman seminar ("Paleo and Neo Conservatives"), he had us reading William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale and George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty while studying the Laffer curve. I know we haven't voted the same way in the last two presidential elections and told him I suspected that disappointed him. He would hear none of it.

"I'm disappointed that you would think I would be disappointed," he assured.

We had a few laughs, shared our concerns about Syria, and found common ground in the foreign-policy edicts of Ron Paul. Both of us fear foreign entanglements and worry that our interventions make us less safe.

Amidon was secretary of the Lehigh faculty when I graduated in 1984, and in that role, he signed my diploma. How appropriate.

"This was a lift," he said when, after more than an hour, I stood to leave. He was speaking for both of us.

Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel 124.