A Personal Appreciation
(from George A. Wanklyn, Associate Professor of Art History and European & Mediterranean Cultures)
In late September, two weeks or so into the Fall 2009 Semester, we learned of the death in Paris of Jim Latham, who succumbed to cancer after a long and very stubborn fight. Jim taught Philosophy at The American University of Paris (or The American College in Paris, in its first incarnation) from 1967 until his retirement in 1999. I think there would be just about nobody -- if indeed there is anybody -- who could claim to have taught more students at ACP/AUP than Jim did in those 32 academic years he spent with us. And there would be very, very few professors who would be remembered with the affection and admiration Jim so easily inspired and commanded. I started teaching at ACP 15 years after Jim had commenced, and then I had the great personal pleasure of being a departmental colleague of Jim’s for the last decade of his long career, at that point doing most of my teaching in what was, for many years, the Department of European Cultural Studies, History and Philosophy. During the years I taught alongside him, this tall Californian basketball player taught a rotation of eight Philosophy courses, which will be remembered by hundreds of our former students. In addition to the two introductory courses Problems in Philosophy I and II, and offerings in Logic and Ethics, Jim taught higher-level courses in Judaeo-Christian Thought, The Philosophy of Aquinas, Medieval Philosophy and Sources of Western Religious Thought.
Looking back on the years I knew him while he was teaching, I would say Jim was perhaps the most easily approachable member of the faculty for our students – unpretentious, not in the least remote or forbidding. He was a sincere and trusted counselor as well as a dedicated pedagogue. His manner was conspicuously open, and wherever Jim was to be seen in or outside one or another of our buildings, before or after a class, there were almost always students gathered easily around him. With hindsight, I now recognize Jim the counselor as having been essentially important, alongside Jim the teacher. In yet another role, the Jesuit Father Latham celebrated several marriages of AUP students. In that capacity, I know he had (or has) no rivals on the faculty !
As a colleague, Jim was as delightful as he was dependable. His normal prevailing calm – I see more there of a laid-back Californian than a chilly Olympian – could give way to an intense, focused determination when he fought for a principle, or defended the rights of the faculty, or came to the aid of a colleague he felt was unjustly maligned or threatened. I can hear the words of our colleague Michael Scollen coming back to me right now, “Jim could be a tiger. A real tiger.”
With some frequency, Michael and I would have lunch with Jim, when we were all teaching together. There were some things we knew we could count on, including Jim’s saying afterwards, “Well, that was the first proper meal I’ve had in some time,” where there would be absolutely no evidence that was the case, and also Jim’s ordering mousse au chocolat for dessert. When some contentious subject would come along that didn’t warrant much of his concern, he would say, “Aw, that’s a bunch of chop suey. Chop suey.” Knowing the fabled connection of chop suey to Jim’s home town of San Francisco, we couldn’t really disagree, could we ?
Jim retired in 1999, at the same moment as one of my oldest Art History colleagues, Francesca Weinmann, who also taught regularly the course cross-listed Art History/Philosophy on Aesthetics. At the alumni dinner that year, at the time of Graduation, messages of appreciation of our two colleagues were read out by Michael Scollen and myself. They were so numerous and complete I can recall Frida Hein, then in charge of Alumni Relations, whispering to Michael and me, “How many more are there ? Should we go through them all ?” Yes, we did go through them all.
After he retired, Jim stayed in touch with many of his former students and ACP/AUP colleagues. If one had cause to call Jim about something, there was very often his suggestion that one join him for a drink, or a meal. Jim did not sink into some idle retirement – he continued his dedicated efforts with the association Le Pont, counseling and comforting some of the population of his adopted home city of Paris whom he felt to be most needing this attention, this human respect, this warmth. He toiled away on a mammoth project of translating (from Latin) and deciphering a book of emblems compiled by a 17th-century German Jesuit professor-preacher, Jeremias Drexel. He also photographed the changing conditions of the great Parisian sky he observed from his apartment, high above the rue Faidherbe, in the 11th arrondissement. His photographs were put together for an exhibition in the space the Jesuits have on the rue de Sèvres. Next to that room is the church of St. Ignace, where Jim’s funeral would be held years later, on 29 September 2009, only weeks after his 80th birthday.
As the months of 2009 passed in succession, the multiple cancers which ganged up on him wore his body down, but not his spirit. I knew we would not have Jim with us for that much longer. Early in September, I happened to be in Ireland for a family reunion, just days prior to the start of the semester. Visiting the city of Cork, I went to the Anglican church of St. Anne Shandon, where I was practically alone. Looking into a dusty glass case on the left wall of the church, I saw among the few books there a copy of the recondite Drexel tome to which Jim had devoted years of scrupulous scholarly attention. Only a few weeks later, I learned that Jim had left us.
At the funeral -- which was designed to be, and which was, “a celebration of his life” – there were dozens of people in attendance, from all walks, all the paths of Jim’s life. Among the colleagues in attendance from the ACP/AUP faculty, past and present, were Susan Gruenheck Taponier, Paul Godt, Marie Roussel, Ali Fatemi, Ali Rahnema, Michael Scollen and myself. Among Jim’s former students there were Sophie Epstein and Leslie Sosnowski, who read out the tributes submitted, which are printed here along with these words of mine. Other former students present were Gael Janofsky-Tanner, Nancy Raff, Ben Phister, Ray Gonzales, Margot Borden and Betty Feurring. And there was Jamie Gilroy, who studied at ACP, and then became director of the Computer Center after he graduated.
A month or so after the funeral, I received an email from Susan Taponier, in which she said Jim had requested, in an informal “will,” that several friends be invited to come to his apartment on the rue Faidherbe to take a book, or a few books, and perhaps something else, to serve as a memento of friendship. A few days later, I did go -- also there that morning, along with Susan, were Michael Scollen, who had stayed in close touch with Jim to the end, and Marie Roussel. Michael was too moved to be comfortable, and wanted to leave as soon as possible, without being impolite. I chose a couple of books, knowing that Jim knew what I had taught, and was still teaching – The Jewish War of Josephus, and a history of the Inquisition. I also took a tall copper ewer, which was surely made in the Mediterranean world, in an Islamic part, I thought, perhaps Morocco or Tunisia. This spring I took the ewer to my house on a Greek island. I told Susan about it when I got back to Paris, and said it looked like it had always been there, had never left. It will serve as a material reminder of the association I was privileged to enjoy with this fine person.
From Right to Left: Jim Latham, Michael Scollen, Larissa Liventals, George Wanklyn.
The photograph was taken at the Graduation ceremony at the Théâtre Marigny in May 1999 -- Larissa had completed her BA cum laude with a Major in European Cultural Studies and Philosophy, and a Minor in Art History, in Fall 1998. The three faculty members shown here were among her teachers. Larissa took no fewer than six of Jim's courses, from her first semester at AUP right through to her final one.
This was the last Graduation ceremony Jim attended as a faculty member.