There is an expression that seems to have fallen out of use today, old school. For way too many people, this just means “uncool” or “old”. To me, saying that someone is old school implies that that he possesses a work ethic, a sense of honor, an attention to detail, that produces work of higher quality than the norm of today.
Almost daily, I am reminded that university degrees are not proof that someone is intelligent. Wisdom and kindness are not something learned at a university, they are the result of a much harsher kind of school, from which there is no graduation.
Every age has had its practitioners of old school. The Roman Army used to deploy its men in four ranks. The front rank were the velites, meaning literally the fast ones—the teenagers who still thought they were immortal. The second and third ranks were the hastati and the principes, progressively older veterans who could be counted on to hold the line. But, if all else failed, the enemy would encounter the fourth rank—the triarii, the grizzled old veterans who were all old school. Relatively few in number, though the triarii were the thinnest rank, these badass old men did not break rank. The Romans even had a saying, Res ad triarios rediit (It has come down to the Triari), meaning it was serious business.
Another fine example of old school was President Ulysses S. Grant. Shortly after he left office in 1881, Grant became penniless after his life savings vanished with the collapse of an investment house he had unwisely started with questionable partners. Within days of the bankruptcy, he was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer.
After his victory at Fort Donelson in 1862, the newspapers reported he had won the battle with a cigar clamped between his teeth. A grateful nation, eager for a victory after a seemingly endless stream of Northern defeats, sent the general thousands of boxes of cigars. Eventually, Grant must have smoked each and every one of those stogies—later admitting to a habit of smoking at least twenty cigars a day.
Grant, with perhaps a year left in his life, was caught in a dilemma—how to provide for his family after his death, while having few resources. (There were no pensions for former presidents until 1958.) His military pension was far too little, and after the bankruptcy of his business, he had no substantial property left to sell.
As early as 1881, Mark Twain had encouraged the general to write his memoirs, to which Grant had replied, “No one is interested in me.” Indeed, two previous biographies about Grant (written by men who had served closely with him) had failed miserably, and there was every sign that a war-weary public would not purchase another book based on a conflict whose wounds had yet to be healed.
Now, in May of 1884, Twain offered to print his memoirs from a publishing company that he had just started, and offered terms that were beyond generous: a ten-thousand dollar advance and a 20% gross royalty against 75% of the net profits. Largely because of Twain’s original encouragement in 1881, Grant agreed.
Grant worked tirelessly, despite the increasing pain from his advanced and advancing cancer. He quickly learned that while cocaine and laudanum would dull the pain, they had a similar effect on his brain, making the writing all but impossible. Wrapped in blankets to ward off the cold in a cancer-wracked body, he daily struggled for 6-7 hours, writing from 25 to 50 pages a day, using stubby pencils on a yellow legal pad with blue ink lines. Finally, overcome with pain at the end of a hard day, he would accept laudanum from a bottle that is still on display in his former home in Mount McGregor, located in upstate New York.
A lesser man, having already been paid, would have written the minimum required to satisfy his publisher. Being old school, Grant’s two volume work of over 700 pages begins with his childhood, addresses his days at West Point, and has a brilliantly detailed account of his involvement in the Mexican-American War. that I still require my students to read.
Grant gives details about the battles that only he could have known. He frankly criticizes his mistakes and even debunks a few of the myths that had already began to be told about the old soldier. At one point, discussing a popular account of a battle, he writes, "Like many other stories, it would be very good if it were only true."
When Grant could no longer write, he whispered into the ear of his aide—whispering despite the fact that the cancer that was killing him had so constricted his throat he could no longer swallow solid food and frequently left him feeling that he was choking to death.
Meanwhile, Mark Twain sent ten thousand agents into the field to sell subscriptions for Grant’s book. Wearing their old faded blue uniforms, bemedaled with campaign ribbons showing that they had been at Cold Harbor, Vicksburg, or Shiloh, these veterans knocked on doors across the nation pleading with gray-haired veterans to help the general win just one more battle.
These men responded, in part because General Grant was telling their story, a story they could leave for their children. With a dollar down, they could subscribe to the book in one of three bindings; the balance would be paid upon the delivery of the book.
By the end of June, 1885, Grant dictated the last pages of his book, already secure in the knowledge that tens of thousands of paid subscriptions had guaranteed the success of his memoirs. Hardly able to write or even whisper, he struggled to finish editing the galley proofs, a job that was finally finished on June 17, 1885. President Grant died just five days later.
The memoir, of course, was a phenomenal success, selling over 300,000 of the two-volume sets in just the first printing. Mark Twain would hand Julia Grant the largest royalty check ever paid up to that time, $200,000. Eventually, she would receive a total of over $450,000—a sum in advance of $10 million in today’s money. The book itself was a masterpiece, read not only by historians but by anyone interested in the war. The book has never been out of print, and probably never will be.
I am reminded of Grant, and of the qualities of being "old school", this week by one of my colleagues who learned of the passing of her mother yesterday while preparing for class. Despite being of an age at which most would have already retired, she continues to work for both the pure joy of teaching, and for a genuine love of her students. Few of those students know that she is teaching many of the classes they attend with no salary, since the university would not come up with the funds to offer the course...so she volunteered. It's who she is.
Despite having learned of her mother’s death, she—being "old school"—taught her classes yesterday. She was bright, cheerful, and absolutely brilliant—a perfect example of what every professor ought to be (and damn few ever are). Her last class let out well after dark last night, and I am certain that not a single student had any clue as to how difficult that day must have been for her.
As I drove away from the campus last night, I could see her feeding the stray cats outside the building before she left for the funeral home. She was sitting on the grass while the feral cats—who will not allow anyone else within fifty feet of them—climbed into her lap for some individual attention. They, too, recognize "old school".