Beloved professor Dr. Larry Matheny is speaker and honoree at Constitution Day celebration
September 16, 2010 By Abby Malik
convocation, was a professor of government at Centre from
1966 until 2005.
Matheny not only taught government courses at Centre but also
served a stint as associate dean and chaired the government
Centre College’s annual Constitution Day convocation was held on Monday, September 20, at the Norton Center for the Arts in Weisiger Theater. This year’s convocation was one of particular importance: the speaker was Centre’s own Dr. Larry R. Matheny, John Marshall Harlan Professor Emeritus of Government. His talk was titled “Does America Have a Written Constitution? A Glance at Judicial Politics.” Immediately following the convocation, a reception was held in the Palm Court area of the Norton Center for the Arts’ Grand Foyer.
What made this convocation even more special was the official announcement of the endowment of a Larry Matheny Scholarship Fund to honor his service to Centre, created by several of his former students.
Matheny retired in 2005 after spending 39 years teaching political philosophy at Centre. A quiet man who keeps his personal life mostly to himself, one thing he is both vocal and passionate about is the importance of a liberal arts education.
“If we allow them to do so, the liberal arts will lift us up from mere emotion and gut reactions into thoughtfulness; they will free us from mindless bigotry, from vulgar snobbery and from cheap gossip,” he told an opening convocation audience in 1992, as quoted in a summer 2005 Centrepiece feature about his retirement. “The ideal product of a liberal education—never fully attained—is a person who is intelligent, competent, self-assured, articulate, sophisticated and humane.”
To donate to the scholarship fund, click here.
Today, the mention of Matheny’s name brings back fond memories for many a Centre graduate who was lucky enough to cross paths, share classes or have conversations with the legendary professor.
John David Dyche ’82 is one of several Centre alums who hatched the idea of forming an endowed scholarship in Matheny’s name. The professor is, Dyche says, the personification of the liberal arts and a living representation of Centre's guiding maxim, Doctrina Lux Mentis, Latin for “Learning is the Light of the Mind.”
Dyche says that, at minimum, he and his fellow alums wanted to create a scholarship in Matheny’s name as a way to recognize him for the profound influence he’s had on so many lives.
“Dr. Matheny has a way of going to the very core of a difficult concept or powerful idea and presenting it in a way that makes students literally tingle with intellectual excitement,” Dyche explains. “His style is so very distinctive, from his intriguing accent and commanding voice to his elegant handwriting and self-deprecating humor. He has complete command of the canon and tradition of Western civilization and its great books and thinkers and lovingly shares this precious gift in hopes of preserving it.”
Dyche elaborates on his professor’s handwriting.
“His handwriting is beautiful,” Dyche says. “When he writes a word on the board, it’s almost like it’s coming down from above.”
Molly Donnellan Lindle ’09 was a physics and mathematics double major, but during her freshman year, Matheny came out of retirement to teach her GOV 110 course.
“Dr. Matheny was one of my favorite professors at Centre,” Lindle says. “His teaching had a profound effect on me.” Even more important than his in-class influence, Matheny continued to keep in touch with Lindle throughout her college experience.
“I worked in the library, and he always had a kind word or some great advice while I checked out his books,” she says. Matheny also taught Lindle’s parents (classes of 1974 and ’75).
“It meant a lot to me that I was able to share that experience with them,” she says.
Lindle, who currently is a graduate student at Georgia Tech, took her government class for the requirement, “but having class with Dr. Matheny made it feel like anything but!”
A double major in government and economics, Tracy Burdett ’92 still has his notes from his classes with Matheny. In fact, they’re the only notes he still has from his time as an undergraduate.
“I’ve read through all of them within the last five years, even though it has been nearly 20 years since I took the classes,” says Burdett, currently a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Ohio State University.
“My notes from his classes are more interesting to me now than most books, though the National Archive has yet to show any interest in them,” he jokes.
Matheny taught Burdett as much about life as he did about government.
“He has an absolutely fascinating insight on almost any given subject,” he says. “I am a better person today for having been his student then.”
Donevon Storm ’94, an economics major, still remembers Matheny’s vivid descriptions of particular words and their meanings from other languages.
“‘Covetous greed’ has always stayed with me, and I can still hear that booming voice,” Storm says. “He was such a wonderful professor to study under and his was truly one of the greatest classes I have ever taken.
"He described its meaning the way Hannibal Lector cross-examined Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs,” Storm continues. “He had a particular way of speaking that got everyone’s attention.”
Philip Cloutier ’93 and George Bach ’92 both recall the famous way in which Matheny would enter the classroom.
“Dr. Matheny would walk in at the beginning of class and ask ‘What's on your minds?’” says Cloutier, a double major in history and political science. “And we, being the smart, confident Centre students we were, would respond and start a dialogue, which led into his lecture.”
Bach recently began teaching as an adjunct at a law school. He relates to his students how Matheny would begin every class with, "So, what's on your mind today?"
He recalls, much as Cloutier does: “After one of us would offer something—and it mattered not what it was—Matheny would then masterfully weave whatever we offered into the relevant topic of political thought of that day.”
During his time at Centre, Bach took every Matheny course he could fit into his schedule.
“Almost 20 years later, it is impossible to count the number of times and the number of ways in which I have thought about his lectures,” he says. “His lessons served the primary purpose of a liberal arts education. His lessons provoked and challenged me in the richest ways; they continue to do so today.”
One outside-the-classroom memory Bach deeply treasures is having coffee with Matheny in the then student center basement café one morning during his senior year. Matheny asked Bach what he planned on doing post-graduation; Bach replied that he wasn't sure yet, but maybe he’d be a ski bum or work at Disney.
“Professor Matheny looked at me and said, ‘Good! Don't be in such a damn hurry!’” Bach says. “This is advice that I proudly followed and, I believe, am better for it. I will be forever grateful the hours I spent with Larry Matheny.”
Like Bach, Ty Shaffer ’00 thought about the influence Matheny had on him during his own time as a teacher of an undergraduate political theory class during graduate school.
“Dr. Matheny was interested in teaching students how to think, not what to think, and that is why so many Centre graduates have fond memories of his classes,” Shaffer says. “We live in an era when plenty of people—the media, economic elites, political elites (right and left)—are more than happy to do our thinking for us. Dr. Matheny understood that the purpose of a liberal education is to produce individuals who have the gumption (to use a good Larry Matheny word) to think for themselves.”
One term that consistently pops up among many of Matheny’s former students is “Matheny-ism.”
Thomas Hobbs ’02, a government major and religion minor, notes three Matheny-isms only a former student could appreciate: “Gimme, gimme, my name’s Jimmy,” from All The King’s Men; “Well, Larry, it’s because...”; and “Ohhh, F-U...,” for Francis Urquhart in the BBC Miniseries “House of Cards.”
Pam Deitchle ’97 recalls other Matheny-isms “That's one of those 'Sentry' College words," and "Anyone else feel like a smoke and a G&T?"
“Dr. Matheny was the best professor I had at Centre not only because of his mastery of original source material, which he insisted we explore for ourselves, but because he engaged students,” Hobbs says.
Hobbs says there’s a reason that his professor is referred to as Larry “The Legend” Matheny.
“His passion and dedication to teaching inspired all of us to greater understanding in the hopes of hearing just one time, ‘Well that’s good!’ as only his graveled voice could exclaim,” Hobbs recalls.
Deitchle even has an idea for a CentreTerm course with Matheny: a six-week van ride across Virginia.
“The guy is a walking encyclopedia about the American founding and an absolutely mesmerizing orator,” she says. “I was so intimidated by him at first, but learned that he epitomized what was so great about Centre—he didn't condescend and didn't hide in some ivory tower. If you showed up to class and had some B.S. comment (like we all had), he'd call you on it. If you had something interesting to say, the entire class might revolve around that insight.”
Using Matheny’s own words to describe him, Jane Hale Hopkins ’94 says: “Dr. Matheny epitomizes what is so exceptional about ‘that little college in the heart of the Bluegrass.’ Armed with his ‘furniture of the mind, I am now entirely scintillating at cocktail parties!’”
Denise Cornell ’91 says she also often uses Matheny’s phrase of endearment for Centre College: “little college in the heart of the bluegrass.”
“Every Matheny class was an amazing experience,” she says.
For Elizabeth Bitsy Hawes Unangst ’89, an English and history double major, one unexpected value Matheny instilled in her was an appreciation of fan vaulting (a Gothic-style arch formed by repeating ribs that resemble a fan). In the spring of 1989, Unangst traveled to the United Kingdom with Matheny and Dr. Paul Cantrell (former English professor).
“I had no idea he was such a nut for ecclesiastical architecture!” Unangst says. “It got to where our bus driver, Dennis, would say, ‘There’s a church tower over there in the distance, but shhhhh, don't tell Himself, or he’ll have us over there to inspect it and we’ll never get to Salisbury on time!’ Romsey Abbey and the Beverley Minster were two of his favorites, as I recall. Even today I appreciate a fine example of fan vaulting, thanks to Dr. Matheny and my Centre education.”
The term “Himself,” Unangst points out, is the way British servants referred to the Master when he was out of earshot. She says that Dennis, the aforementioned bus drive on her trip abroad, really did avoid pointing out steeples and clock towers to Matheny.
“But Dr. Matheny had usually checked out the maps beforehand!” she says.
Dr. Dan Stroup, Lively Professor of Government at Centre, has worked alongside Matheny for almost 35 years.
“I had the great good fortune very early in my career to team teach a number of courses with Larry,” Stroup says. “I feel sort of like I apprenticed under a master here. I learned a whole lot about government, literature and life, as well, but certainly a whole lot about teaching. I feel like I owe him a whole lot.”
The two of them don’t always agree, Stroup laughs, citing their differences regarding who the greatest Centre alum is: Stroup thinks it’s John Marshall Harlan, Centre Class of 1850 and famous U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and Matheny’s vote goes to John C. Breckinridge, Centre Class of 1839 and vice president of the United States under James Buchanan.
Stroup says that Matheny sits in on the senior seminar class he currently teaches and actively participates in discussions.
“I think he misses the classroom, just not the grading,” Stroup says.