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Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again - Book review

 
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RACING ODYSSEUS: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again

By Roger H. Martin, University of California Press, $24.95

As midlife crises go, Roger Martin's is unconventional and intriguing. Having beaten cancer several times, Martin, who was then president of Randolph-Macon College, in Ashland, Virginia, did not buy a BMW convertible, leave his wife, or build up massive gambling debts. Rather, at the age of 61, he took a leave of absence and enrolled in the fall of 2004 as a freshman at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.

St. John's is the ultimate liberal arts college, where the curriculum is focused entirely around the Great Books and all classes are seminars taught by tutors who cross and defy traditional disciplinary boundaries. Martin's memoir of his semester there is based on the charming conceit that one--or at least he--could start all over again as a college student and learn at least as much as he had the first time around 43 years earlier.

The premise is, of course, at once delightful and absurd. Although he did eventually win the friendship and respect of many of his classmates--and ultimately became a confidant and adviser to a few--Martin was inevitably treated as an oddball interloper by most.

By his own measure, Martin's attempt to fit in is sometimes pathetic. Certainly, if he is quoting himself accurately, some of his approaches to fellow students are awkward at best. "So, what's up?" he habitually asks, as he runs into a young friend, pulls his chair up to a group in the coffee shop, or invites passing students to join him. At first he is ignored by the Johnnies and the faculty alike, and he is haunted by childhood insecurities that are revived by any perceived slight. Cruel nostalgia drives him to remember and relive the worst moments of his original undergraduate experience at Denison University in Ohio (which he attended, he feels obliged to tell us, when he could not get into his father's alma mater, Yale).

Ultimately, Martin finds himself. He gains acceptance and salvation primarily through his improbable membership on the St. John's crew team. Rowing, it turns out, is not a bad metaphor for life, and Martin seems to learn as much from Leo Pickens, the classics-quoting crew coach, as from any teacher or associate he has ever had. As he struggles to achieve both technical skills and emotional balance on College Creek and the Severn River, everything comes together in a way that many of us could envy.

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