Living legend at Miami ends career today

Wednesday, December 9, 1998

Dr. Phillip Shriver
With the flick of a switch, an era comes to an end tonight at Miami University. As the campus bells softly announce the eight o'clock hour, Phillip R. Shriver will dim the lights on a nondescript classroom and a legendary teaching career.

For 52 years, he has taught history to college students simply for the joy of teaching. The only passion in his life he has delighted in longer is Martha Shriver, his wife of 54 years.

In an age when fledgling professors bellyache about burnout midway through their first class, Dr. Shriver continues - after more than half a century of lectures and at the age of 76 - to burn brightly as a source of knowledge and inspiration for his students.

A man like this, on the eve of his last lecture, must be celebrated. But he won't hear of it.

"This is just another lecture," he told me earlier this week as he tried to throw me off his trail. "Although I'm in reasonably good health, I just wanted to go out while I'm still enjoying it. I didn't want to stay too long and have someone take out a shepherd's crook and yank me off the stage."

Not taking his bait, I refused to budge from his quiet, pine-paneled office. In this room lined with books and decorated with photos, citations, a ceremonial tomahawk and an Indian war drum, I asked for a private lecture, a historian's perspective on a teaching career that started with an 18-year stint at Kent State University before ending, 34 years later, at Miami.

As he prepares for tonight's last lecture, Dr. Shriver asks that no fuss be made. No special presentations. Nothing out of the ordinary.

He plans to go about his day as if this were the first of many lectures, not the last of a lifetime. After his morning walk around the football stadium with his wife, he will go over his notes. Then, it's off to lunch and the office before delivering the final, 50-minute lectures of his career. At 2 and 7 p.m., his "History of Miami" course meets for the last times in Room No. 2, a small, plain-as-dirt classroom on the ground level of Upham Hall.

On his way to class, Dr. Shriver will invariably find empty rooms with their lights burning. At each door, he will reach in and flip switches. "I grew up in the Depression. Can't stand to see electricity wasted."

His energy-saving duties never keep him from starting his lectures on time. "These students came to learn. I'm here to teach. So we start at the top of the hour."

Standing by a simple wooden lectern, "occasionally resting an elbow on it if I'm fatigued," Dr. Shriver will lecture from memory on the history of Miami's progress during the years after World War II. It's a history he knows firsthand. He just wrote a book on the topic, Miami University: A Personal History. And, as the school's president from 1965 to 1981, he helped make that history.

"With every class, the last one included, I hope to personalize the campus," he told me.

Warming to his subject, he provided an example. "To most people, Dodds Hall is just a building. But it was named for the first Miami student to sign up to fight in the Civil War. He was from Cincinnati and was the editor of the student newspaper.

"So, now you see, Dodds Hall ceases to be just a name. Now it has a personality."

Raising my hand, I had a question for the professor. Before I came to his office, I walked through the Phillip R. Shriver Student Center. In the center's food court, a profile of a white-haired man with glasses glows in red, white and blue neon next to the sign, Uncle Phil's Deli.

I asked the professor to tell me about this person. He chuckled. Then, in a deep, kindly voice, he told me about Phillip R. Shriver. "He was a teacher who loved to work with students. He thought there was no better job on the face of the Earth than to be a teacher. He was happy with what he did. He never thought of it as work.

"When you are happy doing what you are doing, it's not work. It's fun."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.