Spring 2002

A Marriage of Minds

Nancy Nahra and Willard Sterne Randall bring a love of learning to Champlain College
By Lee Ann Cox      Photographs by Kathleen Landwehrle

It's a blustery Friday morning, and I'm early for my interview with Nancy Nahra, humanities professor and director of Champlain's Honors Program. Students sleepily come and go and then Nahra strides in. I rise to greet her, but she's not there to meet me, not yet.

Because Nahra has timed her schedule perfectly, she has 10 extra minutes to have coffee with her colleague and husband, Willard Sterne Randall, visiting professor of the humanities. It's a typical pattern for the couple:

A few days earlier, as one of Nahra's composition courses broke up, Randall was standing around the corner waiting for the teacher. Despite the pair's vast individual accomplishments and their prominence in Champlain's fast-growing humanities program, it's hard to have contact with one without the other being present in some way. This personal and professional partnership enriches both their writing -- Nahra is an accomplished poet, Randall a Pulitzer Prize-nominated biographer -- and the intellectual discourse on campus. And through it all, they remain a couple plainly devoted to each other.

"She has a wonderful literary mind and a fine education and she's fluent in many languages," Randall says of his wife. "I'm just a journalist."

It's a comment that's at once coy in its modesty and a starkly accurate distillation of the characteristics that distinguish them. Randall is the maverick academic who didn't graduate from college until age 40, an award-winning investigative journalist turned historian whose popular biographies of Benedict Arnold, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington enjoy critical and commercial success. He has been interviewed on the Today show and National Public Radio's All Things Considered. His book on Jefferson was famously given to President Clinton as a birthday present from Al Gore. Nahra is poised and elegant, a poet in love with language, a Ph.D. who reads Latin poetry for fun and teaches with passion and grace.

Personal Histories

Growing up in the 1950s, Nahra was the girl lost in the library stacks, "fulfilling some genetic tic that made this stuff deliciously satisfying," as she would write later. Her father majored in classics and excelled at languages. Her mother was a businesswoman, a rarity at the time, and, Nahra says, "had great impatience for women who stayed home and made brownies and thought that was everything in the world."

Having inherited a reverence for words and a distaste for domestic life, Nahra graduated from Colby College, then left Maine to earn a master's in classics at Stanford. After working in publishing for several years, Nahra returned to academia. "I couldn't imagine a way of life in which I didn't have an excuse to continue to learn things," she says. "It never occurred to me that academic people are paid very poorly. I liked the reading and the writing and the research. It just suited me." Nahra earned her Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literature from Princeton in 1989. She also met Randall there. Fittingly for the bookish couple, their first meeting was in the library.

While Nahra's road to the Ivy League was relatively linear, Randall's was rather circuitous. A self-taught news -- paperman for much of his career, Randall is more a writer than an academic.

"I've never wanted to do anything else," says Randall of his writing career, which began on a small-town newspaper when he was 18. He was born in Philadelphia in 1942; his mother was in business, like Nahra's, and, also like Nahra, his father was to influence his choice of work.

"He had wanted to be a writer and managed to find ways to write all of his life," Randall recalls of his father, "but he never made a living at it. He knew it was not an easy life, so he tried to steer me away from it."

If adolescent rebellion played a role in the decision, so did raw talent. Randall had started winning writing contests in high school and was writing a column within a year of starting at the newspaper. "Nobody taught me," he says, crediting his success to the fact that he was prolific and that he was willing to write about anything, from politics to the history of Pennsylvania Dutch recipes.

"I always had the backing of fearless editors," Randall adds, "so I was fearless myself." From assistant editor to feature writer at the Philadelphia Bulletin to editorial director of Philadelphia Magazine, Randall kept moving up and winning awards, including a National Magazine Award and Pulitzer Prize nominations. He took college classes at night, but professional success -- not for the last time -- took precedence over formal education.

Randall's journalism was informed by his intense interest in history, so he began making what he thought was a natural transition, from investigative reporter to biographer. Others were less convinced. "You can win all the journalism awards in the world, but nobody wants your history articles," says Randall. "Absolutely nothing carried over."

While trying to launch a career as a historian, he wrote features for the Philadelphia Inquirer and published his first book, Building Six, an investigation of cancer in the chemical industry, in 1977. When Little, Brown asked what he planned for a follow-up, a book about the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin wasn't what they had in mind. "They said, 'We'll have to cut your advance in half-do you still want to do it?'" Randall says, wearing the slightly smug smile of a man who has gambled and won. "I said yes… and gradually they began to take me seriously as a biographer."

Wanting to teach as well as write, Randall pursued formal educational credentials, earning his baccalaureate at Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey and gaining acceptance into a graduate program at Princeton. He left without a Ph.D. when the demands of his advisors conflicted with his book contract.

"I had to choose between finishing the Franklin book on time and completely tearing it apart and turning it inside out into a dissertation that maybe only Nancy would read," he says.

Love's Labors

After graduate school, the couple taught at the University of Vermont before leaving to write full-time. During this period, Randall continued to produce acclaimed biographies. Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1990 and Thomas Jefferson: A Life, which has sold more than 100,000 copies, was nominated as well, in 1993. His newest book, an account of the life of Alexander Hamilton, is due out in the fall. Nahra has won the John Masefield Award from the Poetry Society of America and been a finalist in the National Poetry Series. She has published two collections of poetry and edited another, and her work is included in a new anthology, Contemporary Poets of New England (University of New England Press). They've written three books together, and are currently working on a fourth, a comprehensive history of the United States.

Love is one thing, work another. Mixing pleasure with business is potentially explosive, but the couple is adept at avoiding conflicts when they collaborate. "We have a lot of respect for each other," Randall says. "Neither of us feels threatened." They work independently, dividing up chapters based on interest. "We don't try to tell each other how to do it," he explains. "The only thing we wrote together was a three-page preface and we argued for a week."

Despite such occasional flare-ups, their collaboration is deep and essential. Randall dedicated Benedict Arnold to Nahra, acknowledging her "poet's ear."

"When Will is writing a book, he reads everything to me out loud, a day at a time," Nahra says. Hearing rather than just seeing the words, she believes, lets her process the text more acutely. She tunes her ear not just to the meaning of a phrase, but its sound as well. "I think language is the most interesting thing about anybody," she says. "It's so revealing, the way people put words together. It's this big code; I love it."

Beyond Britney Spears

Nahra also loves teaching young people. "The age of college students is so interesting. They're not finished yet," she says. "They're still forming. Teaching is about influencing the next generation. Somebody's going to do it and I don't want it to just be Britney Spears. I want to have something to say about their attitudes too."

For Nahra, that means exposing her students to books and making them understand how much they matter. It seems to be working. "Her course made me want to take more liberal arts classes," says sophomore Abbott Stark, an accounting major who confesses to using up his electives on English and history. "She once told me that people who can't write can't make it in business," he says, "so she encourages her students to develop those skills."

Stark also participates in the book discussion group Nahra started last year, where, he says, he really gets to put those classroom discussions on plot and character into action. The group has read The Poisonwood Bible and The World According to Garp, picks that Nahra deliberately tries not to influence. "They have to go through that experience of selecting a book and persuading the rest of the group," she insists.

When Nahra joined the Champlain faculty in 1999, her mission was to develop an honors program, a progressive sequence of classes for highly motivated students. She launched the initiative with freshman composition and algebra courses and has added classes for subsequent school years. "She's a dedicated advocate of the Honors Program," says colleague David Griffiths, who is teaching a new honors course for sophomores, The Bible as Literature.

Griffiths, who once doubted that Nahra could achieve the ambitious goals she brought to Champlain, says the class would never have happened without her deft skill as a facilitator. "She's been an inspiration to me," he says.

Nahra's program isn't elitist; she doesn't limit it to the most brilliant and accomplished students. The primary prerequisite is enthusiasm. "It's really for people who agree in advance that they're going to try harder than other people try," she says. "You get those students together and you can really do something." That something, for now at least, includes special activities like trips to Montreal, museum tours and receptions at the College president's home. She dreams of getting an endowment for the program that would let her travel with students and give them a broader cultural perspective.

Nahra's beyond-the-classroom focus relates to her belief that educators are preparing their students to lead rich, intellectually vibrant lives as well as to succeed on the job. "Some of my students are going to live 60 or 70 years after they graduate," she explains, "and some are going to retire when they're around 50. So what I see myself doing is showing them all these wonderful things that there are to learn about. They'll know there's something called metaphysical poetry and they'll know there's this person called Eugene O'Neill. It's giving them a list for when they have time."

The Historical Present

Both Nahra and Randall share the idea that college is an introduction to a lifetime of learning. "We get a thirst for history in college," Randall says, "but the time goes by so fast that it can be years before we get to indulge it." The crowd at a recent lecture of Randall's proves the point. Alumni Auditorium fills with a mix of students, faculty and local history buffs, from bearded young men to silver-haired seniors. Two elderly women behind me discuss Randall's book on Washington (a quick chat reveals that they've heard Nahra speak on poetry as well).

They're here for a talk on Lake Champlain and the Revolutionary War, part of Randall's "Leadership American Style" lecture series in which he highlights people and events of historical importance to Vermont. Randall is in his element. Speaking without notes, he displays a charming enthusiasm for his subject and tremendous depth of knowledge.

The audience responds, questioning him eagerly about military strategy and Benedict Arnold's motivation. "Will is a treasure for Champlain," says Ron Court, who teaches systems analysis and design, but studies history as a hobby. "You just can't find his level of detail anywhere else."

Randall is convinced that the current fascination with historical biography is deeply rooted. "People are looking for answers," he says. "I think they look to the lives of famous people to help them make sense of their own lives." As an example, he cites Bill Clinton, who studied biographies before making big decisions and during Presidential crises. "People can toss off the names and misdeeds of presidents now as if they're rock stars or movie stars," Randall says. And this, he believes, has a positive effect on our national life. "If they're at all curious, they'll go out and get a book. They'll want to know more."

Teaching the Future

As part of their own continuing education, Randall and Nahra spend their summers abroad, traveling, teaching (they're both visiting professors at John Cabot University in Rome) and breathing in European culture. But Vermont is home. "It's a very good place to write because of the winter," says Nahra. And a great place to raise their 14-year-old daughter, Lucy.

Part of Vermont's lure is certainly "this beautiful little college" and the fresh, eager minds the professors encounter in their classrooms. "If the impression that I have of young people today came from what's in the paper, I think I might despair," Nahra says, "but I see them up close and that changes everything." That sense of perspective is vital to this couple who views teaching as their link to the future.

"It's about keeping up," says Randall. "It's about finding out what's on young people's minds. For me," he says, "it's very personal. It's about trying not to get left behind." Nahra expresses a similar sentiment. She believes that knowing what matters to students means knowing where society is heading. "You're in touch with where it is all going," she says. "You can see what's ahead of the wave."

And for Nahra and Randall, dedicated teachers -- and students -- of history and humanity, that's an appealing prospect.

Patriots in Perspective
To write biography, says Willard Sterne Randall, you have to identify strongly with your subject, which is not to say you have to like him. "Every one of the characters that I've written about for any length has been tragically flawed in one way or the other," he says. "They're all fascinating people and they all have their fatal flaw that makes them irresistible to write about." Here's Randall on the weaknesses that humanized the heroes:

Benedict Arnold -- A medieval sense of pride and honor. I don't like Benedict Arnold, but a whole lot of people have been in the kind of position that he was put in and been shafted. Having been shafted once or twice myself, I have a lot of sympathy for how it might have turned out differently.

George Washington -- Terrible judgment in choosing subordinates. He thought, quite rightly, that Arnold was his best general, but he wouldn't back him up because he was dazzled by Arnold's rivals who were well educated and smooth. Washington wasn't educated and he was overly impressed by people who were.

Thomas Jefferson -- Procrastination on freeing his slaves. He believed that if an individual freed his slaves, it took pressure off the public to free all slaves. As President, he abolished the slave trade with Africa, but the practice only grew as slave owners became slave breeders. Over time, he saw that he was wrong not to have led the way.

Alexander Hamilton -- A stormy private life. He comes as close to Clinton as any president -- he was a brilliant womanizer whose accomplishments were almost overshadowed by his misdeeds. He founded the Treasury, he invented the American corporation, he invented Wall Street, he invented the American system of banking, but he got himself shot in a duel because he went around insulting people. By the time Aaron Burr shot him there were about 20 other people lined up behind him.


In a Northern Spring

The chorus line of crabapple trees

so bare just now

in the taut season of skin and bone

stand with upturned limbs

like Cretan priestesses on the point

of beginning the ritual.

They pray the clouds to come, as drops darken

their splitting bark.

Only the form, an attitude toward sky,

reminds us of some absent

rite of fruit, or leaves or fourteen days

drenched in blossoms' incense.

First inwardly we clothe them with memory's detailed faith

in an old promise,

then watch them stand to be healed by sacred rain

that cannot stop kissing.

  - Nancy Nahra
Reprinted with permission of Nancy Nahra

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