Remembering C. Homer Bast
Paul Dellinger '60, pays tribute to his former professor.
This article was featured in the Roanoke Magazine, Issue 2, 2013. The full issue can be seen here.
By Paul Dellinger '60
The tributes I've seen to the late Homer Bast focus on his accomplishments as coach for a quarter century of Roanoke College's track and field team. Team members included my classmate, Dick Emberger, who went on to compete in the decathlon in the 1964 Olympic Games.
All that praise of Bast is assuredly deserved, but my own memories of him are the two semesters I spent in his world history class during my freshman year.
Bast seemed to tower at the front of that classroom, his lectures supplementing the material in each semester's "Civilization Past and Present," each volume more than 600 pages of densely-packed material. (They are among the few college textbooks I've kept all these years, not least because of their association with their teacher.) His lectures were never calm or placid. I still picture him slamming a fist into his palm to emphasize the point he was making.
To this day, I can recall his comparisons of the various theories of history: the "Great Man" school associated with Thomas Carlyle, in which great leaders are seen as the most influential factors; the economic determinism of Karl Marx, where economic factors are supposedly key; the seasonal theory associated with Otto Spengler, where empires and nations go from powerful springs and summers to fading falls and winters.
But the one lecture Bast seemed to favor was the "challenge and response" theory of Arnold Toynbee, who contended that great civilizations arose in response to special difficulties that called for unprecedented efforts. And that was also what he called for from his students. "Lose yourself in something greater than yourself," he would say. "You must evolve."
That last phrase echoed through our Wells Hall dorm frequently, a joking reference on the surface (we sophisticated college guys hated to appear too serious) but one that had obviously been embedded and which has stuck with me, and the other students who repeated it, I'm sure, over the years. I cannot imagine how many times my first-year roommate and I called up those words as the denouement of whatever conversation we might be having.
I did not know at the time that Bast had served in the Navy during World War II and in Korea, or that a recall to the service interrupted his career at Roanoke College and that he ended up as a lieutenant commander. When he returned, he served as an associate professor until 1959, and it would have been during that period that I was fortunate enough to have him as a history teacher.
I seem to remember knowing somehow that he had served the College in many other capacities. I did not know specifics then - coach, registrar, admissions director, teacher and more, but I did have the impression that he was something of a legend on campus, even then.
And you couldn't put anything over on him. One day, as we were leaving for our next class, Bast casually asked a student walking beside me why he had not been keeping up with his textbook readings.
The student tried to protest that indeed he had, but Bast merely pointed to the uniform whiteness of the pages of the closed book the student clutched and said that obviously he had not. Astonished, I looked at my own textbook and, sure enough, as far as I had read in it and fingered its rather thin pages, there was a grayness that stood out in contrast to the pristine whiteness of the pages that had not yet been fingered.
It was probably Bast who first showed me, through a comment in one of his lectures, that it was no sin to write in a book. In fact, it was a good idea, a way to emphasize important points and add other information to them. It actually increased the value of those textbooks as learning tools.
Those penciled-in marks on those pages are still legible today, after all this time.
Paul Dellinger is a former reporter for The Roanoke Times. He lives in Wytheville.