It has been decades but its a good bet that his former students still think of him once in a while. It would be hard not to.
Kester Svensen was the head of the University of Oregon English Department, one of the two most knowledgeable people on the subject of John Milton, the host of a TV show called “The Poet’s Eye,” and the author of “Milton and Science,” a thoroughly incomprehensible book.
There should have been a sign on the door over his classroom reading: “High Scholarship Inside: Enter at Your Own Risk.” Kester had a penetrating stare. I called it “the ray.”
I felt it the first day of class when he announced, “There are two kinds of students who sit in the back row — the very very good and the very very bad.” I was sitting in the back row.
It was all lecture. In rolling cadences of crisp, precise prose, Svensen proved beyond a reasonable doubt why Paradise Lost is the greatest epic poem in the English language. I still remember the day he told us about the “fortunate fall” of Adam and Eve. I sat there in total silence, spellbound, waiting for his next revelation, afraid I might cough.
His grading system went like this: an A in almost any other class on campus would get you a C from Kester. If you got an A from him, it was something to write home about — literally. He liked to show off by reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets. He had memorized all of them. Once when he missed a line, he stopped, smiled slightly, and said: ”You are witnessing the disintegration of a brilliant intellect.”
He got a standing ovation on the last day of class. He never even acknowledged it. With one last condescending look at us, he marched down the aisle, out the door, and the applause played on.
Bob Dietsche is a Manzanita resident. He the author of “Jumptown, the History of Portland Jazz” and “Tatum’s Town, the Early Years of Toledo Jazz.”