Otto Bird

My colleague Otto Bird died a few weeks ago just four days shy of his ninety-sixth birthday. Otto came to Notre Dame in 1950 to inaugurate and act as first director of the Program for Liberal Studies, a great books program that owed much to similar efforts at St. John’s College and the University of Chicago, whence Otto came. The original idea was that the program would be a yeast that would eventually transform the whole college of Arts and Letters into its image. This didn’t happen, but the program was hugely successful. For over half a century, under the direct and indirect guidance of Otto Bird, tutors and students became immersed in the great classics of western culture.

There are of course two schools of thought on general as opposed to specialized education. The mark of the latter is a major subject with other courses chosen to bolster it. By contrast, an education based on the great books has a random look; worse, it can seem to put a premium on airy generalizations. The only way to resolve the dispute is mano a mano, comparing products of the two approaches. Otto, say, and the average chaired professor today.

Otto studied under Étienne Gilson at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto. His dissertation dealt with the Provençal poets who had been such an influence on Dante. At the time, Ezra Pound had developed a proprietary air toward Provençal poetry and Otto entered into a lengthy correspondence with the fiery poet. Later Otto told me that Étienne Gilson had stated as the aim of the Institute to prepare scholars who could read Dante intelligently. Since Dante is a compendium of the middle ages, bringing together its theology and philosophy as well as its poetry, liturgy and music, this was more that a well-turned phrase.

Otto was both patriarch and paterfamilias, leaving behind four generations whose members seem to have a knack for choosing walks of life somewhat off the beaten path. It is as if, as a family, they were freed from the dominant banalities about success in life. Unlike most academics, Otto did not saunter about with a metaphorical sign board advertising his publications. One often came upon them by surprise in the library, His writings ranged over logic, political philosophy, American literature, Dante, medieval architecture, the liberal arts. For many years, as editor of the Encyclopedia Brittanica Yearbook, Otto wrote an annual essay for the Yearbook on one or the other of the great books – a comprehensive essay on the Divine Comedy, on the Summa Theologiae, on Don Quijote. . . .

In later years, Otto would lunch weekly with the artist Bob Leader at the University Club. They began with executive martinis and continued in a leisurely fashion. After a time, they invited me to join them and thus it was that, after Bob’s death, it was Otto and I who occupied the legendary table where for an hour and a half I was the beneficiary of some of the most learned conversation on campus. Sometimes it was a new book he was reading, more often an old one. Sometimes it was a favorite like Hawthorne.

There was little gossip, alas. Otto’s gossip gland was underdeveloped, mastered I think by his charity. During these lunches, a thought grew on me that had been forming over many years. I came to see that Otto Bird was what the rest of us had dreamt of becoming when we entered the academic life. He had its virtues without its vices. Its great goal, the love of wisdom, was his own. Nowadays the university is floundering, wondering what a Catholic university is, and what makes a Catholic scholar. With the vast treasure of past professors like Otto Bird to draw upon for inspiration this question seems willfully blind.

One day when we sat down to lunch Otto plunked a large package before me. I unwrapped it with mixed feelings. It seemed a heightened moment. Inside was an ancient leather bound book on a fly leaf of which was written “Benjm Webb, M. A., February, 1853.” The book itself had been printed in Antwerp, anno MDCI. That placed it almost in the first generation of printing. And what did it contain? D. Thomae Aquinatis ordinis Praedicatorum …doctimissima in omnes S. Paul Episolas commentaria. Here were the commentaries Thomas Aquinas had written on each of St. Paul’s epistles.

I was overwhelmed. There are gifts and gifts, but this was sui generis. Otto was bequeathing me an old friend. Of course, we were both Thomists; Thomas was our mentor and model, the kind of man we wanted to be. The last time I saw Otto he was on his death bed; on the table beside him was the relevant volume of the Liturgia Horarum and of course his rosary. If anyone should ask what made the Thomistic Revival of the second and third quarters of the twentieth century work, I would point to Otto Bird.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.