Professor and Friendby Jon Graf ’96 • February 1, 2006
It is difficult to reduce to words the life of such a remarkable man as Professor Peteris M. Silins. From knowing Professor Silins and reading his obituary, it is evident to all gathered here today that he was a man of distinction, both personally and professionally. Spending a substantial portion of his youth in Soviet-controlled Latvia and later war-ravaged Germany, Professor Silins endured hardships that most of us cannot fathom. Yet he persevered through these and other challenges to emigrate to the United States, where he would continue his amazing life journey that eventually led him to a storied thirty-seven-year teaching career at Wabash College.
I could continue at length about Professor Silins’ numerous accomplishments, but I choose instead to portray him as he was viewed by generations of Wabash men. There is a brick in the alumni terrace that reads "Peteris M. Silins, Professor and Friend." This phrase, in my opinion, epitomizes what Professor Silins was to me and so many other Wabash students.
Ironically, my initial contact with Professor Silins did not bode well for a passing grade in beginning Russian, let alone a warm friendship. Prior to matriculating at Wabash in1992, I, the then starry eyed, enthusiastic freshman-to-be, decided that I would try my hand at Russian that fall. I also figured that summer break would be an opportune time to try and get a "leg up" on this new and mysterious language. So I called Professor Silins and inquired what I might do over the summer to prepare for his course. In one of the most incredulous voices that I’ve ever heard, Professor Silins assured me that we would be starting from scratch and that any such preparation on my part was ill-advised.
Years later the good professor told me how that telephone call had put me on his radar screen as a real "Streber," a German word which literally translates as "one who strives," but which carried the connotation of a brown-noser, or worse, in Professor Silins’ mind.
But when fall arrived, Professor Silins graciously held my hand through the challenges of beginning Russian. Before long it was time for our first quiz, and Professor Silins admonished the class to mind the accent marks in the vocabulary. I thought that I was taking to the language fine and I knew that accent marks were not incorporated in standard written Russian, so I foolishly chose not to heed his admonishment. Much to my chagrin, I received a D minus on the quiz, below which was written, "You can do better." At that point I realized that Professor Silins expected much better work from me, but also that he was confident that I could produce such work. This lesson served me well not only throughout my Russian courses, but also my entire Wabash career.
And while I would never again receive such a poor grade from Professor Silins, I was, on more than one occasion, the recipient of what I term his "benevolent humiliation." Instead of simply correcting students on pronunciation or grammar, Professor Silins found it more effective (and enjoyable) to inform the violating parties, in no uncertain terms, that theirs was not merely a venial linguistic sin. One of his better-known responses to such transgressions was, "Don’t do it to me, don’t do it to yourself, and damnit, man, don’t do it to the Russian language!"
My favorite example of his "benevolent humiliation" was stopping by his office in the Chapel basement one day while he was away. I hurriedly scribbled him a note in Russian, thinking that he would appreciate my employment of the Russian language outside of the classroom. Shortly thereafter Professor Silins asked me if I had left a message on his desk. As soon as I replied that I had, I could tell from that familiar look in his eyes that I had it coming.
With his unmistakable smile, Professor Silins told me that he thought that a Russian illiterate had stumbled into his office and jotted down some nonsense. He was particularly disturbed by the way I had crafted the Russian character for "B," saying that it reminded him of a "pregnant six." From then on he affectionately referred to me as "Pregnant Six," or "P-6" for short.
While Professor Silins served up his "benevolent humiliation" in jest, it served to reiterate the earnestness that he associated with learning languages. Nothing would raise his hackles more than to have one of his academic advisees declare a chemistry or economics major, then nonchalantly mention that he would "pick up" Russian or German as an elective. The professor’s response was always the same: a cigarette but is something that is picked up, not a foreign language.
Beyond learning Russian in the classroom, Professor Silins was the greatest influence behind my participation in an intensive Russian language program at Beloit College, as well as my semester abroad in Krasnodar, Russia, during my junior year. And while I may have forgotten certain case endings or verb conjugations, I will never unlearn the life lessons of sharing a humble apartment with a poor Russian grandmother and her grandson, neither of whom spoke English. To this day I credit my ability to appreciate different cultures and interact with diverse peoples in large part to this experience. Indeed, Professor Silins opened the eyes on many young men to the world outside of Wabash. We thank you, Professor Silins.
But as I noted earlier, Professor Silins was not just a professor, but a friend. This became apparent to me one day when he introduced me to one of his acquaintances as "a student and friend." In retrospect, however, we had been enjoying each other’s friendship long before this formal declaration.
I can recall numerous occasions when Professor Silins invited me to his home for lunch. The professor and I would sit in the family room and discuss a variety of topics, while mouth-watering smells emanated from the kitchen where his dear wife, Regina, was preparing some delicious Latvian fare. When the meal was ready she would quietly walk into the family room and usher us into the kitchen. It was always a treat, and I filled my plate with gusto, well aware of Regina’s belief that, "If you don’t eat, it means you don’t love us."
Almost invariably these lunches lingered on for hours, sometimes well into the evening, with the professor chatting away and Regina and I listening dutifully. Despite the long hours that we spent together at the kitchen table, the time always seemed to pass quickly. I enjoyed the professor’s stories and I felt so welcome at the Silins’ home. These episodes provided me with a source of tremendous comfort and strength throughout my time at Wabash, when I faced certain academic and personal struggles. I cannot overstate my sense of reassurance in knowing that I truly had a home away from home at 5 Country Club Terrace. I also know that I was but one of the Wabash students to whom the Silins so warmly opened their home.
When I graduated from Wabash and settled back in Indianapolis, I was not able to visit with the Silins as regularly, but our friendship continued to flourish. At some point the Silins befriended my parents, who were deeply grateful for their solicitude toward me as a student. From then there were numerous visits at my parents’ home in Indianapolis and familiar gatherings at the Silins’ in Crawfordsville. And the Silins were also there during some of life’s more memorable moments, offering their love, support, and encouragement at my law school graduation and my grandmother’s funeral. It’s hardly surprising then that I came to know Professor Silins and his wife affectionately as Uncle Pete and Aunt Regina.
And as my friendship with Professor Silins deepened, so too did my admiration for him. Behind what many perceived as a sometimes-gruff exterior resided a caring, thoughtful, and gentle human being. Aside from being a polyglot extraordinaire, switching effortlessly between Latvian, German, Russian, and English, Professor Silins was a shining example of the American success story, an immigrant who had witnessed and survived the horrors of brutal Soviet and Nazi regimes. As such, his appreciation of life in the United States was unabashedly sincere.
Nor did Professor Silins ignore those in need, sending care packages to deserving family and friends in Latvia regularly. He stood as a steadfast symbol of love and support throughout his dear wife Regina’s courageous battle with cancer. And without fail, many a stray dog and cat found an abundance of food and love at the Silins home. Professor Silins’ life, on so many levels, is worthy of emulation.
Yet I would be extremely remiss if I did not mention another way in which the good professor touched us so deeply: with his stories and his laughter.
As many of you know, Professor Silins was rarely at a loss for words. This trait earned him the well-deserved moniker of "Chatty Chucky" from the nurses who cared for him at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis. Professor Silins was by all accounts a character who could spin a mean yarn, sometimes serious and informative, but more often than not humorous.
One of the professor’s favorite stories and proudest accomplishments was how he earned the coveted title of faculty chess champion during the much-vaunted German Club "beer blasts." He attributed his success in these contests not so much to his analytical skills, but rather to his ability to differentiate between the king and the queen as the evening wore on and the beer continued to flow. The amusement with which he related this and other stories was entertainment of itself, and they invariably culminated in a brisk knee slap and a hearty, contagious laugh.
I recall another occasion when Professor Silins was holding court at his kitchen table, enthusiastically relaying one story after another. At one point Regina politely interrupted and suggested that perhaps people were tiring of hearing the same stories over and over. The professor replied that if anyone did not want to hear his stories, they should simply raise their hands. Returning his attention to me, Professor Silins continued where he had left off, when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I turned to find Regina slowly raising her hand and casting him an impish grin.
But I think that none of us here today will raise our hands in our minds when we recall Professor Silins’ stories, antics, and life. As we mourn his passing today, it is undeniable that our tremendous loss is equaled only by heaven’s gain. I am strangely aware that Professor Silins is tickled to be conjugating Russian verbs and discussing linguistic nuances with God and the other divine inhabitants. I also have no doubt that as he observes us now he is gently chastising us, "Please, spare me the long faces; you have no idea how I’m enjoying catching up with Regina!"
With that I bid him do svidaniya, auf Wiedersehen, and so long. Till we meet again, may you rest in peace, Peteris M. Silins.
You were some Little Giant, some professor, and some friend.