Professor shares passion

Dr. Robert Forman is in his office in St. Augustine Hall. The professor of the Classics is a small, 62-year-old man in a small, 45-year-old room on the southern wing of St. John’s University’s library.

His office is decorated as eclectically as it is neatly.
A small bust of Homer sits dead center atop a bookshelf, while the blind Greek’s epic, The Iliad, is unopened on his desk.

On one wall hangs an unframed abstract painting that Forman saved from a dumpster behind St. John Hall ten years ago.
An unsigned painting of the Blessed Mary with child hangs on another. Near a single window, a dictionary is open to a page somewhere in the F’s.

His above-average intelligence is obvious, not just from his room’s décor, but from the quiet confidence that graces his every word.

He speaks slowly, and with a sagacity that would rival the world’s wisest men. Though, the professor remains incredibly humble.

“I probably won’t say anything profound,” he warns from behind his desk.

But it doesn’t take very long before he has done just that. “I have a theory that I like to tell my students,” he said.

“Time is not only relative, but it moves in gyres; in sort of stream-like fashion. It’s infinitely extendable and infinitely contractible.

“I ask my students to recall a time that seemed as though five minutes took five hours and another time that it seemed that five hours took five minutes. It seems as though time and history are like that.”

Forman offers, as evidence, the striking similarity in the faces of Vespasian, the brutal Roman emperor infamous for lighting the Appian Way with crucified, burning Christians, and President Lyndon Johnson, a man who Forman says he’s never forgiven for continuing the slaughter of the Vietnam War.

“Even though we are not talking about identical likeness, you have a feeling that you’ve seen this sort of thing before,” he said.

“I think it probably takes living for about half a century and then you begin to see likenesses in everything. History itself becomes one big vegetable soup.”

It may be Forman’s life itself that works as his best evidence of time’s spiraling nature. He’s a man that has called the same Jamaica, Queens house his home for his entire life.

A self-described, “hopeless romantic” for New York City, his passion for the city has been a lifelong constant.

He recalls his mother’s eagerness for her young son who loved reading to go beyond the books and venture out into the metropolis of information that New York is.

When he was 12, she gave him a subway token and pushed him out the door. He began taking regular, exploratory trips into Manhattan and by high school he was a regular at the Metropolitan Opera House.

“I used to like opera the way most young men liked baseball,” he said.

“I’d literally follow all the singers who were singing, and all the oratory, and God knows what else.”

Forman has been at St. John’s for 45 years. The building that houses his office now was brand new in 1964, the very same year that he began his studies at St. John’s as an undergraduate.

He graduated in 1968 with a degree in the Classics and by 1970 he earned his Masters from New York University in the same discipline.

Soon after he was hired by Dr. Jack Franzetti, a man who has since become his friend, as a professor at St. John’s and has been there ever since. (By 1973, he had earned his Ph.D. in the Classics, also from NYU).

“It’s a very strange thing,” he said. “In many ways, I’ve known St. John’s better than I’ve known my own father.”

And though Forman remembers St. John’s as a very different university in 1968 (it was a much smaller school of just 8,000 students who were almost entirely white Catholics), he sees major similarities in the students themselves.

In the year of Forman’s graduation, St. John’s was home to a group of radical students called the Liberal Students for Democracy (L.S.D.) and the Vincentian yearbook was released with a psychedelic theme.

This radical edge is something that he says has been ever-present in his time at St. John’s.

“The student leaders always have had a kind of push-the-envelope attitude,” he said.

Over his years Forman has taught more classes than “could be counted on four arms and four legs.”

But, his recent energies have been focused on the Honors College program, for which he has served as director for three years.

His passion for New York City no longer takes the shape of adolescent subway token adventures.

Rather it manifests itself in his instruction in the University’s Discover New York program, during which he guides his students on six walking tours of Manhattan neighborhoods during the semester.

And Forman isn’t a stagnant old, intellectual stuck in his ways either.

He appreciates the improvements that the internet has made on classroom instruction and says he now uses a computer in all of his classes. His Discover the World class even comes with a blogging requirement.

“It’s the one thing I do well: teaching,” he said. “It’s the one thing I love more than I’ve ever loved anything.”

I like the whole process of teaching because I feel like I’m so made for it. Sooner or later you feel as though you were made to do something. I was created to teach. I was made for it; I do it so naturally.”

So what possible fear could a man who has found so much success through the gyres of time possibly have?

“I hope I’m not pompous,” he said. “It’s the last thing I want to be and I don’t want to ever have any allusions about myself. I’m not a great mind, I’m certainly not Einstein, I’ve had very few original thoughts, but I think, on the whole, students like me.

“And I think they like me because they know I like them. I’ve rarely encountered a student that I didn’t like and the odd thing is I even like those that do not seem to like me.”