Tom Riegel died at the age of 94. He was a W&L journalism professor for more than 40 years, an internationally renowned authority on propaganda and film, and a part-time farmer. But beyond that, he was a kind man who questioned authority of all flavors, saw shams and pretense for what they are, and who never lost his great curiosity and sense of humor. He was an investor in this newspaper.
Oscar Wetherhold Riegel, whose friends called him "Tom, "was an inspiration to generations of journalists, film-makers and thinkers. He lived on a farm he called "Gulchleigh" near Glasgow When he died last month, he left a rich legacy.
Since retiring as a journalism professor at Washington and Lee, he had been working on a set of memoirs, called Hacking It, which recall his days of growing up in Reading, Pennsylvania, his days as a young journalist and student in Paris in the 20s, his work for the government as a propaganda analyst during WW II, and his early days at W&L.
Here are some excerpts from his memoirs and other writings.
I enrolled in the course of journalism because I had newspaper experience and could think of no other career in which I could write and get paid for it. Journalism was the least of evils because it was easy and kept my options open. I was in no hurry.
To prepare my mother for my first semester grades, I wrote, "I am at best a black sheep, and I marvel at your patience and sacrifice. Some day, perhaps, shall I not bring back to the nest, if not fame and wealth, at least a rich, full life? Haven't we but one aim, my mother - to grow and help grow?"
As a university professor I was, by conventional definition, an "intellectual," that is, a person of presumed superior intelligence who cooly analyzed and reflected on large subjects and issues without emotional personal bias or prejudice. To define me as an "intellectual" in that sense was a joke. I was, and always had been, an "anti-intellectual" in the sense that my judgments, whatever the appearance of intellectualism in the style of my professional performances, were ultimately determined by my simplistic division of the world into good and evil. Generally speaking, the good, in my view, was everything that enhanced the freedom and dignity of the human spirit. The evil was everything that did the contrary.
The classroom is authoritarian. The relationship between teacher and student is arbitrary and unjust. The teacher stands above rows of docile and deferential students, his grade book in his pocket or on the podium, his authority unchallenged. He is always in danger of being seduced by vanity and delusions of power. Surely students will realize sooner or later that the setting is contrived and the teacher is an actor playing a role. I have never been denounced, thank God, but all my life I have been nervous when I entered a classroom. What teacher with a conscience and a perspective on himself could be otherwise?
Always in the back of my mind lurked the possibility that some day a student would jump to his feet and denounce me as an imposter. What gives you the right to stand there and tell me these things, and why should I have to listen to you?
Cynicism reflected my belief that the motivation of most students was desire for money and status, and that to them the humanities were mostly irrelevant and little more than a traditional rite of passage for the acquisition of a cultural veneer. I also doubted the importance of the college compared with the impact of business, industrial and religious institutions. In a broad view, between colleges and universities on the one hand and, on the other hand, the great commercial, industrial and financial corporations (which gave alms to colleges in return for flattery), which better served the material and emotional needs of people, had more to say in who would win wealth and power, and had greater influence on the course of the nation? The ultimate test of the nation's power was its ability to make war. What had the humanities to contribute to the art of killing?
I had no idea that, because I was going to Paris on that brilliant, exquisite morning in the fall of 1925, I belonged to the Lost Generation. ...
The walk was a long one. Like Rousseau, I stopped to rest, sifting at a sidewalk table of a small cafe and ordering a beer. Like Rousseau, I had a Revelation, but of a different sort.
Two horse-drawn carts stood in tandem at the curb in front of me. I became aware that the penis of the rear horse was extended. As I watched, the shaft, black as a turtle's neck, stretched out incredibly farther and farther until it swung within an inch of the ground. I had never seen a stallion's erection before and I was astounded. Dragging his cart, the stallion began to climb the forward cart to mount the mare, resulting in a dreadful melee of tipping carts, squealing wood and frenzied horses.
A red-faced driver ran out of the cafe. He pulled back the stallion, then turned to me and grumbled, 'What do you expect?"
I expected no less from any creature under the Paris sky, a reflection less Profound than Rousseau's.
When we retired to our vast chamber in our hotel I noticed, high above my wife's bed, a large tarantula clinging to the ceiling, its long, hairy legs raying out in a sinister Corona. A problem. My wife doesn't seem to have noticed. Shall I sound the alarm and have the tarantula removed? If I do, won't my wife have a bad night, haunted by the image of the great spider and of others that doubtless lurked nearby? I turned out the light. I didn't sleep well.
In the morning the tarantula was gone. Several days later my wife told me that she had seen the tarantula but said nothing because I hadn't seemed to have noticed it, and calling it to my attention might have given me a bad night. She hadn't slept well, she confessed.
In my personal vision of the Apocalypse, the people of the world are on their knees in prayer ... praising and imploring an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all loving God, while a nuclear holocaust incinerates them and life disappears from the earth. Until then, I wish for all my believing brothers and sisters that they go and live in peace. I also wish them to show the same respect and tolerance for me, as I am sure that most of them will not.
One night after work, having drunk too much whiskey on Cherry Street, walking it off on the deserted streets, I was overcome by an irresistible desire for sleep. I lay down in the dark vestibule of an apartment house on South Fifth Street, I was awakened by blows on the soles of my shoes.
I looked up at a uniformed patrolman. The face wasn't familiar.
"I'm Tom Riegel of the Tribune," I said, getting up. "I guess I must have dozed off."
"This isn't a good place to sleep," he said. "Don't you think you ought to go home?"
We walked together to the comer chatting amiably. I wondered whether he would have been so gentle if I had been a wino from Shantytown and not a Tribune reporter. And did he know that I was a grandson of Councilman Wetherhold on the Reading City Council?
It occurred to me then, as it has before and since, that my life has been a succession of confrontations with bureaucracies -- and that bureaucracies were organizers of power, and that organized power was by its nature oppressive, and that it was therefore my duty as a free man to regard all organizations -- all bureaucracies -- with mistrust.
My objection [to capital punishment] is that capital punishment legitimizes murder, which is unacceptable in any society that pretends to have risen above savagery ...
Murder is murder. The horror lies in the power of the state, by naked force and self-righteous claims of morality, religion, law, patriotism or racial cleansing, to make its crimes appear honorable. I detest the hypocrisy of those who weep for stray dogs and unwanted fetuses and pray to the Christ of peace and mercy and in the next breath send men to the electric chair and their sons to war. I detest those who pull the switches land fire the rifles and drop the bombs with the excuse that they have a job to do," proving that they are servile hirelings with neither mind nor heart.
To be a true revolutionary you have to have an enthusiasm for a cause greater than yourself, so much enthusiasm that you could work with other revolutionaries and accept the authority of a leader and the discipline of an ideological scripture. That kind of enthusiasm was incomprehensible to me.
During the desegregation crisis in Virginia in the late 1950s, the state offered tuition subsidies to parents who chose to send their children to segregated private schools, including the all-white "Christian" schools that sprang up all over the Commonwealth. We happily took the money to help pay the tuition of two of our children attending private integrated schools in the North.
We were criticized by some for having dishonestly subverted the purpose of the subsidies for personal gain. Actually, we were pleased and proud of having made a contribution to the cause of desegregation. If the legislature was foolish enough to give the subsidies, anything we could add to the burden on the taxpayers would more quickly make them realize the folly of the policy and hasten its demise, which soon occurred.
My habit of facetiousness, which was a stratagem to conceal my shyness, ignorance and emotion, often sounded like sarcasm. Insincere in my public behavior, I doubted the sincerity of others. Cynical about my own intellectualism, I was cynical about all intellectuals.
Did I believe in anything? Of course. I was a passionate believer. I believed in spontaneity, in everything that was naive, artless and disingenuous, the wind, moving water, silence, color and light, animals, desire, sweet and bitter memory, women who laughed naturally, and the candor of innocence. I believed in compassion for the deformed, the crippled and all victims of injustice, who reminded me of my humanity. I believed in myself.
I, Oscar Riegel, being of sound mind and body according to popular notions, and wishing to fling a final, good natured taunt into the inscrutable face of Oblivion, do hereby confess to error and colossal conceit by deposing and setting forth this, my last will and testament.
1) I desire that the payment of all funeral expenses be avoided if possible. For sentimental reasons and the confusion of all undertakers (although I shall not be in a position to enjoy it) I ask that my dust be scattered to the four winds. Let obsequies be limited to this chant:
There is strength in life
And there is strength in dust:
May the heart and brain of Man,
Whose flesh is never still,
Learn to live more gracefully
For having attended the beginning
and the end
Of one amazed, ever-curious guest.