Dr. Catherine Cater REDUX
This past August when I (co-author Mowery) read an announcement in the Fargo Forum concerning the death of Professor Catherine Cater, I instantly recalled my first year at NDSU in the fall of 1962. One of my classes that first quarter was freshman English. I remember walking into class, sitting down and taking note of the surroundings, including the diminutive, proper person standing in the front of the classroom. She was smiling, as she almost always did, which made me suspicious of the nefarious things she might have planned for us hapless freshman! That short, smiling person of course was Dr. Catherine Cater who was about to teach her first class at NDSU (having previously taught at Moorhead State Teachers College). She would become that special teacher I would always remember who inspired and ignited in me a passion for great literature. Though I ultimately became a scientist, I never forgot the introduction she gave me to the liberal arts world---something that I still enjoy and appreciate today.
One of our reading requirements that first quarter was The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer. Not having paid much attention in high school to dead Greeks, I was nonetheless enthralled by Dr. Cater’s presentation of the material. Her voice was soft, her tone leisurely, but I could sense her enthusiasm and love of the subject matter. After the class struggled to answer some of her questions, she advised us to re-read the material, dig in as it were, and try to discern why some of these events occurred and their meaning for our world. I left knowing that this assignment would definitely take away some of my pool-playing time over at the student union. But I would try anyway.
In a later class Dr. Cater sensed we were still having trouble and said that she would therefore take a different approach to the material. She told us that while reading The Iliad the night before in the original Greek, she thought we might benefit by acquiring a better understanding of the etymology of certain Greek words that Homer used. I slumped in my seat - a slight ringing in my ears. Good God! She read it in Greek! I thought that this was an English class. Are we going to have to learn Greek too? She explained the meanings of the words Homer used and taught us about the Trojan War, and the classical Greek and Trojan characters and ancient mythology-and we loved it! Learning from Professor Cater was a pleasure and I left her class with a smile too.
Later I took several courses from her and sat in on several seminars too. She continued to be a fierce advocate for the liberal arts curriculum. In fact, years later I found a quote that epitomized her philosophy: ”…students don’t realize how frequently jobs are enhanced by an understanding of the humanities and social sciences. If those same students realized that they’ll be making decisions throughout their lives based on their abilities to reason and to weigh alternatives, not just the facts of a particular academic discipline…then they’d give more credence to the value of the liberal arts.” (Howard Binford’s Guide, Sep. 1983, p.20)
Other former students have also been similarly affected by her boundless enthusiasm-and humor. For instance one student working on his Masters degree remembered this: “She coached me through my orals when I worked on my Masters in the mid-70s. We used to read poetry together, alternating passages with sometimes comical results. One time she told me that I was her protégé. She probably told everyone that-but she was one of a kind.”
Jerry R. • phone conversation, August 24, 2015
Co-author Bill Wilson also experienced a remarkable characteristic of Dr. Cater during his student days at NDSU. He states that “During one of my years at NDSU (1962-1966) I had signed up for, and was attending, a class in philosophy from Dr. Cater. For whatever reason, right at the beginning of the quarter I did not go to the NDSU Bookstore and purchase the textbook immediately. It was on a Saturday morning at around 8:30 that I remembered Dr. Cater had scheduled a quiz for the following Monday on material in the book. But I did not have the book. I panicked and ran over to the bookstore; all of the texts for Dr. Cater’s class had been sold. I checked the library; the text was not available there either. I decided there was only one course of action left, and so I called Dr. Cater. At her home! I apologized and inquired whether she knew of any other place where I might be able to obtain a text. I pointed out it was my fault and I hoped she would not be unhappy with me. She wasn’t. She asked me if I could be over at Minard Hall in about an hour. I said I could and we hung up.”
“About 50 minutes later I crossed the campus, and as I was about to cross the street in front of Minard Hall, I noted a car coming at a pretty good clip down the street toward me. It turned out to be a taxi, and it stopped abruptly in front of me, right where I was standing on the curb. The passenger rolled down the back window of the cab. The passenger was Dr. Cater who, smiling as usual, reached out and handed me a copy of the book. I thanked her profusely. She continued smiling, wished me adieu and the cab sped off. I stood there stunned looking down first at the book, and then at the cab, growing smaller as it receded in the distance.”
“I never forgot her kindness, but as I became more familiar with Dr. Cater, I also realized that such a favor on her part—arguably undeserved in my case--was classic Dr. Cater!”
In another characteristic instance, Wilson relates the following story: “Another experience concerning Dr. Cater and her influence on my life comes to mind. It happened over 20 years after I had my last class from her at NDSU. In 1984 or thereabouts, at the request of an NDSU instructor, I was delivering a presentation to a crowd of parents and students at a “Career Day” held at NDSU. My presentation was on the value and role that knowledge of the arts, humanities, and social sciences can play in our lives. “
“Finding myself on stage in front of a rather large crowd of parents and young people, I pointed out that the vast majority of us spend our free time involved--in one manner or another--in the arts, humanities, or social sciences. We watch television, we go to movies, listen to music, read books, magazines, and newspapers, we visit art galleries; we use our language in all types of situations, both in speaking and in writing: we ask people for favors, we order foods and clothing, we attempt to convince people to buy from us, sell to us, do favors for us; we even attempt to sing our language. I stressed that all of these activities are enhanced by knowledge of art, drama, music, history, and rhetoric, i.e., language used to convince people to act or think in a certain way.”
“To support my assertion that a knowledge of rhetoric was useful in our daily life, I turned to Aristotle and his Rhetoric. 2000 years ago he maintained that there actually are only three forms of argument: logical, emotional, and ethical. I gave examples of each form. As I did so, I noticed in the audience a familiar smile I immediately recognized, although I had not seen it in two decades. Seated in one of the first few rows was Dr. Cater, in whose class at NDSU I had studied Aristotle’s Rhetoric.”
“At the conclusion of my presentation I hopped down off the stage and approached Dr. Cater. I asked her how I did with my presentation on Aristotle. As I waited for her answer, I was a bit tense, not altogether unlike the time I called her about the needed textbook I had failed to purchase. Without dropping that smile, she said that it was “fine.” And at that point I began to feel fine. No . . . I felt better than fine. After all, it had all come from Dr. Cater.”
Dr. Cater’s 13 year tenure at MSTC began with an opportunity in 1948 to take a one-year replacement position in the English department. The person she replaced, Dr. Clarence Glasrud, was on sabbatical attending Harvard. Dr. Glasrud’s wife Barbara recalls: “My husband and I met her in the summer of 1948 at Kenyon College in Ohio. It was a gathering of English professors from all over the nation to discuss literary criticism. Catherine was quite soft spoken but my husband Clarence who was the chair of the English department at the time at Moorhead State said that she was a ‘great hire and an extremely good teacher.’ He found her extraordinary.”
Barbara Glasrud • phone conversation, September 3, 2015
After more than 50 years in teaching, and having received almost every teaching award and accolade at NDSU, including the establishment of a legendary course ‘Approach to the Humanities” and NDSU’s first humanities major-Miss Cater (as she liked to be addressed in the traditional Southern way)- passed away in July at Bethany Homes in Fargo. A former Moorhead State University student of Miss Cater’s penned these thoughts concerning her passing:
“Not long ago, The Forum made note of the passing of Catherine Cater, age 98. At her request, few details appeared in the obituary, but I feel a few should be added in appreciation of this once-brilliant star in a constellation of great instructors teaching in the 1960s at Moorhead State, where I sought my degree in English. It was she who did most in those early pre-graduate years to teach us how to think. Time after time, her searching questions and perplexing paradoxes presented in the best Socratic style, sent me scurrying to the stacks looking for proofs to support assumptions I thought were valid. Farewell, sweet Kate. Hope to be your student once again … “one fine day … up home.”
Gene P. Pinkney, Wahpeton, N.D. Fargo Forum, Letters, Aug 23, 2015
Ever the teacher, Miss Cater left us with these final, unpretentious words:
“Dear Friends. Please permit me to leave quietly, without ceremony or ado. I thank you for the diverse ways in which each of you has contributed to my happiness and well-being. You have stimulated my thinking, cared about my feelings, and allowed me to be myself. What more can one ask of a life? Thank you. Catherine Cater.” (Fargo Forum, August 1, 2015).
You are welcome “Miss Cater,” we’ve all enjoyed the journey with you as our guide!
Bill Wilson, NDSU Class of ‘66
Garry Mowery, NDSU Class of ‘66