Guest Writers

Read The Books by Steve Hess #twits

Steven Hess

My guest writer today is Steven Hess. Born in Amsterdam, Holland in 1938, Steven spent his childhood years under Nazi occupation. He and his family, including his parents and twin sister, lived in both the Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps during 1942-1945. The family immigrated to the United States on January 1, 1947.

A graduate of Columbia College, Steven majored in American History, served with the U.S. Navy for four years (1960-1964) and, after he completed his service, he worked at The New York Times. He eventually bought a small photographic equipment business and grew it into an internationally admired company with over 100 employees.

Steve is a bit of a rabble-rouser. He is a smarty-pants who speaks his mind. I rather love this about him. Let’s be clear; Steve is not a blogger. But over the last year, I learned that Steve writes really well, so I knew I had to get a piece of that action.

Here is his teacher memory.

• • •

It was more than half a century ago.

I was a junior classman at Columbia. How I ever got in with my modest credentials is another story, but I was indeed an Ivy League student. I was also lazy. Today I would be diagnosed as depressed or maybe ADHD, but in the fifties “lazy” pretty much covered it.

I entered Columbia as an engineering student from the prestigious Brooklyn Technical High School but an “F” in freshman calculus suggested a career change. I inventoried my few talents and it came down to a knack for writing.  A switch to a history major seemed a reasonable and safe course of action.

One semester I signed up for Professor Fritz Stern’s European History class.  I needed the class. I was clueless to the fact that Fritz Stern was a preeminent historian with a truly major reputation. There was no Google. How would one know such things?

I slogged along, attending class, listening to lectures but pretty much ignoring the required readings because; well, because I was lazy. And so the semester passed and it was finals time and the thin, stapled, dreaded “blue books” in which you scribbled the answers.  As I said, I wrote well. If not restricted by the need for facts I could often b.s. my way through.  It was a week or so later that papers had been graded. I accepted the marked blue with the usual trepidation of a deficient student and opened it.  There, to my great relief was a “B” and under it the following comment, in red:

Logical exposition. Good conclusions, but you would have done so much better had you read the books.

Relief, tempered by acute embarrassment…but still, mostly relief.

Book by Fritz Stern

Years passed. Many years. I was in my fifties and quite successful in a field that required neither calculus nor an appreciation for historical nuances. But I had also become an avid reader and, as a survivor, a serious scholar of the Holocaust. And so I happened upon Fritz Stern’s magisterial Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History.  I couldn’t put it down.  I underlined and highlighted my way through endless revelations.  And, “fuck!”, I thought. I had been in his class and wasted all of it.

But now there was email and the beginning of search engines and I tracked him down. Thank God, he was still alive and kicking.  I got his address and wrote and told him how much I loved his works and especially Dreams and Delusions. Big fan!

I was too sheepish to mention the blue book, but merely wrote that I had taken his course.

Some days later I received a response:

Mr. Hess:

Delighted to hear you finally read the book.


What class do you wish you could take again — now that you are an adult — because you know you’d appreciate it so much more?

Last week: “A Different Kind of Punishment”

 • • •

If you have writing chops and are interested in submitting a piece of writing for #TWITS: Teachers Who I Think Scored or #TWITS Teachers Who I Think Sucked, write a specific memory about one teacher you had and explain how that person helped you (or really screwed things up for you), as well as the life lesson you took away from the interaction.

Essays should be around 700-800 words.

Interested but have questions? Email me!

My information is under the Contact Me tab.

58 thoughts on “Read The Books by Steve Hess #twits

  1. I really enjoyed school at the time, so I can’t think of a class I’d like to take over, but there are two things I wish I could do over that have to do with my education. I wish I had gone to college. Needless to say, my children have been pounded with the idea that they will go, no matter what…and they are. Two of them are already there, and my third is a senior and preparing her applications.

    The second thing I wish I could do over is that I was invited to a writing seminar at Wheaton College where Madeleine L’Engle would speak. She has always been my writing heroine. I didn’t go. I don’t even remember why. There is just no excuse. Two years later, she had passed away, and my chance to rub shoulders with my writing heroine was gone forever. Dang it. I hate it when we miss an opportunity like that!

    1. I would think that if you are still breathing, there is still time to do all sorts of things….why not throw come courses into the bucket list.

  2. Wow, that’s a story many of us can relate to because we had a class where we didn’t read the book, do the assignment, study hard enough for the test, etc. I love Mr. Hess’ story and I’m glad you shared it. Tx Renee – you know how to pick them.

    1. Betsy, how kind of you. My father was fond of saying (among many sayings of his) that “Youth is wasted on the young, and money on the old” Now that I am old I agree with half of that.

  3. Great story by an excellent writer, but:

    1. How come I got so much grief for being a smart but poor student?

    2. I can’t believe my dad used the “f” word in an essay.


    1. I used the “F” word because I didn’t think my first born would see it. “Busted”
      WTF! You got grief because you were picking up the wrong example from the old man. Love ya!

  4. Would like to retake Spanish, not now but when in college. F’s and D’s and course repeats contributed to my graduating with a mere 2.0. Being from Miami I knew enough casual Spanish and should have conversed with my professors before or after class here and there and probably would have earned a C or a B here and there. Verb conjugations threw me. Besides most history classes required knowing that 800 page text, half a dozen paper backs and term paper research in 15 weeks. We needed 48 hours days. Did pull off a Mr. Hess in one European history class. Did not know much to answer the Napoleon essay, but knew he was defeated at Waterloo June 18, 1815. That got me the A. My birthday is June 18th. No, not 1815, in 1949.

    1. Carl:
      Not too worry. Time is in your favor. Give it a few more years and we will all be speaking Spanish. In time they will argue whether they really need to put English instructions on the back of the Tide box! For Arabic, “Press 2”

    1. Renee:

      How did you sneak in her you lurker you!

      Bottom line, how many of us EVER used calculus or even trigonometry in real life? The hours I wasted trying to master a slide rule; but she was a beaut…Kueffel and Esser, deluxe model…extra fine cursor. The real nerdy kids hung them from their belts in a long leather case.

      But Brooklyn Tech was an all-boys school so the chances of getting laid were slim to none so one could risk being nerdy.

  5. What a great story! If I could do over I would take calculus. My high school math teacher personally and professionally SUCKED, and I made sure he knew how I felt about him by getting “0” on every quiz. It was one of those unfortunate situations that might have drastically changed the course of my life. If it wasn’t for him, I might have actually loved calculus and majored in science in college and gone on to become a rocket scientist.

    1. Rie:

      Skipping calculus is never having to say you’re sorry. My brilliant doc-wife has an advanced math degree from Princeton but it took moi to explain the essentials of profit and loss to her. How’s that for pillow talk?

      I (painfully) remember that first week of College freshman Calculus. The instructor was Chinese and introduced himself as “Mista Wang, not Wong!”
      His accent was so thick you could cut it with chop sticks but the fact was you could not (or I could not) understand him. “Detta Y ovah Detta X” is all I recall. It was a private conversation between him and a couple of geeks in the front row. That man single-handedly frustrated my ambition to perfect the first lunar lander. Damn!

      1. Steve,
        You might not have had luck with calculus, but it seems that you came through it unscathed. You can write, you are a successful businessman, you have a brilliant wife – what else does one need!

        BTW, do you know Lois and Dave Zebelman? If you do, we might have met before.

        1. But of course I know the “Zebs”…longtime great friends (and the ONLY friends who picked me over my “ex” after my divorce). Yes, I believe we might have met at their house. Lois is my favorite cook (after brilliant wife, of course). I am the worst eater (picky) and she knows all my favorites.

          I did in fact come through unscathed (as much as anyone gets through life unscathed). You skipped “health” That one seems to gain in significance as the years roll along.

          You are right. I am grateful for my good fortune and especially for incredibly courageous parents who, against all odds, managed to save a set of young twins from the Nazi killing machine against impossible

          1. What an amazing life you have had! You are right. I did forget “health” and also “good friends,” both of which I hope you will enjoy as long as you live.

            Thank you for sharing your story with us. I hope we will meet again somewhere, sometime, in the near future.

          2. Got an excited phone call from Lois who enjoyed the blog and comments. Meeting them for dinner next week. She sends regards!

            You are across the street from our office at 12 Corners, I gather.

            BTW: I am on the Board of Trustees of the RPO. The new conductor just moved to town from Vienna (how do you spell culture shock?). His lovely wife, Honami, I’m sure would like to connect with the Rochester Japanese community. They have a newborn. Suggestions much appreciated.

          3. Please give my love to Lois and Dave when you see them next week.

            Rochester Japanese Association has a page on Facebook. I am not a member because many of the founding members are closely associated with a Christian church, which I am not comfortable with. But if Honami is interested she should contact Etsuko Goode.

            Please let her know that I would be happy to help her too. You could get my number from either Lois or Renee.

            If your office is at 12 Corners, we might run into each other one of these days.

  6. He’s Dutch, worked for The New York Times, and lived in NYC. I feel like I should know him! I loved his piece. I slept through an astronomy class in college (o.k., wrote notes back in forth with a charming guy next to me) taught by a man named Anthony Aveni. I found out later that he had been voted 1982 National Professor of the Year by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, Washington D.C., the highest national award for teaching. He is an interesting guy and kind, to boot! What an idiot I was for zoning out during his class.

    1. Of course you slept through astronomy class. Everyone does. The room is pitch black and over-heated and the ceiling is twinkling. And anyway, there’s an app for that. My iPhone has a built in compass. Who needs the North star anymore?

  7. Great piece!

    In general I wish I had applied myself throughout my school career. How does a kid with a 147 IQ end up with a 2.7 gpa in college? The other thing I wish I was more assertive with my teachers. I caved way too easily. I also would have liked to have had teachers (especially history teachers) who didn’t sugar coat things. I can’t stand that.

  8. Thank you! As I have noted, the learning thing doesn’t stop until dementia hits. College comes too early for a lot of us. It would work better if we worked a couple of years (or served in the military, even better) and then started studies. But guess what? You still have the 147 points in your skull and that’s a lifetime advantage

  9. Amazing that he had remembered after all those years. You made an impression!
    I wish I could take French class over. I took it for 4 years only going to the “language lab” twice! We were supposed to go 3 times a week to listen to the tapes and repeat the words…..oooops!

  10. I must admit, this post left me wistfully teary-eyed. I had the very serious distraction of my mother dying while I was in college. There were many books that I didn’t read and many assignments that I half-assed, and yet I managed to graduate with a 3.6 GPA due to my nearly magical bullshitting ability. There is no particular course that I would take over. I would actually go back and change my major to something more interesting and challenging. I majored in elementary education for two reasons: 1. The math was easy. 2. It guaranteed a job upon graduation. Though I had a successful teaching career, I don’t think that I learned too much in college that I didn’t already know, or that couldn’t have figured out on the job.

  11. I know.

    I was really touched by that. It was not that I stood out in any way or had some prominence on campus…he simply remembered. But as I write, I recall that he took special interest in the fact that I was a Holocaust survivor.
    It was one of his great interests and I guess the lab professor remembered the unique rat that was me. That must have been it.

    1. That reply got interspaced by the touching post from savesprinkles and was meant for susie

      And when it comes to savesprinkles, Oh how I wish I could do it all over again. For one thing I never would have signed up for calculus 🙂

  12. Loved this story – something we can all relate to. I wish I could take all my college classes again. I worked 40 hrs a week and atteneded college full time, so I’m not sure I was ever 100% present. I loved humanities and wish i could remember what museums held specific famous pieces of art – or at least had my notes.

  13. You are not lazy. You have an extra “go” in “gojulesgo” A lazy person like me would have settled for one “go” and gone off for a nap.

    gosteve_ _

  14. Oh, how I love that conclusion! (The rest of the entry, too!)

    Unfortunately, the answer to the concluding question is: almost every single class I took. I often wish I could go back and see classes as a learning opportunity instead of an end grade I had to achieve.

    Perhaps it’d be better, this being so, to say that one class I don’t have regret for is one on Judaism in America. A good portion of the class was spent discussing Barbara Myerhoff’s Number Our Days. I was utterly and completely captivated, so much so that my mom found a Myerhoff book in German (which I was then studying) at a garage sale and said, “I thought you’d want this, with how much you love that class and all.”

    I’ve had to part ways with most my books over the years, but that book will be with me as long as there’s a “me” to be with.

    1. Deborah: My Kindle is loaded for the next two years but there’s always room for one more. Will look up Ms. Myerhoff’s book…in English, of course.

      My parents were German and so I took German at Columbia motivated by my studious pursuit of learning (see original essay, above) and oh, of course, thinking it would be a no-brainer because I already knew a lot of it. No one had warned me that German grammar is a cruelty surpassed only by the atrocities of the Third Reich.

      1. Steve: What are you doing to me? Are you against end punctuation? I go and teach my class and I come home to no end punctuation? Oy. 😉 Great comments, though.

        Still, I think we need to discuss commas and semi-colons.

        And, for the love of Pete, how about a period now and then?

        *Waits for snarky response about periods*

        1. No snarky response. Have been warned by wise son. Just sloppy. Closely related to lazy.

          (Why are you ragging on me….)

          1. You are such a sweetheart. Don’t worry about Michael. He knows my Will is done in pencil and I always carry an eraser (genuine Eberhard Faber). Today’s challenge is figuring out how you insert that funny mark over that “e” in your name.

          2. What’s that movie where the kid inherits the wrist watch that had been hidden by his father in his sigmoid colon while the dad had been a prisoner of the Viet Cong? But it’s a nice Bulova and it still works. You will want a new wrist band. Walmart has some cheap ones.

            Love Dad

  15. Pam: I am with you on that. Would love to take my Humanities courses again and really appreciate them. Homer, you ROCK!

  16. Thank you, JM.!

    Apologies to all.

    I wince at all my typos, which I could not correct. As Renee mentioned, I am not a blogger and even less of a typist. Sorry! But I was a whiz at repacking the front wheel bearings on a 1964 Volkswagen recently.

  17. Steve, loved your post. I must confess, I was a slacker. I had no direction other than I was told to go to school. Which course would I take over? All of them! Okay, not all. There were some great teachers that knew how to get me involved and keep my attention. Too often, I figured out what the minimum requirement was and managed to just get by. I’ve since learned (the hard way) from (too many) mistakes and always reading, reading, reading and more reading. Fortunately, I love to read. (Though I still suffer from the male trait of ‘open box – try to make it work – read instructions as last resort’ syndrome.)

    1. Thank you, Brian

      I think there are more of “us” than one might think. We eventually figure it out and get it right. Like you, I love to read, too. Not always “deep shit,” often just a good thriller from Daniel Silva or (better) Allen Furst. Maybe for many of us college just plants a seed that takes an unknown time to germinate, but germinate it will.

  18. Steve –

    This is an amazing story…I find myself imagining all that I may have “missed” in my youth because I might have been a bit “lazy” myself.

    And yet. I’d suggest you learned more than you think from this man; the least of which is the value of reading the book.

    Still, the fact that he remembered you and responded made my heart swell again over the value of a good teacher. Priceless.

    Renee – Thanks for sharing these words of a “non-blogger” – I’d give Steve’s blue book an A for sure.

  19. Julie

    What a nice note. And of course you are right.

    I don’t think I have ever gotten an “A” before. Since you are in a clearly generous mood, what’s the chance of stretch to an “A+”…and make it retroactive to my college years? You will have changed my life from the sixties going forward.

    Maybe Susan Migden (Barnard freshman queen, 1956), will rethink her heartless “No” to my pleading for a date. Or not :(. I used to tempt her with date bread and cheese sandwiches at the corner Chock-full O’Nuts on 116th Street. What a waste of what little money I had.

    Screw it, she would be 72 or 73 by now. I have lost interest.

  20. Great post, fun story… great comments. I can’t think of too many classes I’d actually want to take over because I too am very lazy. I started college right after “Animal House” came out, and I sometimes think it set the tone.

    I may have “resembled that comment” when the Dean told Flounder, “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, boy.” Well, at least I wasn’t fat….. then.

    I will “proudly” tell people that, if I did at 90% of the homework, I got an A in the class… but my GPA was around 2.6. The one class where I had a rather notable professor turned out to be differential equations, which I hated with a passion. The lousy textbook had only 1 example for each problem type…. On one occasion during my 2nd stab at the class, I was trying to figure out a problem and noticed where the text said “For more difficult problems of this variety, see….” a book written by my professor.

    If I was doing it over, I’d take more music, keep the math and skip the engineering idea altogether….. And, staying sober would’ve probably helped.

    1. Hi RV:

      Nice to met you! It is amazing how movies can influence our lives. Did you ever do the zit thing? You know, squeeze your face in the middle of a fraternity and just let everything come flying out? I’ve always wanted to do that. And I’m a girl.

      I wonder if Animal House was to your college experience what Meatballs was to my summer camp experience. 😉

    2. But somehow we all make it. Isn’t life great? I was a “commuter” and lived at home so my college years were destined to be sober and they sure were. I didn’t even know what “grass” was, but in those days there was so much less of it; at least on the surface. I loved “Animal House” but Columbia was a serious school until the lefties and hate-America crowd took over during the Vietnam years and remained ever since…IMHO

  21. I loved reading this, thanks for sharing it Steve! Unfortunately I can’t think of a tale to share at this particular moment, but I CAN help with the ‘é’ in Renée!

    You have two options Steve – either copy it from Renée’s name and delete the bits you don’t need (if you copy her name from a post you’ll no doubt get the whole lot because it’s hyperlinked) or you can hold down your right ALT key and use the numeric keypad (also on the right – on conventional keyboards) to type the number 130. When you let go of the ALT key, the é will appear!

    Man, what kind of nerd am I?!

    1. Christian, my techno-pal (and blog-reading-straggler). What is it about “lazy” that you don’t understand? You expect me to master all that? I can’t even find my friggin car keys most days.

      Here is my suggestion: Renee, what’s with the fancy name? Drop the thingamajig over the “e” already

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