Giovanni Costigan

With the arrogance of youth, I concluded that Giovanni Costigan was not on the cutting edge of historical scholarship. I became certain when his English history survey reached a period I had studied closely on my own. He was hopelessly old-fashioned, with his emphasis on the literature of the times and his requirement that we memorize the map of England in detail. His very appearance was a cliche, a wonderfully winning cliche, but a cliche nonetheless: the dark, formal suit; the curly white hair; the courtly gestures; the ancient bicycle; the theatrical, twinkling eyes. And, of course, everyone loved him, especially the non-history majors who had heard that this was a pleasant walk through a required social science. All of this should have prevented him from holding a place in my Pantheon.

But, during the spring of 1970, I was privileged to hear his lectures covering the period of the French Revolution. Our country and campus were awash with ferment in the streets and he delivered a lecture on Louis de Saint-Juste, the youngest member of the Committee of Public Safety. He emphasized that Saint-Juste had been our age and that revolutions properly belong to youth. With the slightest of lilts, Professor Costigan brought the fire of the Jacobins to Smith Hall. He won me over. Currency in French Revolutionary historiography mattered less than such a splendid lecture.

Then, the United States invaded Cambodia. Anti-war marches grew larger. Two buildings were bombed. Classes were a waste of time; some professors cancelled them; the administration authorized universal pass-fail. But we knew that Professor Costigan would continue to teach. There was so much to learn and his classroom remained packed. Then the National Guard shot and killed students at Kent State and Jackson State. At his next class, the bell rang to signal its start and we grew silent. Professor Costigan just looked at us sadly. His glasses with their colorless frames drooped in his hand and he shook his head. He did not approve of cancelling classes, "But," he said slowly, "blood has been shed." We left quietly.

Susan Vercheak, '73, '76
Maplewood, N.J.

I was delighted to read the My Favorite Teacher story in the June issue of Columns because my favorite professor, Giovanni Costigan, was featured. Timothy Egan's story was excellent, but my view of Costigan was many years earlier when he first taught at the UW in 1935-36.

His classes were a joy. He even had open house some evenings for any of us students who cared to come to his home. I remember during this time when Kemal Ataturk was coming to power in Turkey, the class I was in was studying in world history. We were all anxious to hear Costigan's views on the situation.

I took three classes at 9, 10, and 11 a.m. during a quarter from Costigan. It evidently so impressed him that years later when he lectured in Auburn I spoke to him, telling him how much I had enjoyed his classes and was surprised that he remembered me.

Marie Meyer Crew, '37

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