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Voices Spring-Summer 2007:
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Volume 33
Spring-Summer
2007
Voices

The Absentminded Professor: A Case Study of an Academic Legend Cycle by Michael Taft

The absentminded professor is a stock character of academic legendry. In this article, I examine the legend cycle concerning Charles Wayland Lightbody, professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan from 1948 to 1963. He typified the absentminded professor, and the cycle of legends told about him includes widespread, or migratory, legends, as well as stories related to Lightbody’s particular history. Stories of other absentminded professors, recalled as a form of free association by the tellers of Lightbody stories, also contribute to the legend cycle. Added to these narratives are further legends and commentaries that attempt to explain the complex and contradictory nature of Lightbody’s personality. Whatever their form, many of these stories rehearse the themes of anti-intellectualism and mental dysfunction, especially attention deficit disorder (ADD). Taken together, these migratory legends, personal legends, associated legends, commentaries, and themes reveal a legend cycle that is more complex than it first appears.

It goes without saying that a college campus is a community, and that it generates its own traditions. Any folklorist who teaches in academe is aware of this, if not through personal observation, then through the many papers by students that document the folklore of campus life. In the late 1970s, I began teaching folklore at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. I soon became aware of the traditions of the institution, but I never knew about one particular aspect of campus life, until I purposely set out to survey the narrative folklore of the university.

In 1983, the University of Saskatchewan announced a call for projects to celebrate its seventy-fifth anniversary in the coming year. I proposed writing an anecdotal history of the campus (Taft 1984)—that is, I proposed to interview current and former students, faculty, and staff of the university to collect their legends and personal experiences of campus life. My aim was to write a counterstatement to the “serious” history that a distinguished member of the history department was preparing for the anniversary (Hayden 1983), and perhaps indirectly my aim was to present an alternative, folkloristic approach to culture at a time when the discipline of folklore had only the most tenuous hold at the university.

My method was to conduct informal, conversational interviews with members and former members of the academic community, allowing those I interviewed to free associate as much as possible within their anecdotal repertoire about university life. I did, however, have a stock of questions to get the narrative ball rolling or to prod a memory that had temporarily run dry. My questions ranged from, What were your first impressions of the university? to Can you describe the social life that you led? to How did you interact with professors (or students) outside of the classroom? to What were the interactions between the town and the campus? After several interviews, I was able to add other questions that related more directly to the kinds of anecdotes that people were telling me: What do you remember about pranks and practical jokes? rivalries? dances and concerts? the student tradition of the snake dance that wound its way through downtown?

One general question that almost always elicited anecdotes was, What particular campus characters or interesting personalities do you remember? Answers ranged through the usual categories: popular and unpopular professors, campus pranksters, troublesome colleagues, and the like—all of which became prompts I used in subsequent interviews. In many of the interviews, I began to hear stories about an absentminded professor: Charles Lightbody. Of course, I was aware of the absentminded professor stereotype, but only after several interviews did I begin to ask specifically, Do you know any Lightbody stories? I was rarely disappointed (see Taft 1984, 174–90).

Dr. Charles Wayland Lightbody (1904–70) was brought up in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, and taught history at the province’s university from 1948 to 1963. Previously, he had taught at Grinnell College in Iowa and Saint Lawrence University in New York, and he ended his academic career at Brandon University in Manitoba. In most respects, his academic career was typical in terms of qualifications and accomplishments. His lasting legacy on campus was as a local character—more specifically, as a classic absentminded professor.

The absentminded or otherwise distracted professor, as a character of legend, has long roots (see Tucker 2005, 47–8). Plato wrote about Thales of Miletus, philosopher and mathematician, who fell into a well while gazing at the sky. American mathematician Norbert Wiener, a pioneer of cybernetics, was famous for his absentmindedness, among other eccentricities (Jackson 1972). Lightbody was a member of this pantheon and became the subject of a cycle of legends. It would be inaccurate, however, to say that this cycle concerns the single aspect of obliviousness that characterizes absentminded behavior; rather the cycle contains stories that range from migratory legends most associated with this general character trait to stories that relate to Lightbody’s specific personality. In fact, the cycle is multilayered. It is a mixture of legends and personal experience stories about the individual, to which are added other stories by association, as well as stories of explanation and analysis of the individual as a type.

I would like to examine some of these layers through a selection of Lightbody stories. For example, there are a number of migratory legends about absentminded professors and cars. Usually the professor loses his car, forgets what kind of car he has—I use “he” because most stories are about male professors, as Bronner pointed out (1990, 46)—drives off without his passenger, or leaves his passenger in the car for long periods of time. Richard Dorson described this legend complex in American Folklore (1959, 256), while Bruce Jackson related similar tales about Norbert Wiener (1972, 6).

The most common Lightbody story I collected contains these motifs. Retired professor Lorne Paul told me, “He went downtown with his car. And he was going along and a woman was crossing the street. And a bundle fell and broke. So he stepped out of his car and went over, helped her pick up all her groceries. And then caught the bus and went home.” Former student Mildred Kerr’s story is similar: “Have you got the one from Five Corners [an intersection]? Where he was apparently stopped at the light and saw someone struggling across the corner with parcels. Got out of the car to help this woman and continued on walking to the university. Left his car at the intersection.” Aina Kagis, a former student too young to recall Lightbody herself, exaggerated the elements of the tale when she told me:
I think I remember more people who were around in my mother’s time. . . . I don’t even know what he was a professor in, but that’s one of the stories I do remember from [when I was] a kid—about this wonderful professor who was terribly absentminded. He would, you know, drive to Vancouver and then fly home because he forgot he had his car with him, and stuff like that. So they’re kind of legends that live on.
In the same vein, journalist and former student Bill Cameron told me, “I still hear Lightbody stories. Apparently on three occasions, I am told, he went out for the evening with his car. Spent the evening wherever. Came out, went home, left his car behind. Went out next morning. His car wasn’t there, of course, and he reported it stolen.” President of the University of Regina and former University of Saskatchewan student Lloyd Barber recalled:
Well, I remember the library used to be in Qu’Appelle Hall, the men’s residence. And you used to be able to drive around the Bowl. Some friends of mine and I, on a Saturday morning, a cold Saturday morning in November, were walking around the Bowl when Lightbody’s car was parked outside the library. And his young daughter was in it. And she was crying and obviously cold and upset. And her dad had gone into the library to pick up something. We went into the library and found him engrossed, totally oblivious to the fact that he’d left his little daughter out in the car on a cold November day.
There is certainly a process here in which a known absentminded professor—if he did not, in fact, commit certain acts—accrues migratory legends to his particular legend cycle. In effect, the accrual of these legends to the history of Charles Lightbody forms a commentary upon him as an archetypical absentminded professor. By associating these migratory legends with Lightbody, narrators express their understanding of the personality traits that define this type of character.

In addition, these migratory legends express a widespread sentiment in society— namely, anti-intellectualism. Hostility and fear of those who seem overly brainy has generated a body of traditions. Popular culture has been a major purveyor of antiintellectualism through its portrayals of eggheads, mad scientists, and nerds, as well as absentminded professors. The university campus is in a paradoxical way fertile ground for anti-intellectualism. It is a place where students who are less concerned with serious scholarship make fun of “swots”—those more scholarly students—and feel intimidated by intellectually demanding professors, and where professors sometimes chafe against their ivory-tower image and make jokes at the expense of colleagues who seem caricatures of braininess.

Another aspect of this legend cycle is that stories about Lightbody often attract similar stories about other absentminded professors. In the free association of storytelling, those I interviewed would bolster their narrative portrait of Lightbody by telling stories about similar campus characters. For example, former professor Newman Haslam noted:
You’d have to say that Harrington really took the cake because of his absentmindedness. . . . Harrington ran a fairly close second [to Lightbody]. . . . For instance, he would bring his wife up to the university and, at least on one occasion, he asked her to wait in the office while he did something else. Then he went out the back door to where his car was parked and drove away home. Left her sitting there. After a couple of hours she got a little bit worried and phoned home. It was a very—that guy, he wasn’t profane—he wouldn’t say, “Oh, my God,” or anything like that. He’d say some mild expletive: “Did I do that again?” And often he would.
Telling stories about E. L. Harrington, a professor of physics (1920–52) who began his tenure at the university before Lightbody’s, further emphasized the peculiarities of Lightbody by placing him within a special narrative subspecies. Thus, retired professor Leon Katz told me, “Harrington was just as absentminded [as Lightbody]. Oh, yes. You know the story they tell about Lightbody leaving his car, and so on? Well, the same stories were being told about Harrington.”

Beyond the migratory legends associated with the Lightbody corpus, either directly or indirectly, there are a number of stories that seem more specific to Lightbody himself. Bill Cameron remembered:
I’m also told that one rainy day Dr. Lightbody, he apparently had the habit of, quite a bit of the time at any rate, reading a book as he walked down the street. Which is a pretty hazardous pastime, especially if you’re crossing College Drive. But he went out one morning, a rainy day, and already his book was open, and he was reading it as he went out the door. This is the story that is told. It may be apocryphal, I don’t know. And there was an umbrella stand at the front of the door, which contained not only umbrellas but also contained Dr. Lightbody’s cane. And Dr. Lightbody, allegedly, was seen walking down University Drive headed for the campus reading a book in the pouring rain and holding a cane over his head.
Retired professors Ed and Jane Abramson told me the following story:
Ed: Another story is he’s walking down the—he and somebody or other, a young colleague or whatever, are walking downtown from the university, and as they go, the young fellow observes that Lightbody’s beginning to look a little pained, and he begins to limp a little bit. And finally, when they get to their destination in the middle of town, Lightbody says, “You know, I think I really better stop and take off my shoe.” And there was a rock in there that was cutting his foot to pieces. It took a walk of about a mile before he was willing to—
Jane: He was so engrossed in the conversation.
Retired music professor Murray Adaskin recalled a version of the same story:
Did anyone tell you the story of one of his great friends [who] was a lawyer, who was a member of the Board [of Governors] when I was first there? And, oh gosh, a very well-known person. I think he’s still living. One of the old lawyers there.... He and Lightbody were walking down 25th Street Bridge down toward downtown. And Lightbody was limping....And by the time they got to the bottom of the bridge, he was obviously in pain. And this lawyer said to him, “Charles, for heaven’s sake, take off your shoe. You must have a pebble in your shoe,” you see. So he sat down on the curb at the bottom of the bridge and took off his shoe and found that he had a little wire brush—a wire brush—in his shoe. And, of course, he ended up by being on crutches for several weeks. And he [had] just cut his foot completely. I suppose he even had some infection and so on. But that was the kind of person he was.
Combining the motifs of cars and engrossed conversation, former student James McConica wrote:
[Lightbody] had formed the conviction that by driving slowly he could somehow compensate for his random reflexes and acute nearsightedness. When once I met him driving at a snail’s pace along Spadina Crescent, he hailed me and stopped the car without drawing to the curb. As he talked I pointed out that the rear left tire was flat. He acknowledged this with cheerful surprise and waved me in, proposing to look for a garage. While the conversation and the car proceeded at an even slower pace, I noticed with mounting horror that we were moving into a busy intersection at some five or ten miles an hour, and against the red light. He chuckled appreciatively when I managed to break in with this news: “Yes,” he allowed as he pressed on remorselessly, “it is unpropitious.” (McConica 1983, 9)
Given the prevalence of cars in these stories, one might argue that these stories comment upon the lack of practical know-how and everyday knowledge of technology that seems to mark the intellectual as especially feckless. But the stories also present a psychological type, as much as a stereotype. In these accounts, absentmindedness becomes a form of mental dysfunction.

Many of the Lightbody stories that I collected seem to describe symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADD), and the cycle as a whole might be considered a case study of this syndrome. While this syndrome is not universally accepted as a mental disorder and may simply represent a trait of character, it is nevertheless recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. ADD is composed of a number of symptoms, many of which we all suffer from to a greater or lesser degree, but someone with ADD has his or her life defined by these symptoms: daydreaming and forgetfulness, impulsiveness, tardiness, learning disabilities such as dyslexia, manic obsessiveness, high tolerance for chaos, and the special ability to hyperfocus on a specific task or subject (Hallowell and Ratey 1994, 70–106).

When Lightbody was still a child, his singular qualities were noticed by former student Thomas Arnason. He told me, “Oh, yeah. I knew him. The year I was in Yorkton High School he was at varsity then as a student. Yeah, I saw him once out there [in Yorkton] walking abstractly along this broken sidewalk, hitting the fence beside him every other step. I guess he was peculiar right from the start.” His manic obsessiveness is evident in stories of his driving and his intense conversations, while his tendency to hyperfocus surfaces in the story of his reading in the rain. Hyperfocusing and impulsiveness also seem to be the subject of this story, published in the university’s alumni magazine:
He once chanced to meet a reporter he knew, took up with him on the way to his assignment (to cover a dinner talk by a visiting Indonesian ambassador) and—disregarding his destination of minutes ago—went to dinner as an uninvited guest, much interested to hear the ambassador. A couple of hours later, when the reporter had left the premises to write his story, Dr. Lightbody was the center of attention for all those in attendance as he held forth about details of Indonesian history. (Eyre 1983, 9)
In a similar story, Jack Pringle, retired administrator, recalled Lightbody holding forth at a veterans’ meeting, giving minute details on a particular battle. In Pringle’s words, “It would be a circle of ten or twelve officers all standing around there with drinks in their hands just spellbound by Charles’s exposition.” Like many ADD sufferers, Lightbody had the ability to hold an audience through the sheer energy of his obsessive knowledge. One of his students, Marcel de la Gorgendiere, recalled:
I don’t think one wants to leave the impression that he was regarded as a kind of muddled person. He was anything but. He had a wonderful way of starting out on this subject and in a truly admirable way going to other subjects. And it was only after you’d been through the full narrative that you realized that you’d been wandering all over the map. Because there was nothing abrupt about his changes of subject.
Lightbody’s inattention to the details of daily life, combined with his intense attention to one particular historical thread, seems a classic sign of ADD. Jackson noted this trait as common among absentminded professors: “One curious characteristic of the absentminded professor (not just Wiener) is that he is often presented as someone who in a certain area is capable of prodigious feats of mind and memory. It is almost as if his central memory suffered from cataracts, while his peripheral memory was nearly infinite and capable of perfect focus” (1982, 1–2). Former Lightbody student Mildred Kerr captures this ambivalent quality, as well as Lightbody’s high tolerance for chaos, in the description she gave to me:
I felt almost awed at times. This wonderful rolling voice and the memory of details about something like Lichtenstein, you know…. The other thing that always amazed me was that his mind seemed so organized, but personally, he was so disorganized. You know, he would come [to class] and shake an envelope of clippings out on the desk, and that would be his notes. And I, too, remember a taxi driver waiting at the door for a long time before interrupting and asking for his money. One day he came with shaving cream still on one side of [his face]. It was most disconcerting.
As some of these narratives suggest, there is yet another aspect of this legend cycle—analysis of Lightbody’s character. Because he so clearly fit the stereotype of the absentminded professor, as well as a type of ADD sufferer, many narrators felt compelled to speculate on Lightbody’s personality. What made Lightbody tick? An anonymous informant wrote to me:
Charles Lightbody was a most difficult colleague…. He was a strange, brilliant, utterly self-centered man, often completely insensitive to the feelings of others. (Once in a department meeting, he objected to some proposal, referring to [Professors] Jean Murray and Hilda Neatby as “you two spinsters,” and was then puzzled that they were annoyed!) Sooner or later he quarreled with all his friends and became increasingly bitter in his last few years in Saskatoon…. I held out longer than anyone else, but ultimately I, too, failed to keep his confidence and friendship.
A former student, Duff Spafford, told me:
Lightbody had a kind of old-fashioned, optimistic view of history. He really did believe that the world was progressing, in a way. And I remember once going to a movie with a number of students, and Lightbody went along as well. And I think it was La Strada. It was at the Broadway [Theater]. There must have been a film series on, one of the very early film series. Well, I can remember that Lightbody, after that movie—we were all very young and were willing to see points in the rather pessimistic viewpoint that was put across in the movie—but I remember how very disturbing it was to Lightbody. Then we went back to Shirley’s apartment afterwards—there were about a dozen of us—and there was a very animated discussion among the students. But Lightbody was clearly rather disturbed about the whole thing. He didn’t like to see young people discussing such dark and pessimistic things. His world was a world in which there were heroes, and society progressed, and there were virtues to be admired. I saw a side of Lightbody there that I didn’t know before.
But to see that side of Lightbody, there had to be the scaffolding of the legend cycle to show the other sides of the enigmatic man’s personality. Without the core absentminded professor stories in this legend cycle, it is doubtful that the other narratives would have remained in the repertoire of the university community. The entire legend cycle is a complex commentary on anti-intellectualism, eccentricity, mental dysfunction, and one scholar’s puzzling personality.





 









Michael Taft is the head of the archives at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. He has written extensively on Canadian folklore and oral history and has held university positions in Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, North Carolina, and Indiana. He would like to thank Renate Peters, Carolyn Geduld, Libby Tucker, and the University of Saskatchewan Archives for their help, as well as the University of Saskatchewan Office of the President for financing his research. A version of this article was presented at the 2005 annual meeting of the American Folklore Society in Atlanta.



Like many ADD sufferers, Lightbody had the ability to hold an audience through the sheer energy of his obsessive knowledge.



References

Unless otherwise cited, all quotations are from transcriptions of tape-recorded interviews conducted by the author in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario from June to November 1983. The interviews were part of the author’s research for Inside These Greystone Walls: An Anecdotal History of the University of Saskatchewan (1984).

Bronner, Simon J. 1990. Piled Higher and Deeper: The Folklore of Campus Life. Little Rock: August House.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV. 1994. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

Dorson, Richard M. 1959. American Folklore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eyre, Wayne. 1983. Of Monologues and “Stolen” Cars: Other Sides of Charles Lightbody. The Green & White (Summer): 9.

Hallowell, Edward M., and John J. Ratey. 1994. Driven to Distraction. New York: Pantheon.

Hayden, Michael. 1983. Seeking a Balance: The University of Saskatchewan, 1907–1982. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Jackson, Bruce. 1972. “The Greatest Mathematician in the World”: Norbert Wiener Stories. Western Folklore 31:1–22.

McConica, James. 1983. Charles Wayland Lightbody. The Green & White (Summer): 7–9.

Taft, Michael. 1984. Inside These Greystone Walls: An Anecdotal History of the University of Saskatchewan. Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan.

Tucker, Elizabeth. 2005. Campus Legends: A Handbook. Westport: Greenwood.





This article appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Spring-Summer 2007. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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