It is traditional for “the priest of Apollo,” the Greek god of prophecy, to appear at the University of Illinois each Thursday before a home football game. He is of course expected to forecast nothing but victory. So, prior to the recent Homecoming Weekend, a vision in toga and cape arrived in a “chariot” carried by bare-legged fraternity boys.
“Apollo predicts, Apollo predicts,” he shouted to a thousand bemused students on the campus at Champaign-Urbana. “This weekend 300 freshmen will go home because that’s what they think Homecoming is.” Laughter. Then: “The entire fourth quarter of the game will be canceled and a wet T-shirt contest substituted,” Cheers. But on to important matters. What will be the score? “Oh, oh, oh,” he cries, clutching at his toga and collapsing in a mock swoon. Smart priest. Two days later the Fighting Illini were routed by Michigan State, 59-19.
Oddly enough, the role of the prophet was played not by a sophomore cut-up but by 50-year-old classics Prof. Richard Scanlan. Ordinarily a soft-spoken, mild-mannered fellow who favors bow ties and jeans, the professor recognized long ago that there were certain, uh, tedious stretches in his courses on classical civilization. He decided a few theatrics wouldn’t hurt. A recent lecture on the Roman Forum, for example, was enlivened by a guest appearance of 12 Vestal Virgins—including one white-gowned figure with a mustache. (The campus explanation was that not enough real virgins could be found.) “Where else can you get this kind of show but in Roman Civ?” Scanlan beams.
When he took over the course five years ago, it had 200 students. Two years ago enrollment reached an unmanageable 1,500, and the department was forced to limit registration to 1,030. “It’s the hardest class to get into on campus,” says freshman Aaron Slovin. Adds biology major Debbie Melsop, “You’d never find this many people taking the classics if it weren’t for him.” The chairman of the classics department, David Bright, says flatly of Scanlan, “He’s the most popular teacher on campus.”
Scanlan supervises other courses: beginning and intermediate Latin and two classes designed to build students’ vocabulary through Greek and Latin root words. He deals with his huge enrollments through a computer—nicknamed “Plato”—that can instruct 1,000 students at small consoles simultaneously. Those who answer Scanlan’s programmed questions correctly receive electronic praise like “On the money” or “Platitudinously correct.”
The Minneapolis-born Scanlan credits his own interest in the classics to an inspiring high school teacher and to the U.S. Army, which stationed him near the Italian art capital of Florence. He graduated from the University of Minnesota, married his high school sweetheart and settled down to teach in a Minneapolis suburb. Before moving on to Illinois, Scanlan had won awards from Yale and the American Classical League for promoting Latin studies at the secondary level.
The Scanlans live now in a white colonial house three miles off campus, and the professor jogs each morning before pedaling off to work on his bicycle—even in blizzards. He and his wife have five children, three of whom have taken his classics course. Though the kids have watched Dad perform close-up, they remain puzzled by what transforms this scholar into a classroom ham. “He goes wild,” marvels daughter Susan, 22, a senior majoring in deaf education. “You can tell he just loves teaching.” Son John, 23, a recent graduate, paid his father the ultimate campus compliment: “It’s the one class I didn’t skip all semester.”