October 13, 1975 12:00 PM

Our television tubes glow with the images of Americans in high places introducing the ideals on which the nation was founded. Newspapers and magazines expose the crooked cop, the venal politician, the industrialist giving bribes, the lunatic with a gun—the appalling flakiness is all around us. Too often forgotten in our dismay are the country’s strengths. One to take pride in is the host of dedicated men and women from grade to graduate school who are America’s teachers. In 3,004 colleges and universities across the land, some 654,000 of them are preparing young Americans for productive and rewarding lives.

As the fall term begins, PEOPLE has singled out 12 professors whom their students and their peers salute for excellence. Overlooked are some of greater fame or scholarly achievement, and countless others as worthy. Differing in age, in experience and in the subjects they teach, the 12 have only this crucial achievement in common: they reach their students. Because of these great teachers, some students’ lives will be forever changed, and all of them will be better.

James Van Allen, Iowa

“Teaching,” says world-renowned physicist Van Allen of the University of Iowa, “is the principal job of the university, and I enjoy doing it.” The 220 students who jam his basic astronomy lectures offer proof of how well the genial, 61-year-old professor performs.

Discoverer of the belt of magnetic radiation encircling the earth which bears his name, Van Allen has turned out 166 astrophysical papers, monitored some 24 unmanned NASA space probes, acquired a dozen honorary degrees, and still manages to keep in touch with his students. After his astronomy lectures, his office is open to any student, no appointment necessary. As head of the physics and astronomy department he also guides the research of 28 doctoral candidates.

Mesmerized by outer space since his student days at little Iowa Wesleyan, Van Allen got his Ph.D. at Iowa, then did further research at Johns Hopkins. In 1951 he settled in Iowa City, where he lives with his wife of 30 years, Abigail, and their five children. For all his research into the cosmos, his favorite hobby is down-to-earth—whipping up waffles on a waffle iron 50 years old.

Mary-Kay Orlandi, California (Santa Cruz)

Mary-Kay Orlandi is a classics professor but hardly Ms. Chips. Orlandi, 33, is likely to show up for her Greek or Latin classes at the University of California at Santa Cruz barefoot, wearing Levi’s and a Mexican peasant shirt. Her lectures—embracing Roman military strategy and Latin pastoral verse, perhaps enlivened by erotic tidbits about Ovid—have helped boost enrollment in the classics by 20 percent since she came to Santa Cruz in 1973, after four years at Boston University. “I feel that I am the custodian of a great treasure,” she says of her specialty.

Born in Massachusetts, Orlandi received her B.A. from Smith in 1963, an M.A. from Harvard in 1964 and a Ph.D. in comparative literature in 1972 from Cal-Berkeley. While a graduate student, she worked nights one summer as a go-go dancer at a San Francisco bar. In 1967, mutatis mutandis, she won a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. There she completed her dissertation, met and married Giuseppe Orlandi, a language teacher. Current project: a book on the Metamorphoses of Ovid, who hymned ladies like Orlandi 2,000 years ago.

Col. Malham Wakin, Air Force Academy

Col. Malham Wakin challenges his Air Force Academy students with a quote from H. G. Wells: “The professional military mind is by necessity an inferior and unimaginative mind.” Wakin, 44, has spent more than 16 years trying to prove Wells wrong. The Academy’s first philosophy professor, he has built a nine-man department that teaches courses in existentialism and Buddhism. (Wakin has also guided five daughters since his wife died in early 1974.)

Reared in Oneonta, N.Y., he graduated from Notre Dame in 1952, then did graduate work in education. He served as a navigator with an air rescue squadron in California before taking his Ph.D. at USC in 1959. Though he did a Vietnam tour in 1968 and wrote a Defense Department handbook—”The Viet Cong Political Infrastructure”—back at the Academy he brought in antiwar advocates as guest lecturers and introduced a course called “Morality of War.” Says an admiring colleague, “Colonel Wakin’s personality and philosophy are summed up in a statement by Socrates: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ ”

Vincent Scully, Yale

Early in his career, according to Yale lore, art historian Vincent Scully got so carried away during a lecture that he fell off the podium, kept talking and scrambled back without missing a beat. The contagious enthusiasm of the 55-year-old Scully’s teaching draws nearly a thousand students each year to his courses in art and architecture. Famous for his passionate delivery (no two lectures are ever the same), Scully sprinkles his rapid-fire narrative with quotations from D. H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov and Oscar Wilde. He gets standing ovations.

A New Haven boy, Scully studied English at Yale on a scholarship, waited on tables, and felt the snubs of the wealthy prep-school undergraduates. After six years in the Marine Corps he returned to Yale, switched to art history and has been starring with slide shows ever since.

Scully has a wife, four children and no hobbies. “No time.” Witty and wry, he led the way at Yale in obtaining the 22-foot phallic sculpture Lipstick by Claes Oldenburg. “The administration,” says Scully with delight, “has always viewed it with suspicion and prurient giggles.”

Bernice Slote, Nebraska

Bernice Slote is a University of Nebraska (Lincoln) English professor, a leading expert on poet John Keats and novelist Willa Cather, and a widely published poet. Despite her own pursuits, Slote, 61, has for 30 years been one of Nebraska’s classroom stars and last spring was voted the school’s distinguished teacher award by a faculty-student panel. “I can talk with students because I am still studying,” she says. “You can’t teach well unless you are learning at the same time.”

Born in Hickman, Nebr., Slote joined the Nebraska faculty in 1946, fresh from graduate school at the University of Michigan. She published a prize-winning book on Keats in 1958, and five years later she succeeded poet Karl Shapiro as editor of the 48-year-old distinguished literary magazine, Prairie Schooner.

While Slote has written widely about Cather, she has yet to begin what may become the definitive biography of the author of O Pioneers! The unmarried professor’s apartment in Lincoln—and the hall outside—is crammed with boxes of books, periodicals and miscellaneous research material on Cather. “I feel as if she is my big sister,” says Professor Slote. “She’s a good companion.”

Bob Slaughter, Southern Methodist

Bob Slaughter, 47, was an architect before he decided to make a career of his avocation, reconstructing ancient beasts like the 75-million-year-old plesiosaurus he is studying above. The broken arm is the result of a fall at home.

In 1962 he became director of SMU’s paleontology lab and soon was recruited to the faculty, even though he had no paleontology-related degrees.

He takes students on digs throughout Texas and every Friday leads brainstorming sessions around Dallas that are celebrated. “Some people call our meetings beer sessions just because we hold them in places that happen to serve beer,” says Slaughter. He has enriched paleontology by the discovery of the earliest, tiniest (pin-head-sized) marsupials and placental animals, developed a “washing” process for soil from digs and written six scientific books. The associate professor’s flamboyance has aroused some faculty criticism—and the intense loyalty of his students. “He’s like a father,” says one. “He’ll stick up for you but he expects performance.”

Cyrus Colter, Northwestern

Cyrus Colter was 63, a lawyer who had never taught, when Northwestern hired him in 1973 as professor of creative writing in the new African-American studies department. Black students were boycotting the department, and Colter remembers how he felt about entering academia: “I was scared.”

Now Colter is chairman of African-American studies and has become ex-officio counselor for the Evanston, Ill. university’s black students—many of whom call him “Dr. Grandfather.”

Son of a Noblesville, Ind. farmer, Colter was the first of his family to go to college, earning his law degree in 1940. After a stint as a Treasury agent and wartime combat in Italy, Colter practiced law for six years. Then, in 1951, Gov. Adlai Stevenson appointed him to the Illinois Commerce Commission, where he served until 1973.

He started writing fiction as a hobby at 50, when his weekend golf game broke up. An award-winning short story collection, The Beach Umbrella, in 1970, and two later novels prompted Northwestern to recruit him. “The students have influenced me tremendously,” he says. “The result has been a sort of mutual resonance that can be expressed as black pride through academic excellence.”

Philip Morrison, MIT

“I teach,” says Professor Morrison, “because I was taught. I feel a sense of obligation.” The 59-year-old theoretical physicist’s enthusiastic lectures to freshmen and doctoral candidates range from the structure of the atom to the nature of the universe.

Not long out of Berkeley with his Ph.D. in 1944, Morrison plunged into the Manhattan atomic bomb project. Since then, he has refused to work on any weapons. “I was all for World War II,” he explains. “Now, it’s a different kettle of fish.” A politically concerned scientist, he disagreed with aspects of student radicalism in the ’60s but calls it “better than silence.”

An author and popularizer of books on science, Morrison is also book editor of Scientific American. His wife, Phylis, to whom he has been married since 1938, helps with the reading chores. Since he arrived at MIT in 1965 after 30 years at Cornell, Morrison has spent half his time in the laboratory and half at the lectern. Observes one admiring student, “A hell of a teacher whose beautiful voice belies a presence so large it could scare you—but it doesn’t.”

Leroy Ostransky, Puget Sound

Leroy Ostransky, 57, is professor of music and composer-in-residence at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. Students know him, however, as the 6’4″, 220-pound “Big Leroy” who can handle a jazz piano, two plates of spaghetti or a discussion of Joe Namath’s quarterbacking with as much authority as he analyzes a Bach fugue.

Ostransky’s speech is still redolent of Brooklyn, where as a boy he practiced the violin in the back room of his father’s saloon. At 12 he performed in Manhattan’s Town Hall and later was a nightclub pianist. After the war he was talked into enrolling at Puget Sound on the G.I. Bill by his wife, Natalie. He has been there ever since, with time out for an M.A. at New York University and a doctorate at Iowa.

Ostransky tells students that great music is “what speaks to a great many people, over a long period of time” and cites two 20th century candidates for classic status: Michelle and Norwegian Wood, both written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

The author of three books, including the definitive Anatomy of Jazz, he has himself composed 100 published musical works. Ostransky’s fourth symphony will be premiered this month by the Seattle Symphony, with a 110-voice chorus. In Tacoma, site of the premiere, it will be “Leroy Ostransky Day.”

James Silver, South Florida

James W. Silver advises history students at the University of South Florida in Tampa, “If you want to change the world, make yourself a specialist and get to work.” He speaks from experience. A transplanted northerner, Silver, now 68, taught for 29 years at the University of Mississippi and in the process became a specialist in the South’s once and future history. He was one of the earliest white faculty members to befriend James Meredith in 1962 when Meredith became the first black student at Ole Miss. In 1964 Silver published Mississippi: The Closed Society, a bitter indictment of the state’s refusal to accept change. The book became a best-seller, but it brought threats against Silver’s job and his life.

Accepting a professor’s post at Notre Dame in 1965, he then moved to South Florida in 1969 for health reasons (emphysema and phlebitis). “When I’m sick,” he says, “the classroom is the one thing that keeps me going.” Students praise his seminars: “He might disagree with you, and he’ll tell you why—no bones. But he’s not closed-minded.” Next summer Silver’s son Bill, who quit a Wall Street firm to become a public defender, will start teaching—at the Ole Miss law school.

Peter Stansky, Stanford

When historian and bon vivant Peter Stansky was denied tenure at Harvard in 1968, he became briefly a cause célèbre among students claiming that promotion rewarded researchers to the neglect of real teachers. Harvard’s loss was Stanford’s gain. Stansky, now 43, was welcomed at Palo Alto and was installed in the Frances and Charles Field Chair of History in 1974.

Born in New York, Stansky’s flourishes at the lectern reflect more his time at England’s Cambridge University than his undergraduate training at Yale or his Ph.D. from the ungrateful Harvard. “It is not, to use a terrible phrase, a growth field,” says Stansky of his specialty in British history post-1850. “I do not teach to large classes.”

Those who do sign on with Stansky rave about his skill at probing social and political issues through their manifestation in popular culture. Characteristically, he wraps up his course on contemporary Britain with a line-by-line exegesis of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

William Alfred, Harvard

“I like all students, but particularly freshmen,” says Professor of English William Alfred, 53. “They come without any preconceptions, open as a flower to sunlight.” A bricklayer’s son, Alfred made it through Brooklyn College and on to Harvard where he remained to teach courses in drama, Chaucerian English and creative writing. His own play Hogan’s Goat—which enjoyed a long off-Broadway run in the ’60s and made Faye Dunaway both a star and his friend—was a dramatization of tales from the Emerald Isle’s County Mayo that young Alfred had learned at his grandmother’s knee.

“I’m a great believer in the old Irish saying that ‘the first attribute of one who means to teach is kindness,’ ” explains Alfred in the book-lined home where students are always welcome. “My old students come back with their kids. It gives a sense of continuity in this nomadic world of ours.” By tradition, Alfred, a bachelor, holds the first and last meetings of his playwriting seminar in a favorite Greek restaurant—lots of food, good talk and enough wine “to get them tipsy.”

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