From Amy Oliver

I met Bob in the early eighties when we were both at UMass. He was chair of History and I was a graduate student teaching in the Spanish and Portuguese department. We met in an elevator as we rode to the upper floors of our building. He was an unusually friendly person by New England standards and I noticed something familiar about his accent: “Are you a Hoosier?” I asked. We had both studied in Indiana as undergraduates. At UMass, Bob regularly wore short-sleeved dress shirts and ties. This had the effect of making him slightly scary because he had extremely muscular forearms that seemed to be permanently flexed: “Were you a jock when you lived in Indiana?” I asked. He was. (This later contributed to the need for hip surgery.)

As we exited the elevator, the Spanish graduate student offices (yes, there were such things) were through a set of doors to the right and History faculty offices were to the left. Sometime during that first semester I knew Bob, a friend of mine successfully defended his dissertation in Spanish. A bottle of wine surfaced in the grad student offices to celebrate the achievement. When we realized no one had a corkscrew, I assumed the party would have to be postponed. Not so. Another student peeled off his sweatshirt and proceeded to demonstrate Spanish ingenuity. He wrapped the sweatshirt around the base of the bottle and rhythmically pounded it sideways against the doorjamb, claiming that the movement of the wine would force the cork out. This process took quite a while and no small amount of patience. Just as the cork was finally making real progress toward outing itself, a really steamed Bob Griffith suddenly appeared at the door. I feared there would be consequences for the
guy who was doing the pounding: “Do you have any idea how much noise you’re making? The whole building is shaking!” The pounder apologized and explained the reason for the celebration. Bob smiled and said, “Carry on.” He congratulated the student who had successfully defended, then shook his hand.

The elevator rides during those years were usually not long enough for Bob and I to finish our conversations about the state of the university or the state of many other things, so we often lingered before going to our separate wings on the floor. Bob played a key role in educating me about what makes a good department and a good university, and what we need to be vigilant about if we want to protect these institutions. He obviously cared deeply about students and colleagues. Bob had a clear vision of the well-run university.

I was thrilled when Bob became Provost at AU. I was never more proud of him than when he resigned two years later. He was not one to compromise his principles. When he became chair of History, I had become chair of Philosophy and Religion. For almost a decade, we again had offices on the same floor and resumed the regular conversations begun many years before about the state of the university and the state of many other things. Last fall, we got on the topic of books that had influenced us in college and I was amazed by all that he recalled about philosophers he had read at DePauw. In late November, I gave Bob a bottle of wine and told him I hoped it would be an incentive for him to get off the post-op pain killers. The thought occurred to me that if he didn’t have a corkscrew, he knew how to open it.

Amy Oliver
Chair, Department of Philosophy and Religion
American University

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