In the days since the incredibly sad passing of Sheldon Hackney, a lot has been made of his tenure as University president and his time working in the Clinton administration. And those are incredibly important periods in Hackney’s career which should be noted as we reflect on his life.
But I never knew Sheldon Hackney, the University president or Sheldon Hackney, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I knew Sheldon Hackney, the Penn history professor, and that man deserves to be celebrated unconditionally.
On Sept. 12, 2001, I sat in the biggest classroom in College Hall, still shell-shocked from what had occurred the day before, preparing to listen to Hackney teach us about the History of the American South. And at 10 that morning, Hackney stepped down from the podium, took off his microphone and gave us his thoughts on the events of the previous day. He told us that while we should be sad and grieve for our losses, we should be heartened that the terrorists who attacked us had gotten us wrong. By flying right past the Statue of Liberty and attacking the World Trade Center, they had misunderstood what this country was about. The United States was more than an economic power or a military force — it was a community of people with shared ideals and morals, represented by our belief in freedom and liberty for all.
The day after one of the greatest tragedies in our nation’s history, Sheldon Hackney was comforting and thoughtful in helping to put our grief into perspective. Hackney didn’t need to be there — plenty of classes were canceled that week. But Hackney wanted to be there, sharing his thoughts and teaching his students.
Two years later, I sat in the smallest classroom in College Hall, listening to Hackney speak about The American Identity to 50 underclassmen. Over the course of the semester, Hackney shared his thoughts on the subject but also eagerly listened to our perspectives on democracy, liberty and the role of citizenship in our country’s history. Here was a 69-year-old man who had been president of the University and worked at the highest level of the U.S. government. He didn’t need to be slumming it in a tiny back room in College Hall conversing with immature 21-year-old students. But he wanted to be there. Over the course of that semester, he learned the name of every student in that classroom, and he would spot us on Locust Walk and stop to say hello. He went above and beyond his role as college professor and became a teacher, facilitator and friend to everyone in that seminar, and it made that experience special for all of us.
Sheldon Hackney wasn’t perfect as a University president or as a government official, and he acknowledged as much many times over. But he was perfect as a college professor, and I still cherish the two semesters I was able to spend with him. So as we reflect on his life and his achievements, I think it’s important for those of us who knew him in a different context to share our experiences as well. Because Sheldon Hackney didn’t have to come back to Penn to teach after all of his accomplishments. He wanted to come back to Penn and teach, and he should be celebrated for that. I feel very fortunate to have known him and to be able to call him my professor.
Steven Brauntuch is a 2004 College graduate and former opinion editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian. His email address is email@example.com.
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