Dartmouth Mourns Beloved Professor

Thursday, December 03, 2015
Hanover — John Rassias, a dynamic teacher of language who created an instructional method used at Dartmouth College and beyond, died early Wednesday morning at home in Norwich. He was 90.

His linguistic prowess and love for theater came together to produce the Rassias Method, a finger-snapping language “drill” that has helped thousands of Dartmouth students to absorb the rhythms and sounds of unfamiliar tongues.

A professor of French at Dartmouth for half a century, he led the school’s Rassias Center for World Languages and Cultures and was a founder of its study-abroad program.

“John was passionate about bridging cultures through the teaching of language,” senior French lecturer Brigitte Mosenthal, a longtime colleague and friend, wrote in an email Wednesday. “Authenticity, excitement, energy, humor, drama were all parts of a whole destined to create an environment conducive to learning. John’s enthusiasm was contagious, not only for his students, but for peer teachers of language. John taught me everything I know as a language instructor. He was a great communicator, he was an inspirational figure, he was a true humanist. He was beloved by generations of students and language teachers from around the world.”

A Manchester native, Rassias studied at the University of Bridgeport and afterward, on a Fulbright Scholarship, received a doctorate from the University of Dijon in France, according to a biography on the Rassias Center website. He went on to do research at the Sorbonne, study French drama and act in Paris.

In the 1960s, his relationship with the Peace Corps brought him to Dartmouth, where new recruits were trained in French before being shipped off to West Africa. In a span of just eight weeks, his son-in-law William Miles recalled in an interview Wednesday, Rassias used his teaching skills to prepare hundreds of volunteers.

Dartmouth took notice. Rassias joined the faculty there in 1965, and two years later brought his method to the academic community. Nearly all of the college’s language departments now use his technique in their introductory classes.

In the Rassias Method, a student learns a language in much the same way that an actor steps into a role: with his or her entire body and soul.

A typical drill centers on an instructor — usually a fellow undergraduate — who runs fast-paced exercises with a small group of peers, acting out the alien words physically as he or she speaks them, calling on students at random to surprise them and make them respond instinctually.

“You really have to perform when you’re speaking a language,” Miles said, “until it becomes second nature to you.”

Rassias threw himself into those performances. At the beginning of most Dartmouth terms, he demonstrated his method at a workshop for drill instructors, striding up and down the stage in Room 105 of Dartmouth Hall.

He was famous for his exuberance. Even in his 80s, when he walked with a cane, he was known to hurl the implement across the room as he became more and more absorbed in the act.

For years he taught a theater course in French that featured many a memorable Rassian performance. At one play’s climax, Miles remembered, Rassias brought raw meat to the stage and, to demonstrate the emotion of the moment, tossed it into the audience.

“It wasn’t a rare sight to see him pouring water over his head,” Phil Privitera, a 1990 alumnus who now is an attorney in greater Boston, said in an interview, “or pulling off his shirt to Elvis songs or breaking eggs or flopping like a dying fish on the ground.”

Miles said he was amazed by how many alumni, from recent graduates to those celebrating their 45th anniversaries, flocked to Hanover to see their favorite teacher.

“We almost called it a tribe — or a cult,” he said, laughing.

For “so many Dartmouth people,” Miles said, “I think their whole lives changed — their career paths, their lives, the way they looked at them — changed when they took his classes.”

Privitera, who said he struggled to fit in at Dartmouth, called Rassias his “savior.”

“John was a father to me from the moment I met him at Dartmouth,” Privitera wrote in an email Wednesday. “He gave me guidance when I needed it. He gave me strength when I was weak. He fed me when I was hungry. He let me stay in his home when I needed a place to sleep.”

Rassias met with Privitera nearly every day at midnight, and they talked for hours. Afterward, Privitera often drove the professor home to Norwich, where they stayed and talked the night away.

Mary Rassias, his wife — or “Saint Mary,” as many called her — was there, and would have something waiting for them on the stove. A dedicated philanthropist who welcomed many other Dartmouth students and faculty members to her table, she died in 2012 at age 83.

Family members gathered around John Rassias in his last days, Miles said: They played music to soothe him, and he passed peacefully just after midnight on Wednesday.

In a communitywide email Wednesday afternoon, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon said he wrote with a “heavy heart” to announce Rassias’ passing.

To explain “the magnitude of John’s impact on students and teachers around the world,” Hanlon quoted former college President James Freedman, who once told Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, “Professor John Rassias’ high-powered language drills reveal the values of foreign cultures more tellingly than a dozen weighty treatises.”

“He opened up a whole new world to me,” Annabelle Cone, a lecturer of French who worked with Rassias for more than 25 years, said in an email. “I had never seen a teacher so active, so humorous, so energetic with students. It rubbed off on me right away, and on many others who learned from this amazing teacher of French language and theater.”

“He made the world smaller,” former Dartmouth President James Wright said of Rassias in an email Wednesday.

He is survived by a son, two daughters, their spouses and many grandchildren.

Members of the family were not immediately able to comment. They broke the news Wednesday on Facebook to the Inter-American Partnership for Education, Rassias’ English teaching program in Mexico.

“This note comes to you with deep sadness and sense of loss, coupled with equally deep gratitude at having had our lives profoundly touched by a gifted human being,” said a letter co-written by his daughter Helene Rassias-Miles, who is executive director of the Rassias Center. “... And for those of you who did not have the opportunity to meet him in person, but saw him on the screen, or knew him through the genius of his work, the gifted teacher and humanitarian will now be guiding us from above.”

Rob Wolfe is a former student of Rassias’, and some details in this story came from the reporter’s memory of the professor. Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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