How A Professor Taught Me To Consult My Stomach Fred Stocking, an English professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., left an indelible impression on NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Stocking, who died two months ago at 94, said three simple words that have influenced her for decades.
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How A Professor Taught Me To Consult My Stomach

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How A Professor Taught Me To Consult My Stomach

How A Professor Taught Me To Consult My Stomach

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Fred Stocking died recently. Most of you are probably wondering, who is Fred Stocking? Well, at Williams College in Massachusetts, he was loved by students for over 40 years, students including NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: I remember sitting in Shakespeare class, basking in my good luck. The waitlist was nearly 100 people, but here I was, a new student at Williams College, watching the legendary Fred Stocking in action.

Dr. Stocking was a year shy of retirement, lean and meticulous, with a bow tie and thick white hair. He lived Shakespeare, doting on Puck, thundering through "Hamlet," and lifting our gaze from the crass pursuit of As to the beauty of weathered truths.

He encouraged me to make writing my career and then unwittingly shaped that career. It happened when I asked him a random question: How do you determine a student's grade? Well, he said, I add up the grades for the essays, the quizzes, the midterm and the final. I average them out. Then I consult my stomach.

Consult my stomach. No three words have influenced or haunted me more. As a reporter, I try to apply Dr. Stocking's stomach test: Is the story I'm telling not just accurate but honest? I've failed more times than I like, but that standard has marked the north on my compass for the past quarter-century.

I lost touch with Dr. Stocking for 20 years. But eight years ago, we began exchanging letters every few months. So when I was invited to give a talk for our 25th reunion three years ago, I asked my 91-year-old former professor to introduce me. It was a rainy afternoon; the auditorium was packed. The crowd hushed as Fred Stocking walked tentatively across the stage, clutched the podium and leaned into the microphone.

Professor FRED STOCKING (English, Williams College): My name is Fred Stocking.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

HAGERTY: It was like a schmaltzy Disney movie. The place went wild.

Prof. STOCKING: Thank you very much. You've already guessed that I am retired, and at one time, professor of English.

HAGERTY: Afterwards, dozens of middle-aged alums, now doctors, economists and lawyers, lined up to shake Fred's hand. You were my favorite professor, one would say. Another, you made me care about ideas.

As for me, Fred's letters became a road map for growing old well. He began painting at 80, taking lessons every Tuesday. At 91, he played Gonzalo in "The Tempest" at the community theater. When his body began to fail, he watched the process with a sort of bemused detachment.

At his 94th birthday party, Fred demonstrated his new motorized stair chair lift by waving like the queen as he purred up and down the stairs, and later, he performed his favorite Broadway song.

(Soundbite of song, "Lulu's Back In Town")

Mr. STOCKING: (Singing) Oh, baby. Lulu's back in town.

(Soundbite of applause)

HAGERTY: As Fred's body shut down, he leaned all the more on his mind. It was a sort of a tit for tat with age. You take away my driver's license, I'll read the new biography of Shakespeare. You dim my vision, I'll listen to books on tape.

When I sent him an early draft of my book, he sent back a seven-page critique, musing on the limits of scientific inquiry, the flaws of religious doctrine, and the nature of death. Fred approached his own death clinically. I can accept God as an idea, but not as a fact, he wrote, and he was even more skeptical of the afterlife.

In early July, I flew up to Williamstown, Massachusetts, for what I knew would be my final visit. Fred lay on his bed, as faded as his sheets. He said he wasn't sad about dying. I asked him if he thought that his consciousness might survive death. I thought with death around the corner, he might have warmed up to the afterlife. He looked at me keenly, as if to say, I may have grown old, but I haven't gone soft.

What's wrong with mystery, he asked. Then he cleared his throat. It's been a privilege knowing you, he said, and I burst into tears. Fred patted my hand. I'll live on in your memory, he said. It's the best kind of immortality.

SIEGEL: NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Her college professor, Fred Stocking, died in July.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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