When Ward Elliott first arrived at Claremont Men’s College in early 1968, George C.S. Benson was the college president, Bauer Center was still under construction, and the student body had just expanded to 800 students. The campus on which he first stepped foot was an enormously different place from the campus he is now leaving. Elliot’s new post as a government professor at this small liberal arts college in California was a bit coincidental: “the office secretary at Harvard asked me if I was interested in teaching comparative government [at Claremont Men’s College] because George Benson was hiring,” Elliott laughed, “and I said sure!”
During the interview, Elliott and Benson hit it off immediately. Elliott noted that while Benson did the majority of the talking, he presented the college in “such a favorable light” that Elliott was immediately attracted to it. Elliott described his first impression of the future Claremont McKenna College as “sunny, full of interesting people, very congenial faculty and students”, and when compared to his alma mater Harvard, “more open to conservative perspectives.”
Elliott took the position and began to establish himself in the government department at CMC. Eighteen years flew by, and in the fall of 1986, Elliott was recruited by Gordon Bjork to participate in the college’s new Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) program. Elliott’s connection with PPE dates back to his father, William Y. Elliott, a poet and a counselor to six U.S. presidents. “It was the perfect education for [my father],” Elliott said.
He was excited by the prospect of creating a similar program at CMC, and indeed PPE developed into one of the most prestigious and competitive programs at CMC. “No one deserves more credit of the success of PPE at CMC than Elliott does – he has been the heart and soul of the program for over thirty years.” Paul Hurley, the Philosophy professor for the PPE program wrote in an email to the Forum.
Aseem Chipalkatti ’15, a PPE major, further noted, “If PPE is a family, Elliott was easily the patriarch. He has been the driving force of this program for so many years, and that passion and dedication has really shone through in interactions with all of his students.”
However, Elliott’s contribution to CMC extends far beyond PPE, as Elliott has been deeply involved in many aspects of CMC students’ social and academic life in his 46 years here. Elliott worked with students to start the Shakespeare Clinic, where student-led teams worked to authenticate works attributed to Shakespeare. Elliott also organized singing parties and hiking trips to Mountain Baldy, all of which strengthened his bond with students.
“I still find it hard to imagine Professor Elliott retired. To me, Elliott brings to mind the virtues of the small liberal arts college. He cultivates a sense of camaraderie and belonging among his students, and he was wide ranging interests that run far beyond politics,” wrote George Thomas, the government professor set to inherit Elliott’s position in an email to the Forum.
“Professor Elliott represents a vanishing era of teaching, one where the students are more than faces in a classroom, but individuals to know and understand on a deeper level. It’s facilitated through things like the Singing Party, hikes, and class dinners, but ultimately the real reason that students over the decades love him as much as they do is because he makes such a massive effort to make that connection,” Chipalkatti wrote.
To many, Professor Elliott simply embodies the spirit of CMC, namely the close connections between students and faculty that come from attending a liberal arts institution. Brock Blomberg, a CMC Economics professor wrote,“I would happily change my signature block to ‘in the name of Elliott!’ because students, staff, faculty and alumni all know what that means.”
It may come as a relief to many that Elliott will still be around campus after his retirement. When asked if he plans to come back often, Elliott laughed, “I argued with the administration to keep my office for three more years, but it was kind of hard.” His plans for retirement involve writing a book on the Shakespeare Clinic, something that he never had the time to do during his 46 busy years at CMC.
Some point during our meeting in Elliott’s office, packed with books and boxes filled by more books, we talked about the singing parties that are so famous among students.
“What’s your spiritual song?” Elliott asked me.
I sheepishly admitted that I have yet to find out. “What’s yours?” I asked.
“Probably ‘Teen Angel,'” Elliott laughed.
This reminds me of what Elliott describes to be his best moments at CMC, when “students wow their audience with a dazzling performance of something difficult.” Elliott is the spiritual song for CMC, both challenging and encouraging the students to be the better of themselves. Like he said himself, “Life is like Latin. If it were easy, the teacher never would have assigned it.”