A Life-Changing Encounter with David Flaherty

On a few occasions, my life has been changed by the action, work, or example of one person. The next few blogs in the Turning Points series will describe three such people and moments that changed the direction of my life before the age of 30, helping establish, for better or for worse, the foundation on which my career and personal life have been based. They are, in chronological order, David Flaherty, Harvey Scribner, and Allen Tough.

David Flaherty was a Canadian and a member of the history faculty at Princeton University, where I studied. I first encountered him in my sophomore year as the instructor of a preceptorial in an American History course I was taking. Precepts are a Princeton feature. In addition to the standard two lectures every week, you were required to sit in a small group, usually of about 10 undergraduates, with a professor and discuss the week’s lectures and readings. Precepts were a combination of “nowhere to run, nowhere to hide” and “stand and deliver” all rolled into one.

As a sophomore, I was pretty full of myself; super-charged with energy, heady with the experience of becoming a cheerleader and being asked to join a singing group, and not, shall we say, “fully inclined” to do the tedious work that studying demanded. At a precept in the fall of 1965, my combination of wise guy and poor preparation were especially obvious. And after about 30 minutes, David Flaherty asked me to leave the precept and wait to speak with him when it was completed.

I remember waiting in the hallway outside the room, anticipating the tongue-lashing discipline that awaited me. But I had no idea of what was to come.

When the precept adjourned, I went back into the room, only to be met by Flaherty inside the doorway. He grabbed me by the shoulders and held me against the wall, his face inches from mine, dark with frustration and anger. “You,” he growled, “have talent and ability. Do not waste them the way so many do on trivialities and silliness. You can do something with your life if you choose to. Don’t ever again waste my time the way you did today!” And with that, he left me standing there and walked away.

By the time I graduated in 1968, David had served as my Qualifying Paper and Thesis Advisor, giving me unrelenting criticism, helping me learn how to research and write, and providing me with his friendship, all at the same time. My grades went from C’s to A’s and I graduated Magna Cum Laude.

But that is not the important point. More important than the history he taught me, David Flaherty taught me not to run with the crowd and to dare to take myself seriously.

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