Parisian Dreams

Dr. Clifton W. Potter, UofL History Professor~

Last Friday my wife, younger grandson, and our son returned from a trip to France. We had been part of a group that toured the battlefields, cemeteries, and memorials associated with the American soldiers who fought and died in World War I.  Our son is a museum curator, so he was one of the tour guides. I had not been in France since 1973, but slowly my command of French returned. That made all the difference in my enjoyment of our journey. Why bother to learn foreign languages? They are the gateways to truly understanding another culture. One can read the great classics in an English translation, but it is not the same. It is possible to grasp the basics of an author’s work, but the nuance is lost. This is particularly true of authors like Voltaire. Being able to speak a foreign language gives a student the chance to avoid being an ordinary tourist, but to enter another culture.        

I studied French under two remarkable women who were as different as night and day.  Dr. Gertrude E. Teller joined the Lynchburg College faculty in 1950 and taught German and French until her death in 1960. She was the cousin of Dr. Edward Teller, the supposed father of the hydrogen bomb, and her brother was a member of the last independent Austrian government before the absorption of that nation by Nazi Germany in March 1937.  Dr. Teller fled from Vienna, never to return. First, she went to France, then to England, and finally to the United States where she settled. Her classes at Lynchburg College were popular although she had a reputation for being very demanding and at times difficult. She was fluent in several languages, and she expected everybody else to be equally gifted! If she could not remember a word in English, then she would use a cognate in German—or French—or Spanish—or Italian.  Dr. Teller died suddenly shortly after the beginning of the fall semester of the 1960-1961 session. Nicole Rothe took over her classes. I learned the basics of French grammar from Dr. Teller, but I learned how to speak French from Nicole Rothe.

Nicole Rothe, a native of Lyon, met her future husband while they both were studying in Charlottesville.  She taught at Lynchburg College for only three years between 1960 and 1963, and then her husband was transferred, and the family moved to Florida.  But what three years they were! My wife and I became fast friends in her class, and it was there we fell in love. Seven years later in 1967, we stood in the shadow of King Henri IV statue on the Pont Neuf in Paris and thanked Me. Rothe.  A week ago, we stood in that same spot, leaned on the bridge, and looked towards Notre Dame, whispered “Merci Mme Rothe,” and were young again. One day in a village in the Champagne a old gentleman shook my hand and said—in French of course—“Twice you have saved our precious liberty, and for that we shall be forever thankful.” The French were welcoming, they were gracious, and we all hated to leave.