A letter to the Class of 2020: Professor Calhoun

Dear Seniors,

There are times in history that can be looked at for guidance today. This has, to varying degrees, all happened before. Like now, people of the past were given the opportunity to reveal their best and worst natures. One of the most trying moments in fairly recent human history was the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Almost exactly 100 years ago, this pandemic took millions of lives—many in the 20 – 40 years age bracket. The world was already reeling, having just emerged from World War I, known then as the Great War (since who could have predicted there would be another), and with massive social upheaval still convulsing throughout Europe and Russia, and brewing in Asia.

And yet many figures, notably in the arts, rose from this dark chapter, somehow narrowly dodging the even-more deadly plague, and made contributions that are still considered towering achievements a century later. In this time period, a number of game-changing art movements emerged from war-torn Europe—the so-called ‘isms,’ like Cubism, Surrealism, Suprematism and Constructivism. Artists like Picasso, Magritte, Matisse, Munch, Duchamp, Malevich, Dali and Kandinsky all thrived. Their bold, revolutionary innovations became the bedrock of Modernism. They redefined our understanding of art and, in doing so, our understanding of ourselves. This is no small feat. 

I was aware that Ernest Hemingway, probably our country’s most celebrated writer, was about your age (19) when he was injured while serving as a Red Cross ambulance driver on the frontlines. I wondered if he had encountered the pandemic while in Europe. Recently an article posted on the Hemingway Society website confirmed that the young, would-be author, did in fact have a few close calls with the plague in both the U.S. and abroad. 

The most harrowing brush with the pandemic occurred while Hemingway was recovering from his injuries (he was hit with a barrel bomb) in a hospital in Milan. His letters reveal that he witnessed the plague-related death of another young American in a nearby hospital bed. The soldier was being cared for by Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse that Hemingway had fallen in love with (and is portrayed in his novel A FAREWELL AT ARMS). Hemingway reveals that he was so frightened of this deadly flu, he refused to kiss Agnes for fear of contracting it. He was haunted by what he perceived as his own cowardice. Later, he gave her a charm to protect her from the flu as she was mobilized to a distant location to care for the afflicted.

Hemingway wasn’t the only legendary figure to come through the pandemic and go on to make lasting achievements. Walt Disney is often at the top of lists of famous people who actually had the flu, along with Katherine Anne Porter, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Georgia O’Keefe, Franz Kafka, and Raymond Chandler, who beat the flu twice.

I offer this historical note as evidence that we will get through this—that you will get through this. And that, quite possibly, this experience will shape you and your classmates in unique and significant ways. Maybe it will provide the catalyst for you to emerge as a visionary and leader in your field. If so, wonderful. But even more importantly, maybe it will reveal to you the value of family, community, of good health and freedom of movement, of the outdoors and the company of others. I hope that it amplifies the many joys you experience in your bright futures, and underscores the dark hours with a knowingness that will see you through.


Ken Calhoun


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