This odyssey begins in the small Indiana town of Shelbyville. A high school boy, with an inaptitude for shop class, finds himself faced with a choice.
Like any epic adventure, it involves feats of strength, tests of character, difficult decisions and introspection. It follows a long road that traverses the globe and crosses paths with a psychic, a religious order and positions of power.
It has themes of love, faith, family and perseverance. And the whole venture started when a teenaged Robert E. Wolverton decided to study Latin instead of taking another year of industrial arts.
“I was a total disaster in shop,” Wolverton confessed. “So at the end of our eighth year, when the boys were offered Latin or another year of industrial arts, I didn’t have to think long before deciding I was going to try Latin. And I loved it!”
That love of Latin caught the attention of a classics professor when Wolverton enrolled at Hanover College in Indiana. Although he also majored in psychology, he pursued an honors curriculum in classics, a field that focuses on ancient Greek and Roman history, literature, philosophy, language and mythology.
“I’m sure my mother wondered what I was going to do with this degree, and I didn’t know either, but I did have feelers for jobs when I graduated,” Wolverton recalled. “Three very different enterprises were interested in me.”
Still, despite being from a family “as poor as anyone could imagine,” Wolverton decided to try graduate school instead of starting a career. He landed a coveted fellowship at the University of Michigan, which allowed him to focus solely on his master’s studies.
Later, a brief timeout as a teacher at a private boys’ school in Tennessee allowed him to earn enough money to then start a doctoral degree at the University of North Carolina. But the Fates intervened to send him south.
“I ran out of money, again, midway through my doctoral program, so my department head found two possible jobs for me: one at the University of Vermont and one at Florida State,” Wolverton said. “I couldn’t see myself in Vermont, so I went to Florida and that’s where I met Peggy.”
Wolverton met Margaret “Peggy” Jester at Florida State through their mutual love of music. The couple will celebrate their 64th wedding anniversary in September.
“When I proposed, I told her there’s one thing that’s true, ‘I’m a classicist and love old things, so the older you get, the more you’re going to be loved,’” Wolverton said. “I remind her everyday because it’s still true.”
His muse and constant companion, Peggy has accompanied Wolverton since his first tenure-track faculty position at the University of Georgia. Following a stint at Tufts University in Massachusetts, they longed for warmer climates. They returned to Florida State where Fate again showed its hand when he was nominated and selected for the inaugural American Council of Education’s Academic Administration Internship Program.
Designed in the 1960s to help fill the administration needs created by a growing higher education industry, the program provided mentorship and instruction to 25 promising young faculty members from across the country.
“You cannot imagine how many job offers we each received,” Wolverton said. “In one day I had three calls from institutions asking if I wanted to be this or that. I always said no because I was happy where I was.
“Then one day the University of Illinois called offering a brand new position it had created, and I found it hard to say no to one of the top 15 graduate schools in the country.”
He moved to Champaign-Urbana as associate dean of the graduate college and things went smoothly, until the Illinois legislature voted to eliminate all new academic positions.
“Nothing personal, just wiped the position out,” Wolverton recalled. “That was a real blow, but now I think all of this really was designed by God.”
Wolverton quickly found himself hired as a professor of classics and dean of the graduate college at Miami (Ohio) University, where he remained until he received a higher calling. In 1972, he was asked to become the first male president of Mount St. Joseph College, a women’s institution in Cincinnati founded by the Sisters of Charity and run, up to that point, by nuns.
“It was a delightful job. The only problem was some called me Father Wolverton, as if I were a priest,” he recalled with a chuckle.
He remained in that position until 1977, when he was invited to Mississippi State University as one of five interviewees for vice president of academic affairs under President James McComas.
“President McComas was a special man, and I remember telling Peggy, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be offered this job, but I would really like to work with him,’” Wolverton said.
Days later, while the Wolvertons were vacationing in Georgia, he received a phone call from “a beautiful Southern voice.” It was McComas’ secretary.
“It took her a minute just to say hello, but she said President McComas was on the line, and he offered me the job,” Wolverton said.
He returned to Mount St. Joseph to oversee his last commencement as president. Afterward, famed psychic Jeane Dixon, who had sponsored two students graduating that year, approached him.
“She came up and asked me why in the world I was going to Mississippi,” Wolverton recalled. “I tried to tell her that being president had been a tremendous experience, but I felt this was another terrific job where I could really accomplish something positive.
“My career can really be divided into before MSU and at MSU, and I’ve had a great teaching and administrative career here,” Wolverton continued. “I’ve been blessed with the overriding theme of my career being joy.”
In the 39 years he’s been at Mississippi State, Wolverton has served as a vice president, professor of classics and department head of what is now the Department of Classical and Modern Languages and Literatures. It’s the experiences and the people he’s worked with, however, that have defined his time as a Bulldog.
Wolverton explained that President McComas felt the university should broaden its reach and supported him when he served as a guest lecturer at a university in Italy and as a commencement speaker in South Korea. He has also studied at Oxford, England, represented Mississippi State at a university in Japan, been a lecturer on a Mediterranean cruise, and participated in two archaeological digs in Israel.
“I never would have guessed all of the opportunities that would come along when I came to Mississippi State,” Wolverton said. “I was involved in many amazing things, which also helped further the university.”
That legacy has afforded three more accomplishments for Wolverton’s resume. In 2008, as a result of his academic pursuits, as well as his many activities within the community, he was elected to the Starkville Area Education Hall of Fame.
In 2014, the College of Arts and Sciences presented him with the inaugural Legacy Award, which now bears his name. Similarly, the rotunda in Mississippi State’s new classroom building, slated to be one of the largest on campus, will be named in his honor when it opens later this year. These honors follow his being named a Grisham Master Teacher in 1994 and Humanities Teacher of the Year in 2000.
Wolverton admits that being the university’s only classicist for much of his tenure felt like “holding on by his fingernails” to make sure classical studies stayed a part of the curriculum. Now, however, he says he is excited that President Mark E. Keenum has put an emphasis on building the discipline, having hired two more classicists in the past few years, with plans to add a visiting lecturer this fall.
“I am proud to say that we have a thriving classics program now because it is such a wonderful field; it’s just the beginning of everything,” Wolverton said. “If you start looking seriously at any subject, such as politics, science, religion or philosophy, you start with the classics.”
Having been a professional classicist for nearly 60 years, Wolverton speaks of Virgil and Homer as if they’re old friends and quotes the works of Plato, Cicero and Sophocles in casual conversation with the ease some millennials might quote Harry Potter. His passion and ability to make such works approachable has helped make his classical mythology course one of the most popular, and crowded, on campus.
For those who can’t take his or any other classics course, he recommends reading Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Story of Civilization,” but, to the relief of students on the waiting lists for his classes, Wolverton, who turns 91 in August, has no plans of retiring.
“People ask why I keep doing this and it’s because there’s so much joy,” Wolverton said. “No one can say I don’t have enthusiasm for my field, but I have equal enthusiasm for the students.
“It’s almost a cliche but it’s true: I think most teachers really, really, really do enjoy the interaction with students. That’s what keeps us going, keeps us young, really.”