This summer the University of Michigan / Ann Arbor family, just lost one of its greats: the legendary Professor of Great Books, Professor H.D. Cameron passed away. He was a stout 86 year old resident of the Glacier Hills retirement community, just a stone’s throw or so from where he lived for decades—hiding out on North Campus as it were, from Angell Hall and the Classics Department. The wily ol’ owl left us with his brilliant mind fully intact, if not quite the rest of this dear human being.
Don Cameron and his partner in crime—the equally legendary Ralph Williams—used to hold court in the cavernous lecture hall of the Modern Languages Building, in the shadow of the Bell Tower in back of Hill Auditorium. There, twice a week many a first-year honors student was treated to a journey back in time to the windswept steppes of ancient Greece via the prose and poetry of Homer, Plato, Socrates, Aeschylus, and so many other philosophs of yore. Ralph would prance around the aisles, beginning each memorable peroration with the words, “Yea Verily.” Whereas Don would stay put at the podium, relying on his resounding baritone to hold us so rapt, that right before spring break when he encouraged us to read our assigned Decameron—“surely you can fit in a little Boccaccio while lounging on the beach”—I was far from alone in actually completing the assignment precisely as instructed.
Don’s eyes simply sparkled, his speaking tone resonant of a beloved uncle. This avuncular humanist took prodigious time outside the classroom, a devoted listener always spare with his generous and unfailingly practical advice. As a 3rd and 4th year undergrad I would regularly meet him for lunch, at the Bella Ciao or the Red Hawk, where my lessons would continue. Taking my cues I too became fond of Italian food and wine; and when Don heard that I would be backpacking to Venice and Florence ahead of senior year he exclaimed, “Why Jeffrey Allen you lucky devil,” closing his eyes and waxing profound with the mysterious words: “You’ll traipse across the Arno, through the Ponte Vecchio, on forth to the Duomo. But once you arrive there you won’t be able to move, your eyes transfixed utterly by the beauty of the 13th Century bronze doors of Andrea Pisano before you.”
As an undergrad in Ann Arbor, you are convinced you know so much (which in reality, you’re only beginning to find out just how little you know). Don always spoke to us as equals, when in fact we were being schooled all the while. Our sessions would end invariably with a bear hug, and sometimes a pat on the head. Like so many, I felt completely invigorated in Don’s presence. “Much of life is in the passing,” he would say; it isn’t the destination, “rather the journey that makes us into who he we are.” In class he would act out the Melian Dialogue, and out on the town he would introduce us to pesto, Tia Maria, Super Tuscans, and Titian. By the time I donned a tuxedo to wait tables at the Lord Fox, the sommelier had less to teach me than he had assumed; all because of Don.
We stayed in touch over the years, the mark of Don Cameron on me the whole way. Privately I think he was dismayed that I planned to go to law school, then thrilled beyond belief when I took a job post graduation working in the Parliamentary office of former British Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath instead. It was due entirely to Don and the magic of a liberal education, Ann Arbor style. Before I set foot in the Uffizi that summer long ago, I had already spent 10 weeks in England, Wales, and Ireland with another U of M legend—the English professor Bert Hornback—following in the footsteps of Joyce, Yeats, and Hardy. We uber fortunate young souls really were in a rarified Dead Poet Society, compliments of a very special college town and university.
After graduation Don informed me of everything “you simply must do, my dear boy” upon landing in London. He required a full report when I was back in town to visit my family a year later, proud as a peach that I had spurned not the regular pub outing but any Hollywood movies that year, in order to take advantage of dirt cheap “student return” theater tickets to see plays in London’s West End—even when no Brit would get caught dead joining me. What tickled Don the most was hearing that I was roundly laughed at when I tried to get my British mates to attend a matinee performance of the “Wind in the Willows” at the National Theater (I discovered why, when I found myself in a sea of little children with nary an adult chaperone among them).
Not surprisingly, instead of practicing law my career turned toward foreign policy, and Don didn’t miss a beat. I actually called him from London for advice when Sir Edward asked me to ghost write three chapters of his memoir at the jejune age of just 22. “I don’t think I can manage this one, Professor” I said over the faint line; “but of course you can, and you will make us all proud” was the robust retort. Thereafter, over the years when I would turn up in Ann Arbor it was a couple of decades at least before we ever again broached an English or Classics dept. topic—all Don wanted to talk about was “what in the devil’s name” were presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden doing overseas?!
By the time Don retired, and eventually moved into Glacier Hills as his body (but explicitly not his mind) slowly began to deteriorate, he would request that I email him every piece of writing that I published. Then, months or years later, when I would return he would have a list of questions ready for discussion. My favorite, from this brilliant scholar and incredibly well read and informed emeritus professor, was “Would you be so kind to explain why President Obama approved sending a plane load of cash to the Iranian mullahs while negotiating the Iran Nuclear Deal?”
Every time I would turn up at Glacier Hills, we would dine at his behest at a table for two with candles alight. Don would invariably order a bottle of wine, and feast not so much on the quite good food there but on the cascading tangents of our conversations, transitioning endlessly from topic to topic. Don’s nickname at GH was “the Encyclopedia,” which was quite something, there amid so many other learned retires with titles galore. In mid sentence Don would pause ever so briefly, “So I’m reading the definitive biography of Grant…” and someone two tables over would call out, “could the Encyclopedia kindly enlighten as to what the real names of the Windsors actually comprise?” Then without missing a beat, Don would finish his sentence: “but I still prefer David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln.”
Don accomplished so much in his marvelous life, in scholarly terms of course, but also in teaching terms, and most valuable to him of course in personal relationship terms. His two sisters and many a niece and nephew were dear to him, colleagues and former students both grad and undergrad, and his myriad close friends. He was affectionate with all of them, loyal, and deeply loving and caring. How could we not respond in kind, caring deeply for this wondrous and beloved, stalwart gentleman of Michigan?
On one of my recent visits we actually spontaneously roll played the Melian Dialogue, with Don relishing the immortal words spoken by Athens to Melos, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” For some time I kept in touch with other undergrad professors, but eventually there was only Don. Over the last several years I would fret to my Mother my fear that Don might pass away before I could see him again. I thought Covid would kill him; not the disease in fact, but the sheer isolation enforced on him at the nursing home. Twice I visited and had to walk up to his window and look at him while we talked on our cell phones.
Thank the heavens that at long last I was able to see him two more times in person, with my pet Vizsla Gilbert in tow. As Rob Ketterer knows, Gilbert’s affection with Don made quite an impression. On the penultimate visit, he handed me a small monograph about Thucydides by a former student of his, Johanna Hanink, and said sotto voce, “Feast your eyes on the dedication.” Johanna prefaces her acclaimed work on the master historian, with a very special dedication to Don. Moved nearly to tears, when I looked up, Don’s were all over the floor—I gave him one of his long, tight, bear hugs and we cried a few tears of joy together, one last time.
Ah, but I had to hide my other tears at seeing him so frail, borne aloft at least by the ongoing health and inveterate imagination of his gorgeous mind. We just plain had so much fun together, even this last year. I know how much his own family misses him, and his Michigan family too. We all do, miss you Don, so very much indeed, you angel masquerading as a human all the while, down here among the arbors. I suspect I’m not the only one who sometimes thinks we see him, way up there among the stars, keeping watch over us, til one day we join him hither and yon.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey, student of Don’s in the fall and spring of 1987/1988, but a lifelong friend and admirer.