The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Thursday, September 26, 2002  

Inge Probstein: Professor of Literature

Once again, and with all due respect to Esquire and the women they love, The Rittenhouse Review presents the latest installment in a continuing series, “The Women We Admire.”

Today’s honoree is Inge Probstein, a literature professor to students of all ages, brought to my attention by Michael Vitez of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and his article in today’s paper, “Teaching Literature’s Classics, She Created More Than a Class.”

Herewith a few excerpts:

In 1984, a former literature professor agreed to teach a small class to other retirees in Radnor.

Eighteen years later -- after 60 works of great literature, field trips, dinner parties, seders, and funerals -- they are still together, and the Tuesday morning class at the Creutzburg Center for Adult Education has become so important that they plan their lives around it.

What started as a class has become a community.

“My week revolves around this,” said Judy Zalesne, 65, of Bryn Mawr, who always sits in the same seat -- next to the teacher. “This class comes first. I try to plan vacations to leave Tuesday afternoon and come back Monday night.”

Inge Probstein has been their professor, the glue that kept them together. A refugee from Hitler, she came to America at 11. Her mother worked as a cook for the Dorrance family of Campbell Soup. Inge herself evolved from servant to scholar, from making beds to earning a Ph.D. in literature from Yale.

Her class started out in a back room but quickly expanded to 25 people, with a perennial waiting list, and moved to the “Big Room” -- the largest room in the onetime mansion. . . .

There they read the greats: Goethe, Dante, Balzac, Eliot, Tolstoy, Woolf, Twain, Marquez, Swift . . . Inge always let the class vote on books for the next semester.

Except one year, after the students continually rejected Chaucer, Inge decreed: “This is no longer a democracy. Next session we are reading Chaucer.” [Ed.: Emphasis added, probably unnecessarily.]

“She did her Ph.D. on Chaucer,” Zalesne said. “It was the best. Nobody dropped out.”

The retirees took this class because they’d never read these classics, or they wanted to read them again, after a lifetime of experience, and find new meaning.

Their exuberance spread beyond the class. When they were reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Zalesne’s daughter got so tired of hearing about it at the dinner table, she told her mother: “You’re a Mann-iac!” . . .

Inge never married. She cared for her mother and her brother until they died. This class became her family.

One Monday in May, for the first time, Inge called her students and told them she wasn’t feeling well. There’d be no class on Cervantes on Tuesday.

Several students called to check on her, but Inge didn’t answer the phone. On Tuesday night, Thelma and Irwin Bessen, longtime students from Rose Valley, went to Inge’s home in Lansdowne. They found her on the floor.

She’d had a stroke. . . .

The stroke was so severe that Inge could not teach again. The class held an emergency meeting at Zalesne’s house during the summer. “We could never replace Inge,” Zalesne said. “But despite the tragedy, we didn’t want the class to disband. We’ve been together too long, and we’re kind of addicted to sharing insights.”

They recruited two retired professors to split the class, six weeks each. . . .

After class, Zalesne went to visit Inge at the Belmont Center for Comprehensive Treatment. The two sat outside in a gazebo in the early-autumn sun. Inge was frail. When talking about her class, she became sharp and passionate.

“Such an amazing life,” Zalesne said, reflecting later, “shouldn’t end this way.”


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