My Father, Irving Goleman (1898-1961)

By his son, Daniel Goleman

The recent rededication of the Irving Goleman Library at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton California prompted me to write this in his memory.

My father Irving Goleman was born in 1898, in Kansas City, Missouri, to immigrant parents. He was 48 when I was born, and I was just 15 when he passed away in 1961. When I was asked to speak at the rededication of the newly remodeled Irving Goleman Library at San Joaquin Delta community college in Stockton, I welcomed the chance to delve into his papers and revitalize my sense of my father. One of my earliest memories of my father is his getting up at 4 a.m. to read, prepare lectures, and grade papers (I would wake up, ask him for a glass of water, and go back to sleep). He was an enormously dedicated teacher, and – I’m told by his former students – a riveting lecturer.

His signature course was “World Literature: Autobiography of Civilization, an overview of literature from earliest to modern times, from around the world. His survey went beyond the standard canon of ancient epics and literary classics to include oral traditions, myth, fairy tales and folk ballads. But going through his papers in an ancient filing cabinet, I came across what was truly unique about the class: his assignments for each student, each preserved in a set of 3X5 cards.

The first paper he would assign was an autobiography, “Who Am I?” On the basis of that he would assign each student a unique set of readings tailored to the issues they faced in life. So, for instance, a student named Emilie was assigned “A Study
of Conflicts in the Soul of Womanhood.” She was to read Shakespeare’s “Othello” and “Anthony and Cleopatra,” Racine’s “Phaedra,” Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabbler,” and O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude.”

Another student’s topic was “Business Ethics and Literature as Social Critique:” Sinclair Lewis’ “Babbit,” Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” And for someone named “Blondell” the topic was: “Six Plays and Three Playwrights in Search of Blondell.”

I’ve run into former students attending their 50th reunions at the University of the Pacific (where he taught for years) who told me his was the only class they remember after all these years. Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola were students; years later Dave wrote “Light in the Wilderness,” an oratorio he dedicated to my father, along with two musical mentors.

Irving’s wide-ranging reading went hand in hand with his field, philology – a combination of literature, history, and linguistics. His studies included Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Sanskrit. While studying at the University of California at Berkeley, he became friends with a fellow student, Peter Boodberg, a brilliant Russian immigrant who eventually learned more than 30 Asian languages, wrote a Chinese-English dictionary, and founded the Asian Studies department at Berkeley. Peter and Irving were lifelong best friends.

As a graduate student at Yale in the 1930s, Irving was the first Hillel adviser at a time when prejudice was the norm at exclusive universities, with explicit quotas. He had a lifelong sensitivity to the unfairness of stereotypes and prejudice. One of his mottos was, from the Latin: “I am a human, and therefore nothing human is alien to me.” By chance, our family learned long after he passed away that in the 1940s, when all the Japanese families were rounded up to be sent off to “relocation camps,” he came to give a talk to them the night before they were shipped off, to let them know there were Americans who knew they were not the enemy.

In 1935, Irving was recruited from Yale to come to what started as the lower division of the College of the Pacific, and later spun off as Stockton Junior College. He felt called to a mission: to bring high quality education to show who could not afford elite schools; he saw the emerging community college movement as a way to share intellectual riches.

Irving did this with passion. Here’s a comment he made on the paper of one of his students, urging her to do her share “to counter-act the cynical materialism of our age – afraid to dream of peace and love and compassionate understanding. We who believe in mankind must keep our feet on the ground – i.e., learn all we can about the total human being, good and bad – but ever persist and act in our faith there are things of the spirit greater and more ennobling than cold reason, timid commonsense, safety first, and my and mine.”