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March 03, 2005

Laurence McMillin, 1923 - 2005


News has reached me that Larry McMillin, who was my teacher, has died. Here are some of the specifics of his remarkable life, which I invite you to read and mark. I won't be dealing with most of them here. Rather, I want to tell you of him as I knew him.

He was, first and foremost, an individual, and to understand why this is notable praise you have to know that his life's masterwork was the creation of a class called Individual Humanities. This class, a one-year course spread out over the last half of the junior year and the first half the senior year, was nominally a literature course, but rather than merely teaching texts or an academic subject it aimed for something rather more rare (particularly at the high school level): It taught an idea.

The idea: That the most important thing a society could do was to create independently acting and thinking individuals who saw as their life's work (or, as Larry described it, "their highest life crisis") service to the community. "Service to the community" is a deceptively mundane description -- in this context it means striving with all of one's abilities, to the best of one's abilities, to better the world, and the condition of mankind in it.

How do you teach this idea? You teach the individual. Larry did this by teaching archetypes of the individual: Oedipus Rex, for example, as the man who pursues truth even at cost to himself, or Huckleberry Finn, who develops into an individual when he decides to save Jim from a life of slavery, even at the potential cost of his own soul. He also taught the psychology of the individual, using Maslow and Ericson's work; the philosophy of the individual, using thinkers from Mill to Bellow to Einstein; and provided examples of the power of the individual man (and woman) with real-life examples from the immense personal courage of Admiral James Stockdale to the unbounded creativity of artist James Hubbell.

As importantly, he required his students to consider the individual him- or herself, by assigning a "bio-study": a 50-page paper that had the student pick one individual from history and show how that individual's life had critical significance for his or her community. On top of that paper was another long paper discussing the bibliographical sources for the bio-study (there had to be at least eight), and then a third paper discussing how researching and writing the bio-study affected the student's own life. This on top of numerous other 5- and 10-page papers over the course of the class. It's no joke when I tell you I got through a year and a half of the University of Chicago -- not exactly a lax school, academically -- before I had written as much, or as strenuously, for all my classes as I'd written for that one class in high school.

(In case you're wondering who my bio-study was, it was H.L. Mencken. Did the study of Mencken's life affect me? As a hint, type "Mencken.com" into your browser and see where you go.)

Individual Humanities was an intensely rigorous course, and taught an idea that was both deeply classically conservative (the importance of the individual in society and history) and deeply classically liberal (the importance of society and the obligation the individual has to the community). You might think that a class that required the full reading of texts like Don Quixote, Hamlet and Man & Superman, compounded with daily supplemental readings and 200 pages of written work would hardly be the most popular class in school, and yet there were always far more people who wanted to be in the class than Larry would accept. Every year, Larry could handpick the students he wanted for the class (he did not always pick the "obvious" choices, either), and once he had the best minds he could find, he rode them hard, and wouldn't tolerate less than full engagement in the work. If he thought you hadn't done the work coming into class, he'd throw you out -- he was known to throw out the entire class on more than one occasion. The result: Everyone was prepared the next day. You didn't want to disappoint Larry.

All of which makes it sound as if Larry was a humorless taskmaster, which could not be further from the truth. He was strong-willed, no doubt. But he was also funny and free-thinking (in the best sense of the term) and he was perceptive of the personalities of the students who learned from him, as all the best teachers are, and was willing and able to let classes go on tangents before reeling them back in to make a point. He was also, in keeping with the Southern tradition from which he sprung, a courtly man, which meant that even at his most freewheeling, and even among intimates, he was attentive and reserved, and respectful of the others with whom he shared company. He was a good man, in all the ways one might wish to apply that phrase.

But best of all, he lived what he taught: He was an individual who saw as his life crisis the need to serve his community. He did it by teaching, and by teaching the ideals he saw as critical in fostering in others, for their sake and for the sake of the larger community. And he loved it; he loved teaching. You don't spend 37 years of your life teaching, and much of that time developing and refining an incredibly work-intensive course, if you don't love the process of cracking open the brains of your students to make them aware of the world and their place in it, and then actively engaging in the back-and-forth with your students that such a process requires. Larry loved it. And Larry knew, without false modesty, that he was doing good work. One time I said to Larry, who had no children of his own, that I wished that he had had children. And he looked at me with that smile of his (see the picture above). "But I do," he said.

And he was right. I am right proud to say that I am one of Larry's children. I carry with me not only my memories of him and of being in his classroom, but also that singular idea he strove in life to teach: That I, as my own person and in my own ways, owe society my best efforts. It's a powerful idea and a hard one to live. Nevertheless I try to live this idea in my own life, and I will strive to teach my own child this idea as well.

I was fortunate to have Larry as a teacher; both during my tutelage and afterward, I was equally fortunate to call him my friend. It was my honor to dedicate my first book to him; although I regret to say the book itself was no masterpiece of literature, I wanted to note as early as possible the importance of those who taught me, and from whom I learned so much (Larry shared the dedication with Keith Johnson, another teacher and dear friend, who is also, alas, no longer with us). I suspect that in the future, when I write a book that's good enough, he'll receive another dedication, and I hope that he or some essence of him will be able to know it's been done.

Those of you who knew Larry McMillin, and have learned from him, will know why I say to the rest of you that I wish you could have known him, and could have been taught by him. I do not doubt that your life would have been made richer, as mine has been. I do not doubt you would have a refined sense of yourself as an individual, as I believe I do. And I do not doubt you would feel the desire to engage and better the world, as I try to do, through my actions and my writing. Larry gave these to me, not as unearned gifts but in testament to work done with him. I am glad to have them.

Farewell Laurence McMillin, and as you once wished me, vaya con dios -- go with God. I take my leave of you with thanks, with remembrance, with love and with the highest compliment I can think to give you: That you were and are a rare individual.

Posted by john at March 3, 2005 07:42 PM

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Tom Nixon | March 3, 2005 11:41 PM

There is nothing quite like that special teacher that makes you think, really think. My condolences, John. You're a lucky man to have had him for a teacher.

CFC | March 3, 2005 11:47 PM

I never even knew him and I miss Mr. McMillin myself. What a unique class you described. Could there be a book there? It sounds like information too good to go to the grave. Maybe that's the book you should write, John, though the dedication would be redundant...

John Scalzi | March 3, 2005 11:51 PM

CFC: Actually one of my schoolmates has indeed written a book on McMillin and the subject, which you can see here. I haven't read it, myself, however (I caught the real thing). Although I suppose I should, and see if it leaves any room for additional commentary.

PiscusFiche | March 4, 2005 01:17 AM

I don't know how to say it without sounding cliche but the best teachers change our lives for the better. I had an English teacher who taught English as a class for life. Your teacher sounds much the same at heart....

Bob | March 4, 2005 12:55 PM

A moving commentary.

Among my high-school teachers at Bluffton there were perhaps two who stood out from all the rest for their commitment to their profession and their willingnes to pour themselves completely into the task they had accepted.

The most influential was W.C. Ratliff, my freshman biology teacher. He was a school legend. I graduated in 1957. Mr. Ratliff and his wife both taught my dad, who graduated in 1928.

Mr. Ratliff's academic standards were demanding; we kept blue notebooks in which we outlined each reading assignment, and wrote out the discussion questions at the end of each chapter along with our answers in complete, gramatically-correct sentences and paragraphs. At the end of each six-week grading period he collected our notebooks and graded them for completeness, accuracy, spelling and grammar. Neatness counted. He did this for all ninety-six biology students, and I'm sure he did the same thing for all his Junior and Senior chemistry and physics classes, too.

He stressed decorum in classroom discussion, and we were NEVER allowed to refer to another staff or faculty member by last name only; we always prefaced the person's name with Mr., Miss, or Mrs.

The classroom was laid out with four rows of six seats, on risers with the teacher's desk at floor level at the front. During tests, Mr. Ratliff could sit at his desk and see each student's eyes. He'd tape a sheet of notebook paper to the blackboard behind his desk, and during tests were were allowed to look at our tests or at that paper. If our eyes wandered anywhere else, we were in trouble. During the first test, he caught two people peeking at other students' answers, ripped their tests in two, and gave them an "F" for the grading period. Freshman Biology was a required subject for graduation. From then on, everyone took his admonitions seriously.

I still remember a lot from by freshman biology class, and Mr. Ratliff impressed upon me more than any other adult in my young life the importance of attention to detail and of treating other people with respect.

My other most-admired teacher was Ralph Broman. He was fairly new to teaching when he taught Algebra in my freshman year. He was energetic and dynamic, and commanded attention by his presence at the front of the room. The following summer he fell victim to the polio epidemic of the fifties, and he was out for my sophomore year. He returned to teach Physics and Chemistry in my junior and senior years. He had a Buick equipped with hand controls, and each morning a group of boys would meet him in the parking lot. His classroom and the lab were on a upper floor, the same one where Mr. Ratliff had taught until retiring the year before, and that was before public buildings were wheelchair-accessible. The boys would carry him in his wheelchair up the steps into the building and up the stairs to the floor where his classroom was located, and then reverse the process at the end of the school day. Once on that floor, he could navigate fairly well with crutches, and he kept a cot in a storeroom next to the lab where he could rest at lunchtime.

By the end of my senior year, he was getting around quite a lot with his crutches. Through all that time, he still maintained a commanding presence in the classroom and demanded the best from his students. He chaperoned the science club in our evening meetings at the school, including one memorable evening when a thermite reaction ran out of control and almost set the building on fire.

It was only later, as an adult facing my own health crisis, that I fully comprehended the dedication and courage that it must have taken for him to persevere in his career in the face of such a challenge.

Will | March 4, 2005 01:28 PM


Thank you for the words and feeling about Larry McMillin. I will always remember thinking that there was something special about descending into that small, stone hut that looked more like an old tool shed then a learning laboratory. My most vivid take-away from his class was to reject mediocrity and to always demand from yourself good works. I may not always succeed but I am thankful that he was one of many that set the bar high.

David Shernoff | March 6, 2005 12:50 PM


Your tribute was lovely, as was that of the Webb School's. When last we spoke (or emailed), about 10 years ago, you were telling me about your experience at U. Chicago, thereby guiding me in the right direction to pursue my Ph.D.

As you are aware, I wrote a life-study of his life and it's symbolic significance (much as he had taught us to do) in the form of a book called The Individual Maker, as someone mentioned.

Much like the tribute you wrote here, stories about Larry and his meaning to our "lives in the making" speak to people. Many people have had an inspirational, or at least favorite teacher, who may have made a subtle to profound difference in their lives -- even if not in quite the same capacity that Larry did.

I found out of his passing only yesterday. While his health had deteriorated greatly in the last several years, rendering the news less than a total shock, it has still hit me kind of hard. For one, the last I saw him was about 3-4 years ago in Brandon, Mississippi, where he endured the last segment of his life. (You would be happy to know that endured is not too strong of word after Marguerite passed, and so I do believe he is presently where he has wanted to be for a long time now -- back with her.) His physical, emotional and spiritual health had deteriorated rapidly particularly in the last 3-4 years. I have kept in good touch with him until about 2 years ago, when he was literally unable to communicate. I did communicate once with Andrew Branson, a cousin on Marguerite's side who had been his only family and guardian since he moved to Brandon following Marguerite's death. And I knew from that conversation that his time might be limited. I had the intention to visit at least one more time, but never made it. So for one, I'm struggling with forgiving myself.

But there's something even more saddening for me. I was happy to see your tribute because he seems worthy of being remembered in this way. He represented several large ideas. For example, he literally felt called to unite the world's religions, and there were some traces of this calling in his interdisciplinary approach to teaching I-H. And that's no small idea. McMillin really represented a world view, an ideology, one created from his own life of scholarship and lifelong identification with Sawney Webb, and one that left so many of us altered.

For me, I felt as though I made a complete identification with him, much as he did with Sawney. I'm still basically pursuing many of the same ideas in my own work as an assistant professor and researcher of educational psychology. Everything I do has roots in my experience with him. My main research interests are motivation, mentoring, and positive psychology (the study of human strengths and virtues)...hmmm. And I was a poor excuse for a student when he began teaching me.

I almost forgot...the sad part. I found out yesterday that there was s funeral for him in Jackson several days after his death (did not find out until some 12 days later). It strikes me that nobody knew him in Jackson very well other than Mr. Branson and some acquaintances he made in the residential living facility in which he lived, Peach Tree Village. I couldn't help but notice some of your readers giving their condolences to McMillin's family. As nice of a gesture as this is, there's almost no need for it: he had no family beyond Mr. Branson, technically Marguerite's family. As an only child with no children of his own, he was "family poor," as he often insisted.

But as you allude in your tribute, perhaps in blood only. Not only did he consider his students his "children," but I do believe that his wife and colleagues at the Webb Schools were his true family for 37 years, even as he voluntarily left it after a falling out with a new administration.

And yet I can't help but to feel that despite the significance of his life a number of us acknowledge, this man literally just disappeared into thin air minus yours and Webb's tributes on the Internet. I hate to think that a man who reached out and touched the lives of so many had only a very modest funeral in which very few who really knew him attended. I think we need to do better in remembering him ceremonially.

I have no idea weather Webb was planning a memorial for him (or perhaps has already had one). But I'm going to call tomorrow (Monday, 3/7) and inquire. I am interested in seeing one organized to occur at the Vivian Webb chapel, which symbolizes his personal spirituality and investment in uniting the worlds religions via the inter-faith symbol he created. I was actually curious if you would be willing to join me in this capacity. I would like to see invitations go to those who were faculty during his service at Webb, so that people can talk openly about what he meant to us and the significance of his life. Perspectives of those like yours would be key.

Perhaps some success in this would make me feel a little better than I am right now....it would be nice to have an ally in it. Feel free to email.



p.s. I believe I have a 20 year Webb reunion coming up...it might be nice to do something around this time...I live in Chicgao.

John Scalzi | March 7, 2005 12:03 AM


Excellent to hear from you again, and thank you for the update on Larry's days post-Claremont.

Re: Memorial service -- my understanding is that there is indeed to be one in April at the Vivian Webb Chapel, and that more details are forthcoming. I would think Webb would be happy in having you have a role in that.

Dennis Pascual | March 7, 2005 05:47 PM

Thanks for the tribute to Larry McMillin.

I remember the sense of loss that I felt the day that I received the notice of his passing and the pain that still lingers a few days later.

Thanks for the short tribute to Mr. McMillin, John...


David Shernoff | March 9, 2005 07:36 PM

Thanks, John, for your response. I was indeed relieved to hear that Webb is planning a memorial service -- for the reasons I mentioned. I didn't care too much about a role in it; but as it turns out Webb just called me and asked me about it so perhaps I will. I also mentioned your and a few other names of people who may be interested. The date is now set tentatively for Sunday, April 17. It would be nice to see you again if you can make it...


Karen Hales | March 11, 2005 05:07 PM


I’m glad you took time to honor Larry and to explain the impact he had on those of us fortunate enough to know him. Since 1992 it has pained me that Larry resigned his position at Webb in response to the administration’s unilateral decision to eliminate Individual Humanities from the curriculum. Larry devoted his love and energy to Webb for nearly his entire professional life but in the end watched as the fruits of his devotion were devalued. I remember him insisting that he had resigned, not retired. I wish that accounts of Larry’s career could describe openly those pivotal events rather than veil his departure from Webb with the inaccurate word “retirement.” I do realize that residual allegiance to Webb may compel glossing over the unpleasantness. Or perhaps there are additional facets to the story that I don’t know. I suspect that if Larry had lived out his days in a welcoming environment in Claremont surrounded by his de facto family, he would not have suffered such an emotional decline in his final years.

I vaguely remember that the inter-faith symbol was removed from the Vivian Webb Chapel after Larry left. I wonder if it will be put back up if/when a memorial service is held.

In any case, I hope you have been doing well in the several years since I last saw you at a reunion. Congrats on the recent publication of your novel (and the positive reviews), about which I learned upon ambling around your web site.


John Fraim | March 20, 2005 03:19 PM


Read your wonderful piece about Larry McMillin and thought you might be interested in something I just
wrote (inspired by what you said) about Larry from one of his students about 15 years before you.


John Fraim
Webb 67


Like Ray and Les, Larry played a key role in my development. But it was more of a subtle (even subliminal) role that doesn't pop up with big exclamation marks when I wander back into the hazy midst of memory.

I can still easily see Ray swinging from the pipes in the basement of the old dorm or picking me up when I got knocked out of bounds during a football game, yelling Latin at me with raised fists to "Praise the day" and charge back into the game. We all knew that Ray had been a great athlete and raced in the Olympics. But
I came to understand that Ray was still in a race each day to understand more about the human race.

And it doesn't take much to bring back the smell of cigar smoke and atomic bomb in the locker room in the old gym and see coach Perry with his white T-shirt and shorts walking through his little kingdom before practice. The windows of the locker room were so dirty that the practice field below was like an image from a faded black and white photo. But when sitting on one of the old benches in the locker room, dog tired after you had won another impossible game, there was a special light that came through the dirty windows
that was more beautiful than the light that came through stained glass windows.

When I think of Larry there is a mixture of things that come to mind but they don't appear with the immediate vibrancy as the images of Ray and Les do. Rather they radiate with the same type of special hazy light of those old dirty windows in the locker room.

This doesn't mean they are not as important though. Rather more diffuse and transparent and transcendental.

During my days at Webb I was walking around with a dog-eared copy of Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media hidden under my regular textbooks. McLuhan's phrase "The medium is the message" lingered in the air like the ubiquitous smog of the opening days of school in September.

When I think of Larry I think of McLuhan's phrase. In effect, Larry was much more a pervasive medium rather than a collection of textbook messages. He was the personification of a living philosophy that taught by example rather than the words of dead poets, the antidotes of ancient wise men or the parables of distant
apostles. Certainly Larry knew more about great thinkers and the wisdom of the past than almost anyone I've ever known. For example, as many know, he was recognized internationally as one of the great William Faulkner scholars. And of course many know that Larry received accolades and praise as a master teacher.

Certainly all of this is well deserved. But his renown as a great teacher has had the effect of obscuring another, perhaps ultimately a more important side: that of a philosopher. Not another Sunday morning amateur philosopher but a world class radical philosopher with a revolutionary message. As it is with real revolutionaries, their ultimate meaning and importance usually escapes the immediate moment and all of us mere mortals who try to understand it at the time.

During my days at Webb from 1964 to 1967 I saw Larry as a great teacher and someone who encouraged my budding interest in writing. When I was elected Editor of Sage in 1966 it was Larry who was the real faculty advisor (although Tom Jones' name is officially noted as "faculty Advisor" in the magazine). As I wrote in the Introduction to Sage 67, the magazine was in trouble in December with a few poems, a few pictures and a short story by yours truly. This sad state continued through one of the rainiest winters in
southern California history. We made desperate announcements in assembly and tacked bright posters for Sage materials all over school and even started a contest with a $30 prize. We had Saturday meetings for Sage in Larry's legendary classroom, the stone hut.

But more than all the announcements and meetings, I think it was my discussions about writing with Larry around the fireplace during the rainy winter months in the dining hall after dinner that helped Sage to grow. We would sit and talk literature in the dining hall until everyone else was gone and the evening study bell had rung and the light of the day faded. I didn't realize it at the time but Larry made me realize that Sage should not confine itself to a number of fictional pages but should be more of a philosophy about our times. And, in the middle of the psychedelic era of the 60s, with The Doors playing Sunset Strip only 50 miles away, there was much philosophy swirling about in the zeitgeist like the tornado winds of some great dervish.

It was Larry who offered a sounding board for all the thoughts stirring about in my head during my senior year at Webb. The summer before I had spent driving around Canada in a VW bus with some friends and reading most of Hemingway and writing my senior paper on Hemingway. My key argument was that Hemingway's style was
like a great iceberg with many things left unsaid, beneath the iceberg. To me, Hemingway's writing was like McLuhan's observations about media, that mediums or contexts influence much more than the contents. I was trying to find some expression for this vast unseen world.

During those evenings by the fireplace in the dining room with Larry we talked about Sage and how to breathe life into it. But really we talked about all the ideas swirling about in my head at the time. Our talks found outward expression in Sage. As I wrote in the Introduction to Sage 67:

"Suddenly, things began to happen. Sage became a household word. The bright posters came down and the announcements stopped. But Sage kept growing (perhaps not growing, but stirring). Sage rubbed its eyes and saw that there was a lot of things it had never seen before. It left the stone hut because it was somewhat
chilly down there, and small, and there was not much to see around it. It walked around campus and stopped now and then to look under rocks. Sage was alive and somehow, something more than the Webb School Literary Magazine."

One of the results of all of this was the Staff of Sage grew from just Tim Chapman (the Associate Editor) and myself to a staff of 25. And, the contributions started pouring in: poems, plays, photos,
illustrations, stories ... all so relevant to living in our time, our place that we had trouble cutting things. In 1967, Sage ended up receiving the Publications Award at Webb. Everyone was talking about it and reading it and something indeed had begin to stir at Webb as people began writing about all types of things.

In the Introduction to Sage 67 I write that we were not sure what caused Sage to stir. But looking back on all of this, I now realize that Larry played a major part in the whole thing.

And, beyond Sage stirring, I realize that it was my creativity that was really beginning to stir in the Spring of my senior year at Webb and that Larry was very much behind this new awakening. Sage might have left the stone hut and "rubbed its eyes and saw that there were a lot of things it had never seen before" in the spring of 1967. But it was really my creativity that was awakened during this time and came "alive" and found the world full of so many magic rocks to look under.

John Scalzi | March 20, 2005 09:29 PM

Thank for sharing that, John.

Ivan Smason | March 31, 2005 05:17 PM

Thank you for your sweet tribute to this truly important man.

I am also greatly indebted to Mr. McMillin. I will mourn his passing for a long time. I hope that with my remaining term on Earth, that I will live and work in ways that this magnificant teacher and gentleman would find in keeping with his edifying standards. That is to say, I hope to make him proud of me.

It occurs to me that he and Mrs. McMillin were something of a Will and Ariel Durant of the Webb School community. His book on Sawney Webb and the Bell Buckle Story is among my most cherished possessions. Thank you for letting me share these feelings and thoughts on your web pages.

Ivan Smason

kim | September 22, 2005 02:27 PM

where all the black ghetto schools at e-mail me and let me no plese

larry miller | February 22, 2006 04:49 PM

Laurence McMillin taught me the order of words in English, the power of words in English, merely through the exercise of paring down a piece of words to an arbitrary lesser number of words, any reasonable but exact number, and requiring that sense and meaning be preserved in that smaller number of words. Mr. McMillin held faith that meaning and power would be maintained in fewer words, and when this worked for me, more so than for any of the other young men, he knew that I understood.

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