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Never Too Old to Go Back to School

After 60 years, Eva Brann is St. John’s longest-serving tutor
     When school opens this fall, 88-year-old Eva Brann — renowned philosopher, author and long-time Annapolitan — begins her 60th year of doing what she loves best: discussing the great works of western civilization with the Johnnies.
     When Brann came to St. John’s as a tutor in Greek and Latin in 1957, the college’s Great Books program, known as the New Program, was just 20 years old. Brann became then-dean Jacob Klein’s “daughter of the house,” as the relationship is known on the continent. She learned not only about philosophy but also Klein’s vision of the school, which has changed little since then.
     “It’s not much different now from what it was 60 years ago,” she tells me. “If you’ve got a fixed way of doing things, that’s when you begin to think and learn.”
     Born to a Jewish family in 1929 Berlin, Brann left Germany for America in 1941 at the age of 12, traveling with her mother first on a sealed train bound for Lisbon. After a couple weeks in Lisbon, they sailed to New York. Her father, a physician, had emigrated the year before.
     From the lowest class in junior high school — “because I couldn’t yet speak English” — she eased into Brooklyn College, then Yale, where she earned a PhD in archeology. 
     “The professors at Brooklyn,” she remembers, “were more distinguished than those at Yale, but Yale got me to Greece.”
     She arrived in Greece in the 1950s as an archeologist with the team excavating the Athenian marketplace.
     “At five o’clock there was tea and everybody had a lot to report on what they had seen. I was deeply absorbed in it, I loved doing it, but I decided I couldn’t spend my life that way.”
     So she switched to teaching Greek and archeology at Stanford, then migrating to St. Johns on the recommendation of a friend.
     “I came here for an interview, and I fell in love with the place,” she says. “I think it was mutual.”
     “We don’t have academic grades,” Brann continues. “We’re not professors, and that’s because we don’t profess. We are all called tutors and all equal. Our way of teaching is to listen from the students and to guide them. This suited me perfectly.”
     Her philosophy had been with St. John’s all along.
     “The real purpose of these four years is to talk with people about what it means to be really happy,” she explains of what she’s found so dear. “So they will know for the rest of their lives what the real center of life is.”
     From this center, the prolific writer has gained worldly fame. In 2005, she was a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, an annual award to those “who have deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens’ engagement with the humanities or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities.”
     At a ceremony at the White House, she found President George W. Bush “very charming and very witty.”
     With her guest to the evening dinner, then St John’s president Chris Nelson, “we were in a reception line, and I introduced Chris Nelson. President Bush, who remembers everybody, says, “So, here’s the other president.”
     She remembers “long corridors that lead from the Oval Office to the dining hall and the reception halls. In every nook,” she says, “there was a little musical group. With Bush, the music was Handel and Mozart.”
     Barack Obama was president on Brann’s second visit to the White House, with a friend getting the same award for sciences. “Then came the same routine, and it was jazz and rock and roll.”
     Dean from 1990 to 1997, Eva Brann is the college’s longest serving tutor at the school.
     “I love the place,” she says. “There are days when it’s just glorious.”