Mourning the loss of a beloved professor

Charles W. Bassett, former professor and beloved friend of the College passed away on October 19, 2010.

Former Lee Family Professor of English and American Studies emeritus Charles W. Bassett passed away on Tuesday, October 19.  Bassett began his career on the Hill in 1969 and spent  more than three decades crafting a powerful legacy as one of the most influential faculty members in recent College history. 

Although his accomplishments were plentiful, the community remembers Bassett most for his larger-than-life personality and his love for teaching. “He was in love with what he did,” Bassett’s friend and colleague Jennifer Boylan, professor of English, said. “He gave all his heart to what he did….For a lot of people he was the epitome of what a college professor ought to be.” 

One of Bassett’s most notable and lasting accomplishments was his creation of the American Studies department at Colby, of which he was the chair from 1971 until 1996. The American Studies department did not have any full-time faculty members until Margaret McFadden, associate professor of American Studies, and Christian A. Johnson, associate professor of integrative liberal learning, joined the College in 1996. Yet Bassett, who retired in 2000 but continued to teach part-time, was able to develop the department, and it was one of the most popular  majors on the Hill while he was here. 

“He created a thriving program here with no official faculty resources just by drawing people together—in some ways just by the sheer force of his personality,” McFadden said.

Bassett did not just serve as a cornerstone for both the American Studies and English departments —he was also a cornerstone of the entire College community. His close friend and colleague Sandy Maisel, William R. Kenan Jr. professor of government and director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, marveled at how Bassett’s entire life revolved around the College. “Colby was the center of his universe,” he said.

Bassett made a point to be involved in all aspects of the College. “I don’t think there’s a committee at Colby that he didn’t serve on,” Maisel said. “Anything there was to do at Colby you asked him to do he would do it.”

Although he was undoubtedly a great academic, one of the aspects of Bassett’s personality that so many of his friends and former students admired was his love for life outside of the classroom. After Bassett’s son began playing soccer at Waterville High School, Bassett became a devoted soccer fan and spent the next several decades attending almost every Colby soccer home game (as well as many road games), pacing the sidelines and yelling at the players, wearing his iconic yellow slicker. A memorial was held on Saturday, October 23 near the soccer field and continued throughout the men’s soccer game. 

He also loved a good glass of beer and the camaraderie it could build. As Maisel recollected, every time Bassett went over to his house he had a six-pack of beer in hand because “he didn’t want to get caught short.” 

At faculty meetings, Boylan fondly remembered that “he just wanted to get out of whatever boring meeting we were in and go have a few beers.”

Bassett’s love for the College and love for teaching helped him profoundly influenced generations of Colby students. About a month ago, Boylan sent out an e-mail to all of the American Studies and English majors who graduated while Bassett was teaching letting them know that he was very ill. Within two days, Boylan had received over 200 letters to Bassett, and they kept coming. 

Students did not wait until his death to pay tribute to Bassett. By the end of his career, Bassett’s office door was entirely covered with postcards from around the world written by his former students. 

Bassett’s dedication did not go unnoticed by his peers, either. Among his many distinctions, two of the greatest were his Mary C. Turpie Award from the American Studies Association and the Senior Class Teaching Award, which has since been renamed the Charles W. Bassett Faculty Award. He was the first recipient of both of the awards. 

A legendary teacher, a loving father and grandfather and a titan of the Colby community, Charles  Bassett dedicated his life to help make Colby the great institution it is today. 

“You don’t teach for the money, you don’t teach for the fame or the influence. You teach because your heart tells you to,” Boylan said. “When you think about the best teacher you ever had, you think of somebody who gave their whole heart to you. And for 30 years of Colby students that person was Charlie Bassett.”

Bassett is survived by his two children, David and Elizabeth Bassett, and his three grandchildren.