Love of learning fires love eternal


Photo by Candace diCarlo

Rita Heller (CW’48) met her husband on a blind date.

“When I saw him, I said, ‘Oh, I know you. You’re the one who wears the checked shirt with the plaid pants and a tweed jacket.’” She laughed at the memory. “That shirt was bright red and green. Loudest thing I ever saw.”

“It had a fluorescent dye,” her husband Aaron (C’48, G’49) recalled proudly.

“It was because he was just out of the army,” Rita said, “and he had to get away from the khaki.”

The year was 1946. That chance meeting of two Penn undergrads sparked a relationship that for the past half-century has centered around a passion for self-education — a passion which finally brought the sweethearts back to Penn’s campus last spring, to be part of their first Penn course since leaving the University in the late ’40s.

For decades, Rita and Aaron have been active in Great Books discussion groups. In these groups, founded in the late ’40s by Columbia professor Mortimer J. Adler, people gather to read and discuss works of the Western canon. Aaron and Rita went to discussion groups three times a month at the peak of their involvement.

But the meetings became less frequent. They lost group members to death and old age.

And the Hellers, ever hungry for mental stimulation, had to make another plan.

Tipped off by a notice in the Pennsylvania Gazette about Penn courses open to alums, Rita and Aaron enrolled last spring in an upper-level seminar on the writings of St. Augustine.

The choice was by default, explained Rita: “We’ve done plenty of poetry already. And the History of Religion was not at a convenient time — it interfered with my sculpture class. So we took Tuesday, which was St. Augustine. And I must say that we lucked out with Professor [James] O’Donnell.”

That admiration is mutual. “I’ve loved getting to know them,” said O’Donnell of his most senior students. “They just don’t stop. They’re utterly charming unassuming people.” O’Donnell is a professor of classical studies and vice provost for information systems and computing.

The Hellers’ appetite for Penn coursework rewhetted by the Augustine seminar, they will enroll in their first CGS course this fall — a class on ancient art and society of Greece and Italy.

“I have no idea what it will be like,” said Rita. “We’ve already seen many of the things the course will be about. But I’m always willing to reread a piece of art.”

Or a piece of literature, for that matter. Rita and Aaron have lost track of how many times they’ve read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. And they’ve spent 25 years traveling to Europe to track down works of art Proust mentions in his memoirs.

Sharing works of literature “has made the communication between myself and Rita often very interesting,” Aaron said, smiling. He offered an illustration.

“I sit in my chair and read, and she sits in her chair and reads, and I —”

“We’re reading the same thing,” Rita cut in. “We don’t discuss it.”

“But I might be reading an article, and I get to a sentence, and I say, ‘Oh. Charity.’ And she knows right away that I’m talking about Caritas in Padua, the passage in Proust that has to do with the maid in the kitchen, and all I need is one word. So there is this kind of communication —”

“We both know that it was Proust who spoke about this pregnant kitchen maid looking like [the statue of] Charity in the Arena Chapel in Padua. So having that one word —”

“The interesting thing,” Aaron finished, “is that our son thought we didn’t have anything to say to each other. That we had no communication whatsoever.”

Originally published on September 14, 2000