My Big Brother
— John F. Niblack
I met Charles through Claire Matthews, the development director for Connecticut College about 15 years ago.
Claire knew that I collected traditional Chinese ink paintings, and asked me if I would like the advice of a Conn College professor named Chu who was an artist and art historian. We attended an auction of traditional Chinese paintings in New York at Christie’s, and quickly became friends. How could one not quickly become a friend of Charles’ – with his wonderful, outgoing, cheerful personality, it only takes three minutes.
I soon learned from others at Conn and in the community that Charles was one of the most popular professors at the College, and was known to everyone, whether they took his courses or not.
He took the young people quite seriously, and was always quick to praise. No surprise that they all loved him!
In the first few years of our friendship, I would visit him and Bettie in their home near the Conn College campus, bring auction catalogues, and ask his opinions about pieces about to come up for sale. Almost immediately I learned that conversations with Charles were never linear. Any specific topic always reminded him of a vaguely related other topic, which led to yet another and another. After a fascinating hour or so of this pattern, I would leave wondering what it was that I had originally asked, but full of interesting information.
In the summer preceding my retirement in 2002, I asked Charles if he would teach me Chinese so I could read the inscriptions often found on traditional paintings. He agreed, but fixed me with a stern stare and said “You will be my last student, so work hard.”
I have tried to do that over the last seven years, but have found, you will be shocked to learn, that Chinese is not that easy. But I had such fun being Charles’ Last Student. It is a title that I will always wear proudly.
Over the years, Charles and I exchanged almost 300 letters in Chinese via fax. I have them all. We travelled to China together, an experience too funny to imagine, and one I will always treasure.
So our interaction grew from teacher and student, to, as he put it in our letters, big brother and little brother.
My last meeting with Charles and Bettie was near the end of October 2008, in their apartment in New London. Charles was quite ill, was using an oxygen mask to breathe and sitting in a wheelchair, and suggested that I leave because he was too short of energy to see guests. I ignored this, produced the latest China Institute catalogue, and asked Charles if he could help me with translation of an article about the art collection of PuYi, the last Chinese emperor. He seized the catalog, spent the traditional 10 minutes searching for his glasses, and then began to help me.
After about an hour, I could see his energy level was fading, and said I would leave the catalogue with him. He said he would finish the translation and fax it to me, but then, paging ahead, was a little dismayed to see that it went on for many more pages, and said it might take him some time to finish.
I said with playful severity, “Well, what else have you got to do? Get on it!” He grinned and promised he would. He died about a week later, and I am so happy to have taken that last lesson.
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