Aaron Godfrey, a Stony Brook University lecturer in the Department of European languages and a leader of the small fellowship of Long Island classicists, died April 7 at his Port Jefferson home. He was 91.
He had been diagnosed with pneumonia and tested negative for the coronavirus but doctors suspected the virus was nevertheless the cause of his death, said his wife, Valerie Godfrey.
The only Latin instructor at Stony Brook University for decades, according to a University webpage, Godfrey left a banking career to become a professional humanist at an institution now known for its science and medicine. He was for a time skeptical of faculty tenure, a practice some called critical to academic freedom, and of United University Professions, the union representing academic and professional staff within the New York State university system; he was later a leader of that union and of the faculty senate.
He joined the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and for decades led the university’s Upward Bound program, intended to prepare first-generation college-bound students. He also was a member of the conservative National Association of Scholars, which pushed for traditional courses in colleges nationwide.
He was, said Valerie Godfrey, “radically moderate,” as well as funny and an excellent cook.
Aaron William Godfrey, known as Bill, was born Jan. 10, 1929, in Manhattan to Aaron William Godfrey, a real estate developer and onetime silver miner, and the former Clare Molanphy, a teacher in New York City schools. His father built the Oakcroft community in Montclair, New Jersey, where a road bears the family name.
Godfrey attended Regis High School in Manhattan and St. John’s Preparatory School in Brooklyn. He graduated from Fordham University with a bachelor’s in history and from Hunter College with a master’s in history.
He served in the Army from 1954 to 1956 and was stationed in Germany.
After a stint in banking at Citibank and W.R. Grace, he took a 50% pay cut in 1960 to teach at Newton College of the Sacred Heart, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts that later merged with Boston College.
At Newton he taught Spanish, French, Latin, money and banking, and Latin American history and politics before accepting an offer from Stony Brook in 1965 to teach Latin.
Godfrey taught it until 2018, sometimes to as few as 40 students per introductory class, sometimes more than 80, writing hundreds of scholarly articles and a Latin textbook, Medieval Mosaic, along the way.
Latin is “precise and beautiful and can express meaning unequivocally,” he wrote in an essay for Newsday in 1984. His assessment of the health of the dead language was neither unblinkered by nostalgia — it had not been for a generation a core of the liberal arts education — nor was the language, for him, an anachronism.
The matter-of-fact, commerce-minded Romans were “more like Americans than any of the other ancient peoples,” he wrote.
Godfrey helped keep the language alive on Long Island by hosting yearly youth competitions in rhetoric, translation and knowledge of ancient history at Stony Brook University. He and his wife also hosted meetings of the Suffolk Classical Society at their home.
Jeff Greenberger, who teaches Latin at Riverhead High School and Stony Brook University, said those meetings were dinner parties for about a dozen Latin teachers and graduate students that typically involved some sight reading of ancient texts.
Greenberger recalled a man with “the luster of age” about him, though he wasn’t much older than some of his guests. Godfrey also was a masterful reader who seemed to be living out the lessons of the texts, Greenberger said “The notion of a life of applied, concentrated study, of commitment to earnest reflection.”
From his marriage to Barbara Barnes Godfrey that ended in her death in 1976, Godfrey is survived by Dr. Catherine Godfrey of Washington, D.C.; Aaron Godfrey of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Anthony Godfrey, the U.S. ambassador to Serbia, who lives in Belgrade; Annie Clyne, of Fairfield, Connecticut; Myriam Godfrey, of Oakland, California; Thomas Godfrey, of Princeton Junction, New Jersey; and Maura “Goo” Newman, of Littleton, Massachusetts.
From his marriage to Valerie Godfrey, he is survived by Michael McCrary, of Somerville, Massachusetts; Christopher McCrary, of Port Jefferson Station; and Ellen VanLoan, of Fairfield, Connecticut.
Godfrey was cremated. His ashes will be interred at Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale.