Spring 2001, Volume 37, No. 2


Lives of a Saint

Altruism 101
Reach Out!
Venture Catalysts
Sagehens in Paradise

-Pomona Forum-
Altruism 101
-News Print-
Professor's Philosophy of Life Unshaken

-Pomona Today-
Professor of the Year
Inside the Power Crunch
Rite of Passage
Top Five
Frats with a Difference
Bridge Over the Pacific

-New Knowledge-
The Secrets of the Hydra
-Sports Report-
Dynamic Duos
Getting On
George Moore
-Campaign Update-
American Dreams

-Parlor Talk-
-Family Tree-
-Alumni Profile-
Casey Trupin '95
-Alumni Puzzler-
-Back Cover-
Pilgrims' Progress


Violence is so rare at Pomona that the stabbing of Professor Frederick Sontag October 30 came as a body blow to the whole community. The following article was printed in the Los Angeles Times, Nov. 2, 2000.

   "My genes lack something," Frederick Sontag said Wednesday, bemused at all of the fuss over him in the hospital. "I don't seem to hold grudges."
   That was why Sontag is more than willing to mend his relationship with the troubled Pomona College student who allegedly stabbed him in the neck on Monday. It was why he'd bailed that student out of jail on a previous occasion. It was why he'd found an attorney to defend the young man.
   Sontag, 76, a philosophy professor at Pomona College since President Eisenhower's first term, is legendary on campus for his devotion to students. They seek him out with problems. They ask him, as an ordained minister, to officiate at their weddings. They keep in touch, by the hundreds, after they graduate. And he always seems to find the time, regardless of his teaching load or his work on two dozen books or his papers that probe questions such as whether God intended direct communication with man.
   Sontag is exactly the kind of professor that small liberal arts colleges love to have, said Dean of Students Ann Quinley. But nothing could have prepared the professor's admirers for the magnanimity he displayed on Monday.
   It started with a call on behalf of a 22-year-old student whom Sontag had known for more than four years, Jared Essig. He was in jail on a shoplifting charge.
   Essig had been acting strangely. He'd become enraged Friday by the college's decision to move the annual Halloween bash indoors--for fear of rain. Essig, who came from a Portland suburb, had spent time in mental hospitals in his sophomore year, but he had been cleared to come back to school. Now, as a senior, he was active on campus but getting worked up over minor incidents, said his roommate, J.B. Waterman. He battled with editors at the campus newspaper last week over his opinion piece on information-technology policies. Waterman said Essig himself wondered whether he was losing his emotional stability.
   On Sunday evening, police picked him up for alleged shoplifting at a supermarket, along with vandalism and appearing intoxicated in public.
   Waterman got a call about 2:45 a.m. Monday from Essig, but was unable to bail him out. So Waterman called Sontag, and Sontag, as he always did, went to the jail, meeting Quinley there.
   Officials from a mental health agency were called by police, but deemed Essig no threat to himself or others. Police released him and gave his possessions, including a pocketknife with a 2 1/4-inch blade, back to him. To Sontag, the young man seemed rational. Quinley called his parents. They would fly down as soon as they could. Sontag would let Essig spend the night at his house in leafy Claremont, a couple of blocks from campus.
   The dean went back to her office and Sontag drove Essig to his dorm to pick up some clothes. Essig started to give the professor nonsensical directions to the dorm. "This is my 49th year of teaching at Pomona," Sontag said. "I knew where I was going."
   Essig grew more and more agitated because Sontag wasn't following directions, so the professor pulled into a parking lot, hoping to settle him down.
   Essig, in what appeared to be a growing delusional state, pulled out the knife, Sontag said. "I said, 'Jared, give me that.' Normally, he would have. But in that state of mind, he was talking gibberish. I reached over to grab it and get it out of his possession."
   That's when Sontag was stabbed in the neck, twice, police said. "Then I had to let him out of the car--he couldn't figure it out," Sontag said.
   It was dark, so Sontag said he didn't notice how badly he was bleeding. He drove a few blocks to his office building, walked up two flights of stairs and calmly called Quinley at home. She wasn't there, so he left a detailed voice message that he had been stabbed and that someone needed to locate Essig to protect other students.
   Then he phoned home. The line was busy; his wife was on the phone. So he walked down the stairs, drove to his house and had her drive him the few miles to Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center. By the time they made it to the emergency room, Sontag had lost three pints of blood.
   Essig was later detained by campus security near Claremont McKenna College, one of Pomona's sister colleges, after telling an officer he had just killed Sontag and displaying the knife, police said. He remained in jail Wednesday night, awaiting arraignment on a charge of attempted murder.
   All of this Sontag seemed to take in stride. Sitting in his hospital room, he was in good spirits, surrounded by flowers and receiving dozens of calls from students and other well-wishers.
   The knife wounds missed his carotid artery by a few millimeters; otherwise he would have quickly bled to death. He may be released as soon as today.
   Sontag said Essig was the victim of mental illness that flares periodically. "He was out of his mind. He gets these psychotic breaks. He has paranoid episodes, too. That's all."
   The lack of ill will was vintage Sontag, his colleagues said Wednesday.
   "If you knew Fred, you wouldn't be surprised," said Paul Hurley, a fellow Pomona philosophy professor. "He was more worried about the condition Jared was in and the threat he posed to other people than his own wounds."
   Hurley said Sontag has a missionary zeal for teaching, arriving most mornings around 7 a.m., and often returning to the office after dinner and staying until 10 p.m. He said Sontag has a devoted following of alumni who keep in regular contact, ranging from corporate CEOs to students teaching in urban schools in Baltimore's housing projects.
   Pomona College is the oldest and most prestigious of the seven Claremont Colleges, a cluster of small liberal arts colleges 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The colleges pride themselves on close relationships with their students. Like Sontag, Quinley said she knew Essig well. She called the stabbing "a tragedy for a bright young man." Essig's parents declined to be interviewed.
   What-if questions remained. The dean remained troubled that police returned Essig's knife. "Nobody told us he had a weapon. If they had told us he had a weapon, I would have said to the student , 'Give it to me,' and I would have locked it in the trunk of my car," Quinley said.
   And Waterman, Essig's roommate, wrestled with the earlier signs of instability. "I wish I'd seen it coming. I wish I could have done something," he said.
   He said Essig had taken time off from school in the spring of 1999, working on a crab boat in the Bering Sea and then traveling to China and Taiwan, getting a job teaching English and even buying a motorcycle there. "Usually Jared is a wonderful, deep-thinking, unpretentious guy. Of all the people I met at this college, I wanted to room with him."
   Ask Frederick Sontag what moved him the most, and he'll tell you about Tuesday morning's visit from Essig's parents.
   "It was the most dramatic thing," he said. "The parents, they were in tears. They could hardly talk." They told him how much they appreciated what he had done for their son, how bad they felt, how their son talked more about him than any other professor.
   And they screwed up their courage to ask a favor: Would he be willing to talk to Jared? 
   "Absolutely," Sontag said. "I believe in restoring relationships."
   --Kenneth R. Weiss and Richard Winton, Times Staff Writers