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Fall 2002
Volume 39, No. 1
Issue Home

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PCMOnline Editor: Sarah Dolinar


When Fred Sontag first journeyed to Pomona College, on a warm summer day in 1952, he came as an instructor in philosophy and knew he wouldn’t stay long. “In a small college,” he remembers thinking, “students would bother me.” Laughing, he explains that they did in fact “bother” him. “I had an office in Holmes Hall, and students did wander in and out of my office all the time. What I discovered though, was that I enjoyed the contact.” This is the key to Fred Sontag. Along with his scholarship, what brings him the most fulfillment is his strong and continuing involvement in the lives of Pomona students and alumni.

Connected by a vast written correspondence, which he prefers to e-mail, Sontag maintains ties with hundreds of Pomona alumni. (With younger alumni though, he admits that e-mail helps.) When travelling, he and his wife Carol “always” visit alumni, whether they are in Seattle or South Africa. An ordained minister since 1974, he estimates he has performed about 150 marriages for alumni and baptized many of their babies, as well as blessing at least one alumni vineyard. “I’m in my second and third generation of students now,” he boasts, “and I enjoy that.” He is still in contact with students from his earliest classes through the Class of 2002.

“As a mentor, he helped those of us who were challenging the edges of the system to know where the lines were and helped us become better citizens,” explains Nick Winslow ’64.

In a 1997 speech for the dedication of the newly renovated Greek Theatre to both Fred and Carol Sontag, Steve Pauley ’64 noted that “Perhaps Fred’s most-used phrase, describing a young student who just crossed over a line, or one who is on academic probation is ‘…but you know, he’s (or she’s) really a good kid.’ … Fred somehow sees the good and the potential in all of us even after a brief fall from grace. What greater mentor in life can there be,” he asked, “than the one who simply believes in you as a person, who believes in your potential to succeed?”

Among students today, he is known for his open door and lunches with students in the dining halls. He’s also known as an advocate always willing to help, as well as a faithful fan of the rugby team and the Kappa Delta fraternity. The day of this interview Sontag had just mailed letters to four alumni and finished lunch with another alumnus and his son, a high school senior. During the school year, he estimates that he lunches with students two to three times per week. “If students see you outside the classroom,” he says, “they feel closer to you.”

This does not mean that Sontag has neglected any aspect of his scholarship. According to Professor Paul Hurley, chair of the Philosophy Department, “He has been a major force in philosophy for 50 years. What is frightening to the rest of us about Fred is that I don’t think he has eased up at all.”

Sontag is currently awaiting the release of his 27th book, Mysterious Presence, due out this summer from University Press of America. Recent books include 2001: A Spiritual Odyssey (2001), Truth and Imagination (1998) and The Descent of Women (1997).
For the 2002–03 academic year, Sontag will teach Philosophy of Religion, Philosophical Psychology, Existentialism and Aspects of Russian Philosophy.

“This guy,” emphasizes Winslow, “is an intellectual giant, a prolific writer, a leader in the philosophy of religion. He is an absolute first-rate academic who is also a great teacher and a mentor.”

Thomas Lee ’04, who took “Existentialism” with Sontag, echoes alumni opinions. “In class, he really pushes you to analyze things and come to your own conclusions, and he always challenges you on your views. A class with Professor Sontag leaves you with the skills necessary to analyze important questions in life, politics and society.”

When Sontag interviewed for the faculty position at Pomona, he had just completed his Ph.D. at Yale. The interview with President Lyon took place in New York, during the waning days of President Truman’s administration. Accepting the position despite his misgivings about a small college, Sontag returned to his home state by train. In the summer of ’52, he and his wife, another California native, found a campus that looked, he says, much as it does today. Marston Quad was beautifully landscaped. The Carnegie Building was being remodeled. Crookshank, Mason and Pearsons were all here, and eucalyptus lined College Avenue. “The campus,” he explains, “still has the same feeling to it. There are lots of new buildings, but all of the signature buildings, Big and Little Bridges, Sumner Hall and Walker are all the same. It’s one of the reasons alumni feel so at home on campus.” He does point out however that “the city of Claremont was surrounded by orange groves, and there was only one house north of Foothill.” What he doesn’t mention is that in 1952, men and women lived in separate residence halls, and tuition, room and board totaled approximately $750 per semester.

What hasn’t changed from those early years is Sontag’s devotion to his students.

“People say sometimes that if we didn’t have Fred, we would have to invent him,” says Ann Quinley, dean of students. “He is somebody that students can absolutely count on and is really a loved individual. Students who interact with him hold him in the highest esteem.”
For the record, Sontag has no plans to retire.

—Cynthia Peters is Associate Director of Public Affairs for Media Relations.