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
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
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
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
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,"
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
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
"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
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