Alum of the Month

Hotchkiss Alum of the Month Thomas Bass 68

Thomas Bass '68 is an author, professor, and investigative reporter who contributes to many well-known publications and writes books on a wide variety of subjects. "The Eudaemonic Pie -- my cult classic -- is about breaking the bank in Las Vegas with toe-operated computers," says Bass. "My other books range from scientific expeditions in Africa to spies in Vietnam." When not reporting from far-flung places, Bass is professor of English and Journalism at the State University of New York in Albany.

Brought up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Bass says he "heard the siren call to 'Go East, young man,'" when it came time to go to high school. "My mother thought Hotchkiss would give me social graces. I thought it would give me an intellectual challenge." Blair Torrey was one of his inspirational teachers. "He brought literature alive and was a master at honing the skills of someone who already knew he wanted to be a writer."

David Sermersheim, who taught music at Hotchkiss for 33 years, was another important influence. "He was a lefty who supported the rabble-rousers among us who opposed the war in Vietnam," says Bass. "I was a terrible musician, but that didn't matter to David. He wrote parts for us in his compositions and then invited us over to his house for dinner, where we talked politics long into the evening."

Another significant figure was David Demaray. "He invited a group of boys over to his house on Sunday evenings," says Bass. "He had a high-end stereo that he cranked to the max, blasting us with Beethoven and Wagner. These weren't the social graces my mother had in mind, but it was a hell of a musical education."

Chemistry teacher Peter Walsh was also an important mentor. "In his spare time, without getting paid for it, he advised classmate Christopher Winship and me on a survey of the student body that we designed and administered. We crunched the numbers to look for significant findings about sexual experience, drug use, and other aspects of life at Hotchkiss."

"The survey was one of those 1960s moments," says Bass. "It revealed the gap between what people said they were doing and what they were actually doing." On returning to Hotchkiss this past fall for his 50th Reunion, Bass was surprised to find that his and Winship's survey was featured in their class history. It was also a milestone for Winship, who still keeps the survey data in his office at Harvard University, where he serves as the Diker-Tishman Professor of Sociology.  

Having fulfilled all the requirements to graduate from Hotchkiss a year early, Bass headed to Africa for a gap year. He arrived in Swaziland, where he would be working as an assistant teacher at a boarding school, on the day that Swaziland was being granted independence by the British. "The entire country was gathered in the national soccer stadium," says Bass. "The British had commandeered every black car in the country. They arrived in top hats and tails, while King Sobhuza's one hundred and fifty bare-breasted wives began ululating like crazy. This was followed by a three-day party in the King's hot springs."

Bass drove up the east coast of Africa to Ethiopia and back to Swaziland, a country that at the time was a unique haven of racial integration in Southern Africa. He hitchhiked across the African interior, floated down the Congo, and traveled north to Timbuktu. He would repeat these journeys in the 1980s for a series of articles commissioned by Smithsonian Magazine and a book called Camping with the Prince and Other Tales of Science in Africa.

Returning to the States, Bass matriculated at the University of Chicago. "It was a serious place back then," he says. "There were seven graduate students for every undergraduate. At Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap, the bartenders were Ph.D. students in their twelfth year of writing dissertations on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. We used to joke that even after all those years they still didn't know Aristotle's first name."

After receiving his A.B. with Honors, Bass worked as salad man at the Scotch & Sirloin Restaurant in the North End neighborhood of Boston. He was shredding 200 pounds of lettuce a day when the Ford Foundation offered to finance his graduate studies at the University of California. "I had never been to California, and this was for studying something called the History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz. I arrived on a gorgeous stretch of mountainous coastline overlooking Monterey Bay to discover that my academic program consisted of hanging out with Norman O. Brown, Herbert Marcuse, Gregory Bateson, John Cage, and whomever else I found wandering through the redwoods. Those were seven glorious years," says Bass, who received his Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness in 1980.

By then he was launched on writing The Eudaemonic Pie and more books and articles for The New YorkerMother Jones, Audubon, WiredThe Wall Street JournalThe New York Times, and other publications. He served as a lecturer in Literature and History at UC Santa Cruz and a Visiting Professor of Comparative Literature and American Studies at Hamilton College. He began teaching at the State University of New York in 2005, but left for stints as a Visiting Professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris, France and at the Institut de Presse et des Sciences de l'Information (IPSI) at the University of Tunis. "I worked for several years in Tunisia on a grant from the U.S. State Department," says Bass. "We were training investigative reporters, because someone thought they could help save the last democracy left from the Arab Spring."

Bass refers to his teaching career in Albany as "belated," and as "the first real job I ever had," yet he has made his mark at the State University of New York. "Albany wanted to start a B.A. program in journalism, so I got hired for the job, at the rank of professor. I had already written a half-dozen books, so I was spared from having to climb my way up the ranks, but teaching at a state university involves its own special challenges."

"I teach over a hundred students a semester," says Bass, "many of them the first in their families to go to college, others for whom English is their second or third language. They are working one or two jobs to put themselves through school. They are eating out of food banks, sleeping in their cars, worried about ICE and college debt. Who knows what's happening in their lives? Their college experience is miles from my college experience, but I admire their bravery and tenacity."

Bass's books, praised by John Le Carré and other readers, sometimes result from ideas pitched to the magazines for which he writes. "The New Yorker sent me to Vietnam to interview Pham Xuan An," says Bass. "An was the famous Vietnamese journalist, trained in the United States, who worked for Time magazine during the Vietnam War. Only after the war was it revealed that An was a North Vietnamese spy -- the communists' most important spy, responsible for a string of military victories stretching over thirty years."

"The Spy Who Loved Us," Bass's New Yorker story, received an Overseas Press Club award for foreign reporting and was later turned into a book of the same title. The book got rave reviews, including praise from well-known journalists such as Morley Safer, who called it a "revelation," and Ted Koppel, who called it "a gripping story." Bass has visited Vietnam many times for research, often having to hire his own "spy" (nominally an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who monitors his movements). When The Spy Who Loved Us was translated into Vietnamese, Hanoi's communist censors removed large chunks of text; so Bass released an uncensored version on the Internet and went on to write another book called Censorship in Vietnam. The book reveals how Vietnam's censorship regime-like that in China-has wiped out an entire generation of artists and intellectuals. 

Other books by Bass include The PredictorsVietnamerica, and Reinventing the Future. He is at work on a new book that has him traveling to Fukushima, Japan, and to Chernobyl, Ukraine, to research nuclear exclusion zones. "The topic will be in the news again soon," Bass says. "Japan will be lighting the torch for the 2020 Summer Olympics in ... Fukushima. They want to prove the country is back to normal, but there is nothing normal about three nuclear reactors that are still in the process of melting down."

Bass returned to Lakeville for his 50th Reunion in September 2018, his first visit to Hotchkiss since he graduated five decades ago. "One of the big draws for returning after all those years was the chance to look at my academic file. It was sobering to be reminded of all the tumult from those times." He also got to attend an English class. "Ten students were sitting around a table reading Othello. They were recreating scenes, with all the nuance and feeling that I remembered from the last time I sat at one of those tables. Here on the shores of Lake Wononscopomuc, the Bard was speaking to us again." 

www.thomasbass.com