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University of Montana campus, Missoula

University of Montana campus

You've heard it and may have chanted it yourself: "Victoriae ursorum feliciter!"

That's "Go, Griz!" in Latin, according to a couple of fans of the classics among the 225 participants in Missoula last week for a meeting of the American Classical League at the University of Montana. The translation includes the push for a victory by the bear along with a wish of good fortune, a melding of the chant in the stadium here and the old chants by Romans in the Coliseum.

Last week at UM, the league kicked off its centennial of fostering the study of the classics in the United States and Canada, and it did so in a place members found both fitting and initially surprising.

Executive director Sherwin Little said much of the league membership is based on the East Coast, and travel to Montana can come with trepidation about more than connecting flights.

"The East Coast mentality is, 'We're going to need bear spray to go to the bathroom in the dorm,'" Little said.

After spending time in Missoula, though, he said members already were talking with him about how to return sooner or later. And Barbara Weinlich, visiting associate professor of the classics at UM, said the flagship is an appropriate venue for a milestone commemoration of the classics, with a star historic figure in the field and young scholars immersed in the teachings.

"Choosing our institution to kick off the centennial is just a wonderful gesture of support," Weinlich said.

In 1895, William Aber accepted a job to serve as the chair of languages at UM, and "Daddy" Aber was one of Missoula's first four faculty members and a larger-than-life character in the history of the school, according to Weinlich and UM. And the tradition of teaching ancient Greek and Latin that started 123 years ago continues to the present day.

UM graduate Nicholas Smerker first fell in love with the Romans as a youngster when he thought they "looked cool," but he later came to appreciate their values. To him, the most important virtue is pietas, or duty. He takes seriously his duty to family and friends, and this summer, he will fulfill a duty to country, heading to military officer school.

"That choice was based on not only the upbringing I had but my classical education, where I learned about these certain Greco-Roman values that I enjoy and try to espouse in my daily life," Smerker said.

Cora Vincent, who has a master of education from UM and also studied the classics, grew up fascinated with mythology, and she wanted to read the stories for herself without the lens of a translator. Once she did, she better understood the emotional nuance of the language, like the depth of the love and hate in the poetry of Catullus. 

"So much is lost in translation, it's nice to be able to read it in the original language," said Vincent, who will start her first teaching job in August at the Gilbert Classical Academy in Arizona.

Storytelling was the theme of this year's conference, and Matt Semanoff, head of the classics at UM, said the gathering offers teachers in the classics a chance to share ideas. A high school teacher from Buffalo, New York, for instance, created a Roman novel with the help of students over the course of a year.

"It's awfully tough to be in a high school where you're the only person doing what you do and you need to keep coming up with new material all the time," Semanoff said.

The professionals also talked about how to teach classical myths with rape and violence against women in the age of #metoo, Little said. Those stories are an important part of the classical tradition, he said, but they can be taught as tabloid or discussed in their proper context. 

"How can you use the story as a healing?"

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.