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Dead Language A Wonderful Part of Living

by Mary Jo Shannon

Latin is dubbed “a dead language.” For centuries after the modern Romance languages, derived from Latin, were spoken in France, Spain and Italy, Latin remained the language of the Roman Catholic Church, but today it is no longer required for the mass.

Latin is often spurned by students who prefer modern languages. However, anyone who has studied Latin will attest how an understanding of the Latin roots of English words enhances our understanding of English vocabulary. Latin phrases are also used in the fields of medicine, law and the theater.

I was introduced to Latin in my freshman year at Beverly Manor High School in Staunton. Latin I was a small class and its teacher, Mr. Frank Somerville, no ordinary teacher. He retired from a nearby college where he taught Latin and was pleased to have an opportunity to continue his career at the high school level. He lived near the school and was present only for this class.

Youngsters often describe teachers in their thirties as “old” – but Dr. Somerville was old by anybody’s standard. I remember him as short and slight of build, dressed always in a dark suit, with a white shirt and black bow tie. He walked slowly and sometimes used a cane. His snowy white hair, neatly coiffed, and a carefully trimmed white mustache gave him a distinguished appearance, and when he spoke his accent marked him as a native of the South.

He knew I loved the study of Latin and gave me special attention to encourage me. I finished the year with an A average and could hardly wait for the second year to begin. But no one else in the class wanted a second year of Latin. The principal announced that the class would not be offered due to lack of interest. I was devastated.

But Dr. Somerville persuaded the principal to allow me to come to his home for lessons. I don’t know whether he was paid by the school system or whether he donated his services – at my young age I was only delighted that I could continue to study with individual attention. Each day I walked to his home on Opie Street in Staunton and under his tutelage translated Julius Caesar’s accounts of the Gallic and Civil Wars. Dr. Somerville’s daughter, Betty, lived with him. She welcomed me warmly and often served me a small snack before I headed back to school. Both of my grandfathers died before I was born, and secretly I adopted Dr. Somerville as my grandfather. And I believe he considered me as a surrogate granddaughter.

Mid-way through the year he began to discuss my competing in the regional Latin tournament. I was not enthusiastic about it, but knew it was important to him. I wanted so much to give him the pleasure of having his student excel. However, it was not to be. Although I did my best it was not good enough to rank above average. I ached, knowing how disappointed he must be. When I told him I was sorry, he replied, “It was my mistake, Maria (my Latin name). I should have had you read Virgil instead of so much Caesar.”

The following year Beverly Manor and three other rural high schools were consolidated, becoming Wilson Memorial High School at Fishersville, Virginia, and my special relationship with Dr. Somerville ended. Latin was no longer an option at Wilson. I enrolled in French and later continued to study that language at Mary Baldwin.

When Dr. Somerville died, his daughter wrote to me, telling me how much teaching me had meant to her father. The feeling was mutual.

Vade in pace – (Go in peace – The Roman way to say “Goodbye”).

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