By Sara Olkon
Photo by Jason Smith
“ Going to school here gave me a basis for the kind of person I became. My years here were important because of the professors I had. They were inspirational.”
This past Saturday, Albert Liebman earned a bachelor’s degree more than 70 years in the making.
The former UChicago student first arrived on campus in 1939. Three years later, against the backdrop of Pearl Harbor and with a United States Navy enlistment and an acceptance letter to medical school in hand, Liebman’s AB degree got away from him. At the time, students accepted to medical school did not always complete their undergraduate studies.
But recently, the 88-year-old Milwaukee grandfather — a lifelong physician, poet, and novelist — decided it was time to tie up this loose end. He was inspired after one of his granddaughters graduated from UChicago with a master’s in humanities.
The degree “represents a completion of a connection to the University that somehow in the chaos of the war was denied me,” Liebman says.
After checking with College officials, Liebman happily discovered that he had earned enough applicable credits — his three years at UChicago, plus subsequent zoology coursework he completed at the University of Wisconsin — to qualify for a diploma.
That meant he could return to campus to complete the intellectual journey that had profoundly shaped his life’s path.
“Going to school here gave me a basis for the kind of person I became,” he says. “My years here were important because of the professors I had. They were inspirational. They wrote the textbooks.”
On June 11, Liebman received his AB degree in biological sciences along with the Class of 2011.
“It is wonderful to be able to award Dr. Liebman his College degree at this stage in a life of such dedication and achievement,” says John W. Boyer, dean of the College.
“Although many things have changed since he left in 1942, it is worth remembering that the Core curriculum, which in so many ways defines us, was founded by the faculty who taught his classes — and the dedication to serious learning the College gave him is what we still aspire to give our students.”
On a recent morning, Liebman returned to campus. As he stepped onto the main quad, he felt a rush of old memories.
“It feels like home,” Liebman said as he walked across the fresh, mowed grass.
He smiled, recalling a Maroon story about a student who had been bitten on these same grounds by a squirrel. He thought about his time on Burton-Judson dorm’s touch football team. (“Liebman was the best defensive player on the field that day,” a Maroon sports reporter wrote, Liebman says.)
He also remembered a handful of dances, fueled by the Big Band era, and ate many of his meals in Burton. (There, he said, one of the student waiters was none other than Charles “Chuck” Percy, who would go on to serve as a U.S. senator from Illinois.)
The second youngest of six children, Liebman was inspired to apply to UChicago by his brother-in-law, an alumnus.
The transition to UChicago from a small-town, public high school in Wisconsin wasn’t seamless. Liebman sailed through high school; but at Chicago, living away from home for the first time, he understood immediately that he would be in for a serious academic challenge.
“It was intimidating,” he says of his first months here. “My high school was just an average place.”
He worked hard and thrived. His favorite courses were in English literature and in zoology.
Everything changed on Dec. 7, 1941, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He recalled a downcast scene, as he and classmates sat quietly around a radio, listening to news reports.
“It was sobering,” Liebman remembers.
In 1942, Liebman enlisted in the United States Navy. The same year, he was accepted to medical school at the University of Wisconsin. Liebman went on to serve overseas for the Navy after finishing medical school, and served two years of active duty in the Medical Corps.
After his service, he completed a residency in internal medicine. He later pursued subspecialties in psychiatry, geriatrics, and gerontology.
“I was always pursuing something that would expand my usefulness in medicine,” says Liebman, a widower who is now retired from clinical practice.
His career in medicine has been a mixture of the practice of medicine and teaching.
He has had teaching appointments at the Medical College of Wisconsin, the University of North Dakota School of Medicine, and the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He continued to do volunteer teaching until two years ago.
“My undergraduate time at the U. of C. gave me the desire to ‘search and discover’ the rest of my life. Medicine has been the felicitous medium for that enterprise.”
In addition to his teaching, Liebman has written six self-published books and is at work on his second book of poetry.
“It has to do with the feeling that you have a purpose,” he explains. “You like to feel like you have contributed something to the world.”
Boyer calls Liebman’s lifelong pursuit of knowledge inspiring.
“His presence with the Class of 2011 should remind our students of the creative adventures in life that their educations make possible,” Boyer says.
Originally published on June 13, 2011.