People have a
love-hate feeling for the French. We love their taste, their flair;
but we hate it when they put us down. But there is a certain class
of French who do not try to put us down and who have an unparalleled
genuineness of character. I am thinking of people like honest French
restaurateurs, who have no goal in life beyond preparing very special
meals and running their little restaurants. When they become successful
it never occurs to them to start up a chain of restaurants; they just
keep doing the thing they know until eventually they decide to retire.
Or the French menuisier, (carpenter) who learned his trade from his
father and who is now in business with his son. His only goal is to
continue doing his family work as a good, honest craftsman.
There are still quite a few French people like that and I have known
a lot of them. But the one who touched my heart more than any other
was Monsieur Sprimont. He was my French teacher for 25 years (and
my Father Confessor!). I was with him when he died. I still think
of him a lot and always with a little smile in my heart and a little
choke in my throat.
Monsieur Sprimont was the adventurer of his day; he did it all
as a young man. He was a French aviator in World War I. That was pretty
close to the beginning of the age of military aviation. He flew reconnaissance
missions over the German lines and did his part along with the United
States and Britain in defeating Kaiser Wilhelms Germans. After
the war Monsieur Sprimont piloted the little fabric winged planes
of the French postal service. He flew the route from Toulouse, France
to Dakar, Senegal, West Africa. It was a perilous route over the mountains
of Spain and the waters of the Mediterranean.
One of his companion aviators was St. Supérey, who later became
famous as the author of Le Petit Prince, among other books. He was
lost at sea flying his little plane off the coast of southern France
and never returned. Planes werent as safe then as they are now.
Monsieur Sprimont, mourning the loss of St. Supérey as well
as a number of his other fellow aviators, made a deliberate decision
to quit the flying service while he was still alive. So this tall,
elegant, dashing young man gave up his flying to emigrate to America,
to the university town of Palo Alto, California where I would meet
him, and where he would spend the rest of his long life. New frontiers
always interested Monsieur Sprimont; he kept up on the news about
the astronauts and dreamed of someone making a mission to Mars. If
this should ever happen in my lifetime I will be reminded of Monsieur
Sprimonts dream for mankind.
He married a nice French girl who stayed by him to the end, preparing
the French cuisine he loved so much. After arriving in Palo Alto,
he settled into a totally new career, the career of teaching French.
He reasoned simply that French was a beautiful language (as he would
say, une très belle langue) and that teaching French would
be pleasurable and worthwhile. He rented a little second-floor room
with large windows on three sides, windows that he could open to enjoy
the pleasant Palo Alto climate and the fragrance of the flowers below.
In this same room he conducted his mostly one-on-one French classes
for the next 50 years.
Along with his teaching he spent the first several years writing his
own textbooks, Volume One, a blue-covered paperback, and Volume Two,
a red-covered one. As far as I know Monsieur Sprimont never wrote
anything else; but he certainly did a great job on those books. It
is all in the book as he would frequently say. Turn to
such and such a chapter and you will find your answer.
Typically, I spent one hour a week studying French with Monsieur Sprimont.
No matter how busy I was at work there was always time for that special
hour of each week. How fun it was to read the little gems of French
literature that he would uncover and to philosophize with him in French.
The spicy stories of DeMaupassant, the detective stories of Simenons
character, Inspector Maigret, the adventures of Monsieur Sprimonts
deceased pilot friend St. Supérey.
Incidentally, I learned more about the Catholic Church and the beauty
of its teachings and traditions from Monsieur Sprimont than any other
person. He had a strict church upbringing. I think his family wanted
him to be a priest. For some reason, however, he renounced the church
and became a Freemason. Even as he lay dying, he put no credence in
the hereafter although he did seem to appreciate my wifes praying
for him. Over the years the lofty professor-student relationship grew
into a personal friendship. We confided in one another; he helped
me with my French correspondence, telling me what to say as well as
how to say it. He taught my wife for many years and was perhaps the
only one who really understood her. She was a charming lady and he
liked to think of her as a daughterhe never had any children
of his own. I recall when she lost the one invitation we had ever
gotten from the Queen of England; I was all over her about that. Monsieur
Sprimont said, Perhaps she is doing the best she can.
Very prophetic words.
Monsieur Sprimont never asked material things from the world. He avoided
the pursuit of money. Toward the end of his life he told me that he
was paying for his choices; that inflation was driving up the cost
of the tiny apartment where he and his wife lived and he could see
his little savings dwindling away. The truth was that he never needed
to worry since I was always ready to care for both him and his wife
and always offered him to live in a little house we had.
His two biggest fears in life were senility and cancer. As a younger
man he had smoked and he was realistic in knowing there was always
a danger from that. To keep himself in shape he spent an hour each
day walking all around the shopping center. He was a familiar figurea
tall, elegant, somewhat stooped, but colorful old man with his red
French beret at a jaunty angle over his balding head.
Perhaps his biggest life crisis came at the age of 90 when he had
to take a driving test to renew his drivers license. If he had
lost his license, he wouldnt have been able to drive his little
Volkswagen to work every day and he would have had to close his French
That little school was his life. He had made it completely self-sufficient;
there was a giant French dictionary, a book case, a pencil sharpener
on the wall, an audiocassette for recording and playing back students
voices, and even a little sink for washing his hands. He shook hands
with his favorite students (even embraced my wife) after our lessons.
After shaking hands he always carefully washed his hands. Being scientifically
trained he wanted to avoid germs that could cause him to miss his
French classes. I never knew him to be ill.
At long last Monsieur Sprimonts premonition became a terrible
reality. He was diagnosed in the later stages of lung cancer. His
last months were special for us all. He devoted all his remaining
life and energy to his beloved classes. Each lesson was a treasure,
but I couldnt help crying after each class.
Then came the two weeks he missed his classes. My wife and I found
him in his little apartment still rational. He stirred a bit and seemed
so relieved to see us. He was slumped in his chair and motioned for
me to lift him up a bit. As emaciated as he was I still realized I
was lifting a big man, a great man.
When I had lifted him up he said to us, I was hoping you would
get here . . . I was waiting to see you . . . I wanted to say good-bye
to you. We embraced him and he sank into a coma for the last