Many graduate students know what it feels like to be ABD—all-but dissertation. Few know the feeling as well as Max Horlick.
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Horlick, 89, received his doctorate in French literature Wednesday, more than a half century after defending his dissertation.
Horlick’s academic career was
interrupted several times, first
when he was drafted into the
Army during World War II. Later,
after his wife became ill and with
children to support, he abandoned
his quest for a doctorate. Last year,
hoping to get him an honorary
Ph.D., his children appealed to the
University to accept the dissertation,
“The Literary Judgment of
Michel de Montaigne.”
Instead, University officials
asked to see the original work to
assess whether to grant the actual
degree. Horlick, who hadn’t
known about his children’s plan,
was “astounded,” he said. “I wished
them luck, but actually I was not
sanguine about it.”
In March, Pierre Force, chair of
the Department of French, emailed
the good news to Horlick’s children
and the dean of the Graduate
School of Arts and Sciences. “It’s a
fine piece of work on an interesting
topic,” wrote Force, who was
on the committee that read
Horlick’s 180-page paper. “Our recommendation
to Dean Pinkham is
that Max Horlick be retroactively
granted a 1954 Ph.D.”
When Columbia grants 11,706
degrees at this year’s commencement,
Horlick, class of 1954, will
certainly be the oldest. The registrar’s
office wasn’t certain if he is
Columbia’s oldest graduate ever..
Max Horlick in his U.S. Army uniform in the early 1940's.
Growing up in a tiny New Jersey
farming community of immigrants,
Horlick quickly discovered an ear
for languages—he eventually
learned 10 of them. After getting a
degree in French from Rutgers, he
married and started graduate work
at Columbia, only to be drafted. His
language skills got him into military
intelligence, and he served in
the Battle of the Bulge, questioning
captured German officers.
After the war, Horlick taught at
St. Lawrence University, spending
summers working on his doctorate.
He wrote his dissertation and defended it; two professors on the panel accepted it, a
third wanted revisions. “I remember him vividly,”
Horlick said. “He didn’t like the style.” Jeff Horlick, 62,
remembers his father banging away on a black
portable Royal typewriter, wrestling with different
drafts. “As a nine-year-old, I was sensing that things
were going in a frustrating way,” he said.
Then Horlick’s wife contracted tuberculosis and was
sent to a sanitarium for two years. (She made a full recovery
and still works as a fine arts photographer.) With all
his responsibilities, Horlick said, “I just couldn’t do it.”
Horlick went on to work for the government—his
children say it was the CIA—eventually ending up at the
Social Security Administration. Even after retirement, he
continued working in the pension industry. The dissertation
stayed in a lockbox until the University asked to
see it. “I didn’t even know we still had it,” Horlick said.
Horlick had to fill out paperwork to get the Ph.D.,
which included the question: “What are your job plans
for next year?” Even though he is in his ninth decade,
Horlick has a long list.
He still consults for his former employer, has finished a book about the history of the pension system
and is writing a novel about football. He plays golf,
belongs to a monthly book group, teaches Spanish and
is taking a course in mysticism, myth and the work of
Call back soon if there were any other questions, he
said in a recent phone call from his home in Silver
Spring, MD; he was about to leave for a tai chi class.
For more information on Commencement and individual school ceremonies, visit the official 2007 Commencement Web site. For the latest news, visit Commencement News.
– Special from The Record