David Mankin, who inspired students to love classics, dies at 61

Classics scholar David Mankin, beloved by Cornell students for his inspiring and idiosyncratic teaching style, compassionate mentorship and the signature black sunglasses he wore to class, died April 24 after a brief illness. He was 61.

Mankin, associate professor emeritus of classics, was the longtime instructor of Greek Mythology, a perennially oversubscribed course with an enthusiastic following. Many students described it as one of the most memorable and meaningful courses of their Cornell careers.

He was a scholar of Latin prose and poetry, with publications including commentaries on the “Epodes of Horace” (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and on the concluding book of Cicero’s “On the Orator” (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

“Dave Mankin’s knowledge of Latin authors and scholarship was superb, and he was strongly committed to undergraduate teaching; students took his classes in droves, and recommended them to their friends,” said Hunter R. Rawlings III, Cornell president emeritus and professor emeritus of classics. “In this era of declining enrollments in humanities courses, Dave Mankin countered the trend with remarkable success.”

Mankin came to Cornell as a postdoctoral fellow in 1985, after receiving a B.A. at Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, where his dissertation compared the classical Latin “Epodes of Horace” with the archaic Greek iambic poetry of Archilochus. He was appointed assistant professor in 1988.

“I appreciated David’s deep commitment to teaching myth,” said Pietro Pucci, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Classics Emeritus, who successfully nominated Mankin for a Clark Distinguished Teaching Award in 1991. The Greek Mythology class “was a mass gathering, but he was able to present facets of the ancient world to students in a uniquely immediate way.”

As the Department of Classics’ director of undergraduate studies in the 1990s, Mankin mentored students in their independent studies and senior theses, while teaching a wide variety of courses on Latin poetry. Students cited his “vast knowledge and erudition, his humor and easy-going manner, and his concern for students’ problems” in recommending him for the Clark award.

“The problem with teachers who don’t teach well is that they don’t like what they’re teaching, or they don’t like the students. I like both, so I have a good combination,” Mankin said in 1991. “There are always a lot of laughs in the class, so we have fun while we’re learning. We compare Greek mythology to sports and superhero comic books – two things I know something about.”

Mankin also won a Paramount Professor Award in 1993.

“He was the reason I started working for the Greek Epigraphy Project [a database of Greek inscriptions], and then got a fellowship to travel in Greece for the summer,” said Elizabeth Franzino ’90. “He was truly one of a kind in his irreverent way – and what other professor wore sunglasses at night? He was also the loyal champion of so many like me.”

Many of Mankin’s former students credited him with not only improving their Latin and their appreciation for classics, but teaching them to become better people.

“I always recall his kindness, clemency and willingness to help all his students,” said Molly LaPorte ’99, now a Latin teacher at Hopewell Valley Central High School in Pennington, New Jersey. “I always think of primum non nocere – that his first duty toward his students and advisees was to do no harm, and provide the emotional and educational support that was needed. I try to carry this with me every day as a teacher and I have found that it is not necessarily an easy thing to do. We miss him very much.”

Mankin, who retired in 2017, is survived by a sister and a brother. A campus memorial event is being planned for fall 2019.

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle. 

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