‘Seven steps ahead’: Late UC Berkeley professor emerita of English remembered as trailblazer, brilliant speaker

Anne Middleton, a renowned expert on medieval literature and one of the first female professors to break into the UC Berkeley Department of English, died last fall at the age of 76. Campus faculty and students gathered Saturday afternoon to honor her memory.

Middleton worked in the Detroit school system, University of Michigan and UC Berkeley, where she stayed until her retirement in 2006. Middleton was a Florence Green Bixby Professor Emerita of English at UC Berkeley when she died in her sleep Nov. 23, 2016, shortly after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.

The campus memorial, held at Wheeler Hall, included several speakers. Graduate students read written communications from those who could not make it to the service.

The first to speak was Middleton’s husband, Gene Rochlin. Rochlin and Middleton married in 1973 and were together for 43 years before her death. Rochlin described his wife as “warm, loving, generous, kind and thoughtful” and noted in particular her attention to detail. According to Rochlin, Middleton even had marginal notes in her groceries lists.

Arthur Bahr, Middleton’s last dissertation student before her retirement, remembered an occasion when he went to her office for guidance on his dissertation but instead found himself having an hour-long conversation about figure skating.

“That was very typical of Anne,” Bahr said. “You would think that you were just going to ask a simple question and, before you knew it, two hours had passed and you were just talking about things you never anticipated.”

According to Bahr, Middleton was more like a coach to him than an adviser — she encouraged him to keep going. He also said that keeping up with her in conversations was sometimes a challenge, as her mind was always “seven steps ahead.”

Bahr added that Middleton believed strongly that public schools were public goods. He said she was committed to the principle that public schools were not just “as good” as private schools but that they were even better.

“As teacher, department chair and very active member of the Academic Senate, she worked with fierce energy to ensure that Berkeley would outstrip all competitors in intellectual distinction,” said Steven Justice, a campus professor of English, in the memorial program.

Chancellor Carol Christ, who was the fourth female professor of English to teach at UC Berkeley, spoke fondly of Middleton during the memorial and said the two of them figured out how to be women in the department together. Christ emphasized Middleton’s “sheer brilliance” and “rhetorical electricity.”

Sascha von Meier, a graduate student of Middleton’s husband, was a frequent visitor to Middleton’s home and said she got to know Middleton well over discussions at her dining table. Von Meier said she was in awe of the way Middleton put words together, regardless of the subject matter.

“She was a great exemplar of a strong woman, a strong intellect,” Von Meier said. “She was just being herself and loving every minute of it.”

Contact Ella Colbert at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @colbert_ella.