On a December night, hundreds gathered in Georgetown University's ornate Gaston Hall. Students and young alumni, professors and think-tank scholars, Jesuits and Dominicans came from down the street and across state lines to hear one professor's final lecture.
After 35 years at the university, the Rev. James V. Schall is retiring from teaching. The Jesuit political-philosophy professor, nearly 85 years old, stood before more than 700 students and colleagues who spanned his career and spoke about friendship, reunion, death, and philosophy.
"A professor walks into a classroom every semester," he said. "The students are all 20-year-old potential philosophers. He is the only one present who grows old."
Father Schall, who came to the university in 1977 after teaching in Rome for 12 years, was an "institution" on campus, students said, as famous for his Socratic method as for his lingering in the hallways to get to know students. On a campus at the geographical center of Washington politics, he focused his teaching on philosophical questions about government, human behavior, and the soul.
"In the classroom, it was very clear that he was interested in you as human beings," said Justin R. Hawkins, a 2011 Georgetown alumnus who attended the lecture despite his own graduate-school finals. "He thinks that what happens in the classroom bears upon the question of whether you become a tyrant or a saint."
When students learned that the fall would be Father Schall's final semester, several came together to plan the lecture, said Michael Fischer, a senior and one of the organizers. Father Schall, who often didn't lecture in class, Mr. Fischer said, was initially hesitant.
The lecture, which spoke about endings and reunions, was quintessential Father Schall, Mr. Hawkins and other attendees said—right down to a Charles Schulz allusion. Father Schall, who taught nine courses covering work by Plato, Aquinas, Aristotle, and others, viewed the Peanuts cartoon creator as something of a modern-day philosopher.
"What in the end does a professor most want his students to remember?" Father Schall asked. "Above all he wants them to remember the Socratic foundations of our culture—that it is never right to do wrong, that death is not the worst evil, and that ultimately our lives are about eternal life."
He has taught thousands of students over the years, but, he said, at the end of every semester he knows that he will never see most of his students again. That is as it should be, he later said.
"A university is a time for a student in one sense to be protected from the world," he said. It's a place for students to pass through, not to linger.
But after hundreds of students and colleagues returned to campus to celebrate a man as much as his final lesson, the reception and the three standing ovations they gave were overwhelming, Father Schall said. Students keep their professors alive, he said.
Speaking about philosophy, religion, life, and death, he said, "it is clear that human life is ultimately about meeting again."