The Great Professors
John P. Roche, Fletcher School
Sometimes the students in John P. Roche’s Fletcher School classroom would wonder just where he was going with his stories. “He’d joke that he was slipping into his ‘anecdotage,’ but then he’d suddenly nail a point,” says James Robbins, F88, F91, an author who taught for many years at the National Defense University. “He was a storyteller who made history relevant and an original thinker who encouraged originality in others.”
Presidential advisor, political columnist, and educator, Roche died at the age of seventy in 1994, after a twenty-one-year stint at Fletcher, some of it as a dean. Born in Brooklyn, Roche graduated from Hofstra College in 1943 and, after serving in the army during World War II, earned a master’s and a doctorate at Cornell University. He taught at Haverford College until 1956 and then at Brandeis University, where he established the department of government. He came to Tufts in 1973.
Roche was difficult to pigeonhole politically. Though active in civil rights in the 1950s and a founder of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, he supported the Vietnam policies of President Lyndon Johnson, for whom he worked as a special advisor from 1966 to 1968. “John abhorred communism and any doctrine that served as a cynical blueprint for totalitarianism,” says one of his former students, James Van de Velde, F88, now a lecturer at Johns Hopkins and a consultant on intelligence and counterterrorism. “He was always unafraid of speaking his mind.”
Roche, who could turn on his Irish charm, was above all a realist, says Robbins, who took over Roche’s classes at Fletcher after Roche became ill. “Besides what I learned from him about foreign policy, John taught me a lot about the craft of teaching,” he says. “You can’t just stand up there like you are the font of wisdom. You have to engage, and he was fantastic at that.”
Van de Velde finds himself thinking of Roche surprisingly often. “When contemplating an international issue,” he says, “I often ask myself what John Roche would say. Then I usually smile.”
—phil primack, a70