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A Curious Mind

World War II veteran Edwin P. Hart reflects on a life spent learning

Edwin Hart photographed by Douglas Levere

By Charity Vogel

“Edwin Hart is still learning, still growing, still young. He still carries a bullet in his chest but no rancor in his soul, only endless curiosity.”
Robert Daly, English professor

There are many ways to describe Edwin Petrie Hart (BA ’49). He’s a decorated World War II veteran, who took a bullet in his lung while fighting in the Pacific theater and carries it around to this day. He’s a microbiologist, fascinated by the worlds under a microscope, who worked at Kenmore Mercy and other area hospitals for more than 50 years. He’s a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather, too.

That would be plenty for most people.

But for Hart, 92, a slight, soft-spoken figure in khakis and an oxford shirt, his eyes alight behind wire-rimmed glasses, these parts of his life are just the beginning.

What stands out most about Hart is his lifelong interest in—or, more accurately, passion for—learning. For proof, look no further than his one-bedroom apartment in the Town of Tonawanda, N.Y.

There you’ll find quantities of books, filling five tall shelves in his sitting room and spilling out onto the kitchen counters. There are stacks of magazines, ranging from Buffalo Spree to the New York Review of Books, and his trusty dictionary, never far from the spot where Hart often sits reading on his sofa. “I would never be without my Webster’s Collegiate,” he says, smiling. There are also programs and playbills—one cabinet holds an eye-opening accumulation and is, he confides, just this year’s haul. What you won’t find is a TV, a computer or a cellphone. He doesn’t own them.

In a recent week—a typical one, according to Hart—the retiree took in a concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, a play at the Irish Classical Theatre Company and a film at an art cinema. “I like live performances,” he says.

He also likes the stimulation and engagement of a classroom.

Hart, who had five children (four are still living) with his former wife, has spent the past several decades taking classes at UB—countless dozens of them, sometimes two at a time, adding up to a total he won’t even guess at—through the “Sixty and Over Auditors Program.”

He’s taken courses in music and theater, but mostly he’s taken literature courses through the English department. “I’ve always loved reading,” Hart says. “I’ve developed a great love of words.”

Not one of these classes was taken toward a degree beyond his BA. He goes for the love of learning—and because he is endlessly inquisitive. About poems, plays, novels; about people, and life itself.

 “Edwin has an alert, curious mind, and he uses it; he exercises it taking courses at UB,” says Professor Emeritus of English Neil Schmitz, who was so impressed by Hart’s contribution to one of his courses that he wrote an essay about it.

“Edwin Hart is still learning, still growing, still young,” notes English professor Robert Daly. “He still carries a bullet in his chest but no rancor in his soul, only endless curiosity.”

Hart sees his continuing education this way: “Reading is one thing. Reading with guidance and supervision is another.”

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Hart was born in 1921, the son of Fred Hart, a Pierce-Arrow salesman originally from the Finger Lakes area, and Buffalo native Jeannette Petrie. His parents divorced when he was two, and he and his younger brother were raised primarily by their mother, who had to work hard to keep their small family afloat.

They moved frequently; Hart recalls attending five different grammar schools. He could see how his mother struggled to keep the family going, but he didn’t talk to her much about it. “I don’t know if you know about boys and their mothers,” he says. “They don’t ask questions.”

Instead, he found joy and entertainment in books, including a pocket-sized six-volume set of Shakespeare’s plays that you can still find on one of his shelves, well-worn but intact, inscribed with his name in a schoolboy’s scrawl. Like many of his generation, the young Hart also frequented the cinema, particularly the Allendale on Allen Street and the Ellen Terry Theatre on Grant Street. “It’s something you can do by yourself,” he explains.

Hart graduated from McKinley High School in 1941, and then worked briefly in a stockroom. A year later, he joined the Marines, and after basic training was sent to the Pacific theater, where he took the Japanese bullet that earned him a Purple Heart (today he keeps the medal tucked away in a drawer of his roll-top desk).

He left the service after the war and returned to Buffalo, where he enrolled at UB on the GI Bill. “I was the first member of my family to go to college,” he recalls.

He finished in three years by studying through the summers, graduating with a BA in biology in 1949. His diploma, signed by UB Chancellor Samuel P. Capen, now hangs on the wall of his home, near the front door. Every time he comes or goes, he is reminded of where he started, and how far he has come.

This past fall, through a scheduling mishap—not having a computer makes it difficult for Hart to keep up with modern classroom communications—he did not enroll in any courses at UB.

It was the first time in a long while that he did not have the pleasure of driving his Toyota Camry to class, sitting at a desk, listening to the faculty lecture, the students speak.

Hart says he is determined to get back in the groove as soon as possible. For, as he described his learning, and his life: “It’s a continuation.”

Charity Vogel (PhD ’04, MA ’00) is a staff features reporter at The Buffalo News