Like Socrates, Silvian Sundrum asked questions of students more than he provided answers.
As a highly regarded teacher of international relations, Shakespeare and other topics over a career that climaxed at St. Margaret’s Academy in Minneapolis and Benilde-St. Margaret’s in St. Louis Park, he fostered curiosity and skepticism of authority.
“Teenagers were a perfect audience for his teaching style,” said Jim Hamburge, past president of Benilde-St. Margaret’s. “They question authority and the establishment. Here was a teacher doing the same thing. He educated them to think better, analyze and question.”
Sundrum died of cardiac arrest on Nov. 16. He was 78.
Born in South Africa and raised under apartheid, he was taught there in a British education system, which accounted for his rigorous standards and somewhat traditional methods.
He started teaching in Natal, South Africa, then taught in London and Ghana, where he met his wife, Joy, a Minnesotan. When the couple moved here, she noticed that his life in other parts of the world set him apart.
“His personal experience was part of his appeal. His students knew that he was telling the truth,” she said.
He was a rare person of color on the Benilde-St. Margaret’s faculty in the early 1980s. His parents were Indian. His father was an Anglican minister who died before Sundrum turned 3. His mother instilled in him a love of Shakespeare and poetry.
Former student Maggie Romens of Minneapolis said she owed her love of travel and world affairs to Sundrum. “How many teachers could get students to watch [PBS’] ‘MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour’ on their own time?” she asked. “His lectures made us wake up and grow up.”
When he taught, Sundrum rarely referred to a textbook, lecturing from memory even when reciting passages from Shakespeare. He made students write essays on tests rather than relying on true-or-false or multiple-choice questions.
Students flocked to get into Sundrum’s classes despite knowing that his classes were among the most challenging at the school. Seniors at Benilde-St. Margaret’s voted him “favorite teacher” for 18 years.
Most parents delighted in Sundrum’s teaching style, but some complained about his directness. “There was no sugar-coating to a parent, saying, ‘Your son needs to work harder,’ ” Hamburge said. “It was more like, ‘Your son is lazy. He doesn’t put any effort into learning.’ ”
Sometimes teachers would hear about a Benilde-St. Margaret’s family struck by a financial crisis. Sundrum would step in and ask Hamburge, “How much is this kid’s tuition? I’ll pay the next two months.”
Ken Pauly, a history teacher and hockey coach at Benilde-St. Margaret’s, described Sundrum as witty, intelligent and mischievous. Sundrum would occasionally lob an incendiary comment and then sit back and watch the flames. “In 1992 in the faculty lounge Silvian announced, ‘I think Ross Perot is the guy to turn this country around,’ ” Pauly said. “I knew that he didn’t like Ross Perot, but he liked to push people’s buttons.”
When Sundrum retired from Benilde-St. Margaret’s in 1998, Hamburge wrote a tribute that said it would take at least four teachers to replace him: “One to keep an eye on the administration; one to supervise the faculty; one to correct the crossword puzzle; and one to search for the VCR.”
In addition to his wife, he is survived by son David of Golden Valley, daughter Susan Towle of Inver Grove Heights and two grandchildren. Services have been held.