Get Away From Me You Creep

Almost ten years ago, I took a telecommunication history with course with one of the most eccentric people I had ever met. Unfortunately, it was during a time where I was attending very few courses and I missed most of my opportunities to listen to him speak. Still, I managed to make it to enough classes to have distinct memories of him. Dr. Barry Litman passed away a few years ago and these are his stories.

I attended the first day of class just as I did the first day of every class I took. I sat down and was probably scribbling in the notepad I purchased that I knew would never be used or barely staying awake. He began giving a brief overview the history of telecommunication in extreme story telling mode with an unprecedented excitement. I don’t remember anything from that day except for the way he ended class: “And just like that, the entire industry evolved into a star just waiting to supernova.”

I explained this to a couple of students I was working with and they immediately knew who I was talking about. They warned me about David Sarnoff but would not give me any other information. I was forced to attend class for several sessions before the story was revealed.

David Sarnoff was a corporate kingpin during the pioneering of radio and television serving as an executive for the Radio Corporation of America. Dr. Litman was visibly agitated as he explained this and other RCA history to the class. And then he began talking about Edwin Armstrong.

Edwin Armstrong was an employee of RCA and eventually credited inventor of FM radio. He developed this while working for RCA, but Sarnoff saw it as a threat to the AM technology that the company was already producing. Because of this and their focus on television, Sarnoff and RCA chose not to purchase the patents for the technology. But after hearing the quality and seeing its success, RCA first tried to have the FCC ban usage of the wave and eventually claimed the invention of the technology and won the patent. Armstrong spent nearly all his time and money fighting for the rights to his own technology.

As he was explaining these details, Litman went from agitated to infuriated. His face reddened, he began sweating and spoke louder and louder. The entire class was looking around at each other and no one knew how to respond.

He eventually came to the close of the story. Armstrong ended up committing suicide. And even though he was eventually given the credit he deserved, it came too late. The professor was visibly exhausted and saddened but managed to literally spit out one final angry yell: “And it was all because of that son of a bitch, David Sarnoff.” He then walked out of the room.

I mostly stopped going to class after that. I don’t know why. He was an incredible teacher and his enthusiasm kept me interested during most lectures. In the few classes I did attend he frequently referenced Vanna White as someone who used to be one of his favorite people, but never expanded the story. The last day before finals I went to class in hopes of getting some hints for the final. Instead, he shared his story.

He explained to us that once a year, he and one of his close friends/colleagues would attend a conference related to telecommunication. A few years prior, Vanna White was attending something loosely related and he managed to convince his friend to attend. Vanna White’s booth was highly trafficked and Litman was forced to wait in line for three hours to see her. During this time, he was extremely nervous which led to him soaking through his shirt with sweat. When it was finally his turn to meet her, he walked up and blurted out about how big of a fan he was and how long he had followed her.

And then he paused. I remember it feeling like ten minutes, but it was probably closer to one. Finally, he asked the class “And do you know what that bitch said to me?” He walked over to the side of the classroom and held the button to retract the overhead. Slowly, the words she spoke were revealed having been written in chalk on the board before the class had begun:

“Get away from me, you creep.”

I wish I had written about these ten years ago. Even then, I wouldn’t have done the man justice. Truly great speakers are rare and it’s unfortunate he passed so soon.