When Luis Yglesias taught at Brandeis University, he was as interested in what his students taught him as he was in what they learned in his class.
“He always challenged his students to teach him something new, and he didn’t mean only facts or academics,” said a niece, Betsy Plumb of Hudson.
Alison McGurrin, who took several classes with Dr. Yglesias, said he was the type of instructor other professors often visited because he took an interest in their fields of study, as well as his, and he also encouraged students to be creative.
“He wanted his students to use their imaginations because he believed that imagination is the gateway to true compassion and understanding,” McGurrin said. “He approached literature from the standpoint that stories heal and are meant to teach us and inspire us to be our best. He didn’t believe in knowledge for knowledge’s sake, nor did he parade his knowledge in a vain or superior manner. He wanted students to think and to be aware of the influences, good and bad, in the world that shapes who they were, and to be aware of their power to choose their way in life.”
Dr. Yglesias, 78, whose interests ranged from writing poetry to gardening to playing Cuban congas, died of a heart attack and renal failure March 30 in UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester. He lived in Rindge, N.H., and formerly resided in Cambridge.
“Luis believed in the liberating potential of the educated mind,” said Karen Klein of Cambridge, a close friend with whom Dr. Yglesias formerly cochaired the humanities interdisciplinary program at Brandeis.
“Luis was so intelligent and knowledgeable and challenged the students’ thinking. He made them better thinkers and cared about their intellectual growth and their futures,” Klein added. “He was an invaluable support to me, and he listened to other colleagues’ opinions. His legacy will be the joy of learning across global cultures, his openness to others, his willingness to respect and honor their experiences, and his courage to be different.”
Luis Ellicott Yglesias was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., and then spent his childhood in Havana.
His father, Luis Joaquin Iglesias, was an orthopedic surgeon in Havana who met his mother, Marian Fullmer, while teaching anatomy at the University of Michigan.
At 12, Luis Ellicott Yglesias left Havana to attend a boarding school in the United States, graduating in 1954 from the Asheville School in Asheville, N.C.
Four years later, he graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in romance and comparative literature, and in 1968 received a doctorate from Harvard in the same discipline. For 42 years, Dr. Yglesias taught at Brandeis, where he was an associate professor of Spanish and comparative literature.
His wife, Suanne, said he developed close bonds with many who took his classes.
“He talked frequently with former students,” she said. “When they would come to visit, share a meal, and have conversation, they would bring their children and he’d take great pleasure in watching the children of his former students grow up over the years.”
Dr. Yglesias met Suanne Plumb in 1974 when she worked part time at The Fitzwilliam Inn in Fitzwilliam, N.H., where he sometimes dined. They married two years later. She said she was attracted to his “amazingly brilliant mind” and was struck by his capacity for empathy and wonder.
“He loved learning,” she said. “His area of expertise was comparative literature, but Luis enjoyed reading Niels Bohr, Einstein, and Oppenheimer as much as Rilke, Homer, or Neruda. He believed in the power of stories to teach and guide us.”
His son, Pablo of Northampton, fondly remembered Dr. Yglesias reading to him as a child. Dr. Yglesias’s marriage to Pablo’s mother, Sarah Wulff of Boston, ended in divorce.
“He very dramatically read aloud to me various children’s book classics, and he always made the story come to life,” Pablo said. “We used to go on Sunday road trips that he called ‘antiquing,’ which were really just visits to junk shops, flea markets, used book and record stores, and even some antique shops in the region. I also used to love going on long walks on the old dirt logging road that went from the back of the property through the woods and out to a clearing and beaver pond that had a great view of Mount Monadnock.”
Pablo said his father did not always stress the importance of education, though it was understood that Dr. Yglesias expected his son to do well in school.
“What was really important to him was constantly stimulating your mind, asking why, seeking the truth and rooting out hypocrisy, and being conscious of yin and yang,” he said.
Pablo added that his father would say “that a good education and work ethic were key to making something of yourself. But he also said love what you do, so he didn’t judge me for my career path.”
A full-time graphic designer and a DJ on the side, Pablo also writes, is a visual artist, and puts together music compilations for record labels. That varied approach, he said, is not unlike how his father raised goats, peacocks, golden pheasants, guinea hens, chickens, a rooster, birds, and two pigs, named Pork and Chop, in addition to his teaching.
For about 15 years, Dr. Yglesias also co-owned Lilly’s On The Pond, a restaurant in Rindge, with his wife and another couple. In addition, he published the novella-length prose poem “My Father’s House” and the poetry collection “The Night Tree.”
“There was no separation between the things Luis did because one flowed into the other,” said former student Terrence Gargiulo of Monterey, Calif. “The trivial informed the profound and the profound was usually a source of humor, never to be revered or taken too seriously. In this way, Luis lived his life through all of his activities as a seamless tapestry of doing and being.”
Dr. Yglesias was especially focused on celebrating cultural diversity and worked at Brandeis with Klein and Maurice Stein to integrate African texts into the study of humanities, his wife said. She added that he was proud of his involvement with Brandeis’s Upward Bound program “because he felt the program really helped poor students bridge the education gap so they would be successful at college.”
In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Yglesias leaves a brother, J. George Iglesias of Tucson, and two grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. June 21 in the Old Meetinghouse in Jaffrey, N.H.
Even after an aneurysm and two strokes in May 2000, Dr. Yglesias continued his quest for knowledge, which amazed doctors, his wife said.
“He was a different Luis, but he still was pretty amazing and still into storytelling,” she said. “He’d still go to the local elementary schools and the local library and tell stories. . . . He was very much a storyteller his whole life.”