May 15, 2013
Arthur J. Ourieff, middle row, third from right, in the 1942 Amherst cross- country team photo
Arthur J. Ourieff’s first semester at college started out like any other. He studied hard, occasionally goofed off with his friends and even managed to find time to go on a few dates.
Then, just a few months into his schooling, the bombing of Pearl Harbor suddenly transformed his life. World War II forced the young man to cut short his undergraduate education and leave his beloved Amherst two years early. He never walked in a graduation ceremony, and he never received his diploma.
That will change during the college’s 192nd Commencement on May 26, when the 89-year-old Los Angeles resident will be awarded his bachelor of arts degree along with the 468 members of the Class of 2013. It will be an epilogue for which Ourieff has always yearned.
“Everything definitely gained in intensity,” he recalled recently of the impact that Dec. 7, 1941, had on his schooling. “The world shifted, although somewhat slowly at first.”
Like so many of his classmates, Ourieff—who was, at that point, only 17 years old—had to decide whether to join the World War II effort as soon as possible or try to finish college before enlisting. The Boston native chose the latter route, and applied and was accepted into a Navy program that enabled him to continue at Amherst. The plan, he said, was to finish his undergraduate education in three years, get some medical training under his belt and then go into the military.
In January 1943, Ourieff applied to Harvard Medical School for the subsequent year. A week later, however, a telegram informed him that he was accepted for the class that would start in only three months, in April. He immediately called Harvard and said it must be a mistake—that he had not completed his premedical coursework. He was informed that the university would not guarantee him a place in the following year’s class but could offer him admission immediately, if he was able to complete organic chemistry. After discussing his options with the supportive Dean of the College Scott Porter, Ourieff struck a deal with a young member of the chemistry faculty, Donald C. Gregg, to condense a year’s worth of the course into 28 days.
“Professor Gregg and I met every day that month, and I was given access to the laboratories 24 hours a day,” Ourieff explained. “In the evening of the last day of February, I took my final exam in organic chemistry and passed. In those days, as today, Amherst went all out to provide what their students needed, and I am forever grateful.”
On April 1, 1943, Ourieff was activated into the Navy and began Harvard Medical School as a uniformed seaman—the youngest member of the class, he said. Three years later, he received his medical degree from Harvard and was promoted to lieutenant, junior grade, in the Navy Medical Corps. He went on complete his medical surgical internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York and then to serve at military hospitals in Portsmouth, Va.; Bethesda, Md.; and Great Lakes, Ill., treating soldiers suffering from symptoms of what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder (but was then known as “combat stress reaction” or “shell shock”).
At the time, said Ourieff, psychiatry was an exciting field to enter. “Some of the smartest [students] in medicine were going into psychiatry,” he explained. “Psychoanalysis was going to save the world, and the study of what is now called neuroscience was considered glamorous.” But it certainly wasn’t easy for Ourieff, who graduated from medical school less than five years after he received his high school diploma. He witnessed hospitalized military men committing acts of violence and heard them admit to wartime horrors while hypnotized. “I do not equate my history with those classmates who saw combat experience,” he said. Still, “it was harrowing in its own way and was caused by wartime and the demands of the Navy.”
Those experiences became the foundation for a long and happy career as psychiatrist and psychoanalyst for adults and children. Ourieff also worked as an associate professor at UCLA Medical School and served variously, and over many years, as president, dean and director of education at the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, as well as on the board of the American Psychoanalytic Society.
Yet something was missing from his life. “Amherst was my college, and I was very close to it,” explained Ourieff. “I was always so sad that my education was interrupted and I could never walk in a commencement ceremony.” He added that he maintained a connection with the college over the years via the L.A.-area alumni group and numerous volunteer activities. He stayed close with Porter, who would often stay at his home whenever he traveled to the West Coast to meet with alumni. What’s more, his son Bruce Ourieff and great-niece Rebecca O’Dunne enrolled and graduated from the college in 1973 and 2001, respectively.
While reading an Amherst magazine story in 2011 about other World War II vets receiving their long-overdue B.A.s from the college, Ourieff got to thinking: Would Amherst do the same for him? Encouraged by his son, who was already planning to be on campus for his reunion this year, Ourieff sent President Biddy Martin a letter inquiring as to whether the college would award him his degree nearly 70 years after he should have graduated.
Within three weeks, he had his answer. “Having consulted with our Registrar, who was able to confirm your good academic standing, it is my distinct honor to invite you to Commencement 2013 to receive your diploma,” wrote Martin in response. “I’m delighted this will work out.”
Now that Ourieff’s wish to receive his degree will be fulfilled, he admits to feeling excited and nervous. He’s also happy to see campus for the only second time since 1943 and thrilled to share the honor with his wife, son and daughter, who will be in the audience on May 26 to support him and cheer him on.
But more than anything, he’s happy for himself. Said Ourieff simply: “I always identified with and loved Amherst, so I’m glad this is finally happening.”