Before his words haunted me, his eyes did. Maybe it was because I couldn’t really see them. They were shaded in mystery behind tinted glasses. Yet they must have been dancing. He was the most animated college professor I ever had. Léo Bronstein. Even his first name flared with an accent aigu.

He taught me all about ancient art history at Brandeis. Born in 1902 in a part of Russia that today is Poland, he spoke at least nine languages, all of them no doubt with fingers flying. He spoke with passion, with an infatuation for his subject and an eagerness to explain. He reacted to every presented slide as if he had not seen it before. In a reverie, he would point out “the blueness of the blue” or “the archness of the line.”

His hair was made wavier from his hands running through it, and he usually wore a tweed jacket, pressed slacks and an ascot. But there was no ego here, just humility before the world’s art archive of nobility, beauty and design. He believed that exquisite taste spoke for itself. He was just the tour guide, not the arbiter.

At the end of this particular course, he planned an outing — a picnic on the Vineyard. It was May, 1962. We came by school bus and ferry to Oak Bluffs, wandered on foot, taking in the sights, the Flying Horses, Cottage City. Our time for touring was limited, especially without wheels. This was the first time I learned the Island was four times the size of Manhattan.

My one and only previous visit to the Vineyard was a year and a half earlier, during a cold January college break. A bunch of dorm-mates piled into a rented car and decided to explore the Island that none of us knew anything about. We tried to drink it all in on a quick day trip, which means we never left a paved road. These city boys returned to the mainland with an open-jawed appreciation and a blur of bucolic memories. We all vowed to come back.

The Bronstein tour picnicked on the grass at Ocean Park. Standing in front of the gazebo and armed with framed enlargements instead of his usual slides, he did a show and tell about Roman sculpture and architecture from the fifth century, the waning days of the empire.

There we were in the spring togs of ’62 — me in my button-down pinstriped Oxford shirt, khakis, and a pair of black leather loafers. This was, after all, the pre-jean, pre-sneaker era. We all brought rolled-up blankets to sit on and brown-bag lunches with thermoses of soda.

Being sophomores, we acted the part and showed off our education by making snide references to Edouard Manet’s famous 1863 painting, Déjeuner sur l’herbe, loosely translated as Picnic on the Grass, in which fully-clothed young men lunch with naked women. A bygone era giggled about an even older era.

Although this class outing to the Vineyard was my only one and I believe Bronstein’s too, this event was the forerunner to a tradition that began in earnest when he retired in 1967. His students gave him a surprise farewell party. The celebration has taken place every year since on or near the campus. Known as Bronstein Week or Weekend, Brandeisians find a way to socialize and culturalize with performances and parties. Bronstein believed in the sanctification of life through everyday celebration. He passed this mortal coil June 1, 1976.

What I learned from his ardor-infused knowledge wasn’t so much ancient art history as ancient history through art. His lectures imparted the social and cultural lessons you needed to understand to appreciate art. At this picnic, he offered his views on why the Roman Empire came to an end. These were the words that haunted—especially today.

“Like so many other civilized societies, they did themselves in,” Bronstein said. “You know there’s a perfect Italian word for this, braggadocio, arrogant behavior!” He told us how destruction came along in many forms, but primarily through overblown egos. “They had their share of leaders toward the end who exhibited more bombast than brilliance, more hot air than cool-headedness.”

This arrogance, according to Bronstein, led to a peculiar mix of might and laziness. When the Romans weren’t out conquering, they were home being complacent.

By the end of the lecture, I wasn’t thinking much about its deeper meanings. I was too busy breathing in and memorizing the beauties of the Vineyard. I took in the panoramic view of the Painted-Lady houses on the edge of Ocean Park, having never seen anything like them before. The experience made me feel as if I had traveled back in time to a better time. I again made a note that I must return and soon. I moved here for good in 2011

And now as I breathe in the Vineyard air on a daily basis, I feel as if I’ve been transported into a comfort zone, a place about as far removed from the concept of empire as a community can be. But when I find myself in Ocean Park again, I am often reminded of that lecture and how it haunted me five months later in what has since been called the Missiles of October, when the U.S and USSR held the world in check by engaging in a blink contest that brought us to the brink of total annihilation. .

I am also haunted today, as the omens sometimes feel as if they are piling up again, when empire leans more to arrogance and bombast instead of brilliance and insight.

Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.