Thursday, October 06, 2011

R.I.P. Sam, Bill and Fred

Three college teachers who were important to me have passed away in the past few months.  The most recent was Sam Moon, the professor who sought me out and first talked to me as I was registering for classes at Knox College.  I was there on the Scholastic Magazines Writing Awards Scholarship, and he was head of the writing program (which he pretty much invented.)  I can see his face across the table right now.

He wanted to talk to me before I registered in case I thought I had to take writing courses because of my writing scholarship.  He said I didn't, and probably would have gotten a scholarship anyway.  I had read and re-read the brochure on the writing program the previous spring, and then all summer.  It was one of the main reasons I chose Knox (I had a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh as well.)  So I told him I actually wanted to take writing courses.  He seemed very pleased.

I did take several writing courses from him, and he was always willing to read and discuss a manuscript even when it wasn't part of a course.  He listened well, asked questions, tried to get inside your thinking.  But he also let you know what he thought, in certain terms.  I don't remember much that's specific, just odd moments of classes or in his office.  I believe--and this applies to other teachers--that a lot of what we learn from teachers that turns out to be most important is what we absorbed without realizing it, or at least without realizing and remembering where we learned it.   

What I do associate the most with Sam Moon however is the bounty of writers and others who spent time at Knox while I was there.  Many of those specific individuals were there because of Sam Moon.  He was himself a poet who published regularly in Chicago's prestigous Poetry Magazine and elsewhere.  He had the respect of writers and he was connected to their world.

So in my time I saw and heard poets from Mark Van Doren to David Ignatov.  I had lunch with W.H. Auden!  Gary Snyder came pretty much directly from Japan for a week one spring, and read for hours every day.  We waited for him in Old Main, listening for the bells in his boots jingling down the stone hallway.  Nobody who was there will ever forget the week that Robert Creeley visited, or (for other reasons) James Dickey. Robert Bly came to read at least twice. These poets changed us.  John Cage came to campus several times, as did dancer Merce Cunningham--and once they were there at the same time, as the Cunningham group performed a piece by Cage.  Grace Paley read her stories. They are part of my college memories--bringing tea to Denise Levertov, talking about the New York Worlds Fair on the Gizmo patio with John Cage ("I liked the lines," he said.)  Others probably had something to do with bringing these people to Knox, but it was pretty much Sam. 

He was also possibly the last Knox teacher I talked to in his Old Main office, when I visited campus in the 1980s. I'd been out of school 15 years or so by then, but he recognized me standing uncertainly at his office door, as a group of undergrad writers surrounded him at his desk. We had a coffee in the Gizmo.

He retired soon after that (I remember I wrote something for a book to be presented to him at his farewell dinner), and I was surprised to see that he left Galesburg soon afterwards.  He had another life, another quarter century somewhere else, in New York state.  He's buried in Ontario.  Our teachers are always something of a mystery to us, as young as we were, but I'll bet Sam was more of a mystery than most.

William Matthews was pretty much the entire Religion department when I was at Knox.  I don't think I ever had a class with him, but for some reason he liked things I wrote, for the newspaper and the campus magazines.  People would tell me that he quoted them enthusiastically in his classes.  I was embarrassed, since it seemed to compromise my lapsed Catholic dogmatic anti-religion.  I did talk with him from time to time, but again, I couldn't feel comfortable, thanks to 12 years of priests and nuns.  I do wonder if he had anything to do with bringing another speaker to campus, who had a profound effect on me.  I don't remember what he was actually talking about, there in the Commons Room of Old Main, but he made one offhand comment that reoriented me completely: he noted that after killing an animal, a Native American hunter would say a prayer thanking the animal.  Eventually this moment would send me on a different road, spiritual and otherwise.

I recently learned from a fellow student who got back in touch after a very long time that Fred Newman died several months ago.  Fred was a philosophy professor who changed more than my life in his time at Knox.  I had only one class with him, and knew him for no more than a year or so.  I could write pages on that spring of my freshman year, and its impact on me for years following.

But I lost complete track of him after Knox, and though I had seen his name from time to time--not usually in flattering contexts, as a kind of New York political eccentric--I was unaware of the extent, nature and influence of his work over the years.  Which is kind of astonishing, since I used to spend a fair amount of time in New York in worlds that touched upon his.  He was political, a "public philosopher", a playwright and songwriter with dozens of productions, etc.  I learned most of this from his website.  It even has sound files of him lecturing--talk about a blast from the past!

I'm sorry that I wasn't aware of this while he was alive. He remained a charismatic figure well beyond Knox, so on the other hand it's unlikely I would have wanted to go through that exhausting experience again.  From his obits I learned something else: that he lost his college teaching jobs after Knox because he insisted on giving all his male students As because of the draft.  I wish I'd known that.  I'd probably need pages more to explain that to those who weren't young men then, but it's something else I will always admire about Fred Newman.

May they rest in peace--Sam, Bill, Fred, if I may call them that.  I probably can.