Tuesday, September 16, 2014

In Praise of Dr. Terry

Late last week the current issue of Southern Arkansas University (SAU*) alumni  magazine arrived. I usually put this aside to skim through later but wind up never getting to, but this time my attention was drawn by the cover story, to the effect that the university president, Dr. Rankin (whom I remember from the days when he and his wife were sponsors of our church youth group), has announced his retirement, effective next year. There was also a tribute (and terrible photo) to the late, multitalented Jake Whitehead, who I remember in the SAU production of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (I was in the pit band and so saw each night's performance; he was far better than Zero Mostel in the same role). I was interested to see a former junior high/senior high classmate of mine and her husband giving a large check for the 'naming rights' to a pavilion being put up on campus. But the item that really threw me was all but the last line on the last page, listing as among the recently deceased with connections to SAU (students and faculty) "Dr. Robert Terry (Former Professor), Feb. 12, 2014"

I hadn't seen Dr. Terry in years (since about '86, I think), but he was once a big part of my life. I took more classes from him than anyone else during my undergraduate days (May 1977 thr August 1979). I remember taking Classical Roots from Dr. Smalling** (which included reading the Illiad, the Odyssey, Greek tragedies, even a late Greek romance), and both Shakespeare and also Transformational Grammar (where I learned all about sentence structure) from Mr. Whitman, brilliant and sardonic and occasionally scathing. But I took at least three classes from Dr. Terry. Memorably, in one of them where we were to select and critique a famous work of criticism (I think Lowe's ROAD TO XANADU was one***) he let me choose C. S. Lewis's THE ALLEGORY OF LOVE, which I found hard going (never having read the works Lewis was discussing) but was grateful for the chance to slowly read and absorb.

I also owe Dr. Terry a great debt in that he taught the first Tolkien class I ever took. It came about like this: about half-way through my time at SAU (which was accelerated because of CLEP, summer school, and taking 17 hours of credits most semesters****) I found out there was a process by which students cd petition the department to offer a special studies course. The requirements were to get a certain number of students to sign a petition stating that they wd take the course if offered, and to find a faculty member willing to teach it. Dr. Terry was willing, so that semester (fall 1978, I think) we had a course on Tolkien. Since Dr. Terry wasn't a Tolkien expert (though he'd read all the major works), I consulted with him on the syllabus -- what books we'd study and in what order. I know my copy of BEOWULF: THE MONSTERS AND THE CRITICS (the Arden Press facsimile edition) dates from that class. I taught Tolkien in other contexts later -- using THE HOBBIT as the book my freshmen wd write their research papers on at the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) in the fall of 1980 or spring of 1981, and again twice at Marquette in the mid & late '80s (including the last semester I taught there, spring of 1991), and taught or co-taught a series of continuing ed. courses at Marquette on Tolkien, on his precursors, on his followers, et al from 1988 through about 1992 or thereabouts.

Dr. Terry also helped me understand part of Tolkien's life that hadn't made much sense to me from Carpenter's biography. Dr. Terry was an outside grader of standardized tests, and spent a few weeks each summer gathered somewhere with other graders, working their way through some 200 tests apiece a day (or at least that's the number that sticks in my memory). Tolkien was famously grading just such a batch of student papers when he fortuitously came up with and wrote down the line of gibberish "In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit".

The last time I saw Dr. Terry was when I asked his advice during the period when I was going through dissertation proposal hell,***** so this wd have been the summer of 1986. I'd hoped he might be able to give me some advice, an outside perspective. In this I was disappointed -- he spent the entire time waxing eloquent on the wonders of Amway, to which he was a recent convert. Still, I'm grateful to Dr. Terry, a great teacher who was willing to help a student pursue his enthusiasm even if it didn't lay along the same lines as his own interests.  I still have THE GOLDEN HIND, the fine collection of Tudor poetry and prose he had co-edited; it's from Dr. Terry's class that I was able to recognize and put a name to Emerson Lake & Palmer's use of skeltonics. I'm sorry that I didn't keep in touch after that, but I'm grateful to have been in his classes, and to have had him as a professor.  I suspect he, more than any other teacher, was responsible for my going into English as my major and subsequently making it my major course of study in graduate school.

So thanks Dr. Terry. Much appreciated. Rest in Peace.

--John R.
current reading: THIS PROGRESS by Bernard Ackworth [1934] (C. S. Lewis's crackpot friend)

*just before I attended, they changed the name from the much more euphonious Southern State College. Alas.

**to my fascination, I found that some of the more bizarre ideas CSL put forth were accepted as standard dogma by Dr. Smalling. It was also Dr. Smalling who, upon finding out that I preferred THE ODYSSEY to THE ILLIAD, replied: you would.

***a book I confess I've still never read.

****looking back, I'm surprised I had time to do all this and two part-time jobs too. As Joseph Conrad wd say: ah, youth.

*****but that's a story I'll save for another day.

1 comment:

imaeskimo said...

Thank you for writing this about my dad. It is absolutely wonderful too hear stories about him from others.