A Short Happy Time in Academia, Part I

Before i launch “A Tale of the Sea and Me” posts here, i would like to share one of the best periods of my life and briefly touching academia, both going down to the depths and rising to my version of success, then walking away when the military called.

This was all brought up by a rather amazing man who has shown interest in my writing and experience.

Dr. Stepehn Severn is the Dean of English at Middle Tennessee State University. i connected with him through marketing my book, Steel Decks and Glass Ceilings.

Back in October of last year when my trip back to Vanderbilt and the Naval War College had been solidified. i unsuccessfully had attempted to find the person in charge of the Army and Navy ROTC programs at my alma mater. i wished to add their students to my presentations. Since i had received my BA in English in ’67, i decided to contact the dean of English to solicit his advice and support. i found Dr. Severn’s email and sent him my book’s marketing piece with some personal information about my time at the Murfreesboro college.

He responded. i later found out, he was not only the Dean of English at MTSU, he had been a nuclear engineer in the Navy before getting out and pursuing an English doctorate. Impressive, indeed.

It was too late for him to arrange a presentation at MTSU, but he volunteered to attend my presentation. Follow-on emails and phone calls gave us information about each other.

i was impressed again. Getting to and fro between Murfreesboro and Nashville is no longer the easy task it was back when i was doing so in the 60’s. After my presentation, he gave me some MTSU swag. The golf shirt and the tee shirt proudly proclaimed “English” below the logo. i wear them proudly.

Dr. Severn also asked me if i would participate in a “Zoom” discussion with him about the history of the Middle Tennessee English Department. In our correspondence and phone calls, i had told him of the great respect i had for one of his predecessors and one of the professors from whom i took courses.

i was honored he asked and immediately agreed.

Consequently on Tuesday in the week before Christmas, i had the new-fangled, long-distance version of oral history. Dr. Severn and members of his staff had decided to begin gathering oral history from former students and professors before the opportunity was lost. They have yet to decide on what the end product will be, but they are at work.

My Zoom time with Steve was exhilarating. i had jotted down thoughts about my time at MTSU and my relationship with the two professors of the past, deciding to write a post or more about my experience: how i got there, my time while attending, the benefits i received, and how it affected my life after graduation. Here it is:

After blessedly being accepted to resume my college education at Middle Tennessee State College — it became a university right after i arrived in June 1965 — following a disastrous start at Vanderbilt, i was understandably nervous as i walked on campus for the first time. i was looking for the English building and the dean, whom i thought would be my advisor or assign one.

The building, a grey stone building, Murfree Hall, sat in almost the exact center of the campus before it was expanded. It was named after Bettie Avent Murfree, the school’s first librarian. The building stood out, surrounded by beautiful lawns and trees. Unlike the other brick and modern glass campus buildings, it was old, opening in 1926 as the library of what was then known as a “teachers college.”

i stood in the central hall and found the directory. It indicated the office Dr. Scott Peck, the Dean of English, was to my left. i had done some research and was excited to meet the man. He had earned his doctorate alongside Robert Penn Warren at Vanderbilt . John Crow Ransom and Alan Tate were there as undergraduates. They, along with Warren were known as “The Fugitive” named after the magazine Tate began in the early 1920’s at Vanderbilt to which they all contributed. i admired them all. But Peck spurned the more prestigious role of a writer with that group and went to Middle Tennessee. i was intrigued.

i reached the door of his office and heard what sounded like a radio. i knocked. When directed to do so, i opened the door.

The dean’s office was more like a walk-in closet than an office, roughly 18 feet long and eight to ten feet wide with the lone window looking north. the large old, oak desk, somewhat battered, sat at the other end from the door. Bookshelves hid the entire walls up to the 10-foot ceiling and were packed with books.

Dr. Peck with a shock of white hair and a ruddy complexion sat behind that desk with his feet propped up on the left front corner. He was wearing “Duck Head” khaki work pants with brogans. He had on a white, long sleeve shirt with a tie loosened around his collar. In the right back corner was the transistor radio, blaring, what i heard just before entering. It was playing a broadcast of the Saint Louis Cardinal’s baseball game. Harry Caray was calling the play by play. Dr. Peck turned the game off and asked why i was there.

i informed him i was seeking a Bachelor of Arts degree in English after failing in my pursuit of an Engineer’s degree at Vanderbilt. He shook his head and informed me he would not be my advisor, that he was the advisor for English majors who sought a B.S. degree and those pursuing a B.A. had the Dean of Arts and Science for an advisor. He added that very few, if any, English majors chose a B.A. to pursue. Most English majors were planning to be teachers, and others didn’t want to take the two years of a foreign language required for a B.A. They opted for a B.S.

i was adamant about a B.A. i stirred to leave and was ready to thank him for his time when Dr. Peck said for me to let him look at my records since i was there. i agreed and handed him the folder with my record at Castle Heights and Vanderbilt, as well as a brief description of my time with The Nashville Banner.

He scanned the pages in the folder, often shaking his head. i thought a couple of times he might laugh.

“That’s quite a record,” he said with what sounded like a sardonic twinge to me, adding, “I’m looking forward to having you in class.”

I thanked him and noted i was disappointed he wouldn’t be my advisor, preparing to leave again. Again, he stopped me.

“You know this is going to be much different than Vanderbilt, don’t you,” he advised.

“Yes, sir,” i responded, “i’m aware of that.”

“I’m pretty sure you don’t really understand the difference,” he said.

i’m sure i looked puzzled so he added, “It’s very parochial, here.”

i wondered about how he phrased that, but after my first summer and fall semesters, i knew he had accurately described the difference. i marvel as i review the history of the school and the English department.

Middle Tennessee currently has 50 English professors with doctorates among 78 professors in the department. When i attended, there were 7 professors with doctorates included in the 22 professors. The stone Murfree building was torn down and replaced by the much larger and impressive Peck Hall, named after Scott Peck and his wife, Virginia, right after i graduated and departed for Navy OCS in September 1967. As i often realize, it has changed quite a bit since my time.

My best moments with Dr. Peck came when i took his Shakespeare class in the spring of 1966. His knowledge and love of Shakespeare was apparent. He bestowed that love and appreciation upon his his students, at least this student. i had always grappled with Shakespeare’s work. After all, i was a small town Middle Tennessee boy who had chosen English because it was the best option with my only aspiration of being a sports columnist, and that was because i finally had accepted i wasn’t going to make a living playing football, or baseball, or basketball.

But Dr. Peck made Shakespeare sing.

One of the final assignments in the class was to find another writer of Shakespeare’s time, and write a critique of this other playwright’s play. i chose John Webster and his drama, “The Duchess of Malfi.”

i had a great idea but thought it was a might risky. But what the hell, i said to myself. Go for it. i compared the “Duchess of Malfi” to an oater, a B grade western. i worked hard. Then my mother worked hard.

You see, i was working my way through MTSU. My parents had coughed up a lot of money to get me through three semesters at Vanderbilt after i lost my scholarship, and i had vowed to pay my own way on my second attempt.

i was working as an AM and FM deejay on WCOR in my hometown, as a county and sports correspondent for The Nashville Banner, a salesmen in the men’s clothing store owned by my friend Jimmy Hankins, and over the holidays conducting a parts inventory for my father’s parts department at Hankins, Byars, and Jewell Pontiac dealership, not to mention even then i was a procrastinator supreme.

i finished writing the paper early in the evening before it was due the next day. i was typing an error-filled version as fast as i could when my mother, an incredible typist (84 words per minute with no errors) volunteered to take over. She finished after midnight as i sat beside her.

It took a couple of days for Dr. Peck to grade the twenty or so papers. He returned the graded papers about midway through the mid-morning class.

i quickly looked at the top of the title page. There was a large hand-written “A+,” circled in red ink. Below the grade was a note, “See me immediately after class.” i was ecstatic, imagining the rosy compliments the good doctor was going to heap upon me.

As class closed and the students began to file out, i hurried to his desk, excited about the praise i expected. As he looked as some paperwork, i stood beside the desk and thrust the paper and the note toward him.

Dr. Peck wrote in a journal in front of him and then looked at the paper and then at me.

“Your piece was very innovative and interesting in your comparison. The writing and research was excellent,” he said matter of factly.

Then he added, “But i want you to know something. If you had written that for most of the English professors here,” he paused and pointed out the window to a large and beautiful hickory tree, “You would be hanging from that tree out there.”

He taught me a lot and not just about Shakespeare. I adored that man.

7 thoughts on “A Short Happy Time in Academia, Part I

    1. Thank you, Gary (i’m pretty sure this is Gary). i think i am interesting, if nothing else. Sometimes that is good; sometimes not.

  1. I just fill with pride and excitement you must have been feeling on this winding sojourn through academia. For the past few months I keep hearing new pieces of your journey. Thanks for sharing this and I wonder if you even had an inkling that it was going to do fulfilling. I’m just so damn happy for you.❣️

  2. Terrific story, Jim, as all of yours are. I would be very hard pressed to remember, let alone write in such detail, virtually any of my college experiences! I remember MTSC very well from my time on the Heights forensics club when one of the debate competitions was held there, but my memory absolutely pales to nothing in comparison to yours.

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