Let us begin 2013 on the ‘Lancer with something joyous and uplifting. [This text is superceded in mood by the final para, but let it stand as set for what it meant while Willis was with us.]
It has been a quarter century since I last saw him in person, he has since retired; and still when I see a friend post about Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, I think of Willis Konick.
To call him ‘Professor’ was unthinkable, as Willis would advise the entire class on the first day. An alumnus of and longtime professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, his entire life was bound up with the Russian language, Russian literature and UW. He taught Comparative Literature and Russian Literature there for so long it became hard to imagine UW without him. If I were to call him ‘Professor Konick’ in this blog post, someone would find out about it, and one of two things might happen. That person might call me out in comments as a complete fake, because anyone who ever actually attended a Willis lecture knew good and well that no one used his last name. Or that person might send the blog link to Willis, who would not only recognize my name and remember me, but who would write to me asking how I was doing, suggesting we have coffee any time I was in Seattle, and politely reminding me that his name was ‘Willis.’
I am not making any of this up, nor am I exaggerating. Willis did his best to have coffee with as many of his students as possible, and had an amazing memory for faces and names.
Willis’s class was the one no one skipped. It was always in a lecture hall with at least 200 seats, usually more like 300, purely because of demand. Yes. A literature professor so entertaining and appealing that the school was forced to schedule his classes in large lecture halls. People scrambled to get into a literature class. Whole decades of UW undergrads filled up their humanities distribution requirements with English 111 plus whatever Willis classes they could squeeze into. Except for a few hundred math and tech wonks from other countries who spoke such minimal English that a literature class was out of the question, at UW all 35,000 students learned of ‘Willis’ in the first week on campus.
While an excellent lecturer and student of the genre (he speaks and reads fluent Russian, and each year would read War & Peace or Anna Karenina, alternating), neither that nor his obvious love of everything about teaching accounted for all of his popularity. Much of that stemmed from his famous impromptu in-class skits to dramatize a character or concept. Willis would reach into the mass of 250 students, and without error, pick out the perfect individual as his foil. Didn’t matter whether it was a nervous young lady in a sorority sweatshirt, a blowhard, a future engineer, or one of his groupies. No one ever refused, even when he chose someone deliberately for shyness. He was known to dump buckets of water on his head on stage, strip to his underwear, open his shirt and claw at his pale chest, and so much more.
I too had my day, and the best way to convey Willis is to tell the story.
I can’t even remember whether it was a Comp Lit or Russian Lit class, not that the distinction ever made a difference with Willis. De facto always outshone de jure. He was teaching Anna, and as I recall, the class was in Gowen Hall on the Quad. Willis was explaining the nuances of Vronsky, and then his bespectacled eyes got that wild look which told us something was coming. He scanned the classroom like a confident quarterback whose pocket is just barely holding, quick head movements and a smile repressed only by force of professional will. The eyes achieved lock-on when they hit me. “JOHN! YES, YOU! JOHN! COME DOWN HERE, PLEASE, I’D LIKE A WORD WITH YOU!”
You know you are about to be had, but you go anyway. You know you are going to be embarrassed, but you also know you’ll remember it when you are twice as old as the day it happens. As I made my way to the aisle and descended the steps, I saw Willis do as he so often did, turning toward the stage and bounding onto it. Anything to do with acting or performance subtracted decades from his sixtyish physical age. He awaited me with sparkling eyes but as solemn a countenance as he could enforce. There was a sturdy wooden table up there, for some reason, and he encouraged me to have a seat.
“So, John, you were in my class last quarter,” began Willis.
“Yes, Willis, I was.”
“And you turned in your final paper.”
“How do you feel about it?
Something in his tone cued me. I can’t explain it any other way. He had given me 4.0, and still I gave the right answer. “Not too good, Willis,” I responded glumly.
“No,” he answered gravely, making sure to pitch his voice so they could hear him in the back rows (he had an effect like Epidaurus that way). “I hate to say this, John, but that was the worst paper of the quarter.”
I waited, doing the despondent face as best I could.
“In fact, your paper was so terrible, it was the worst paper of the year. I’m confident that nothing that will come will be worse. Your paper was so awful, I have given you a 0.0 for the quarter. I trust you understand.”
Still I sat in mock glumness.
“Sadly, John, your paper was such a disgrace that I felt compelled to bring it to the attention of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He agreed with me that it was the worst paper he too had ever seen. It was so disappointing that, harsh as it may seem, you are being expelled from the University.”
I looked miserable.
“You know how Reagan calls the astronauts to congratulate them? President Reagan is calling your parents to chastise them for your paper!”
I heard the first giggles from the audience, but I held back my own.
His tone went almost sympathetic. “Now, John, it’s obvious you can’t stay here. You must go, as you must leave the University. But is there anything you’d like to say before you depart in complete disgrace? What would you like to say to the class, and to me? Would you like, for example, to ask for another chance?”
“Doesn’t seem right, Willis. It was a pretty poor effort.”
“Yes, it was,” he answered sternly. “Nor would you receive one. Would you like to plead that you tried your best?”
“That’d be lying. I didn’t try at all.”
“That much was obvious,” he said, voice mournful. “Would you like to tell them that in spite of all of this, you’re still a nice guy?”
He’d thrown a switch. Nothing in his tone signaled anything; it was all in the genius of his having chosen me for this specific skit. For the first time since he’d initially addressed me, my head snapped around to him. “YES!” I said, raising my voice a tad in indignation.
Willis smiled, stood up in his most professorial stance, actor’s posture discarded faster than you could think. He raised a finger. “I MAY BE A COMPLETE SCREW-UP, BUT AT LEAST I’M STILL A NICE GUY. And that is what Vronsky is trying to tell us here. John, thank you,” he added. I made my way back to my seat, as I had seen so many other students do. None of it had been rehearsed or planned. In a few seconds he could read precisely the type of person he needed, to react in the precise ways necessary to demonstrate his point, picking him or her out of nearly three hundred people.
Fifteen years later, when I was authoring my (as yet unpublished) Irish travel narrative, my wife encouraged me to write to Willis and ask him to author an introduction. I thought she was nuts, but I did it. He asked me to send him the ms, in print, and I did. He pointed out what was missing from it, and encouraged me to read a couple of other travel books that would demonstrate the qualities my ms needed in order to become publishable. You always take all personal career counseling given you by your most admired figures, or you’re an idiot. When I’d finished the rewrite, I sent him the portion he wanted to see. He praised my remedying of the flaws and agreed to write an introduction if I wished. While no one ended up publishing the book–which I still may do on my own–one more time, I learned a lot from Willis about writing.
He retired in 2007, aged 77. And if you think anything you just read is far-fetched at all, I have the Seattle Times to back me up.
Thanks, Willis, for everything on every level. Oh, and I’m re-reading Brothers. Maybe this time I’ll get at least half of it.
P.S., December 16, 2016: Willis passed away November 30, 2016. I feel so fortunate to have known him.