Tag Archives: uw

Prof. Jon Bridgman (1930-2015)

Some academics are endured, some are neither here nor there, some are liked, and some are revered. Prof. Jon Bridgman has passed away. He was one of the most revered professors in the history of the University of Washington, and I had the privilege of majoring in history during his lengthy tenure.

UW hired young Prof. Bridgman in 1961, near the end of his grad studies at Stanford. He joined the Department of History, with a focus on modern European (especially German) history. He retired in 1997. I had the good fortune to attend UW and major in history during Bridgman’s his early fifties, when he was very well established as one of the three or four professors whose class one must take if one were to get the very best out of UW.

In those days, the Daily (campus newspaper) always published a welcome issue for incoming freshmen: best things to do, best professors, best places to eat, everything worth experiencing. It may have been the very most useful issue of each year, the one that a freshman might save for months. Each year, high on the list of professors and classes to take was the introductory Western Civilization History survey series, HST 111 (ancient), 112 (medieval), and modern (113). Bridgman was the reason, and these classes were held in the enormous lecture halls of Kane. Kane 130 seated 764.

Please absorb that for a moment. That’s a lot of people. That’s a substantial movie theater complete with balcony and two lecterns. That requires TAs to teach nearly two dozen quiz sections (on Friday, class was held in a normal room and led by a grad student). All about history. If you have any affection for the subject at all, the prospect is magical in concept, but I assure you I am not exaggerating.

My own early days at UW were inauspicious. Like so many students, I entered higher education on a late September Monday morning by walking into an 8:30 class in Kane 130. I looked around at a classroom that seated more students than even resided in the town I had come from, and the shock set in.

From a graduating class of eleven, in a high school of roughly fifty, in a town of about 750, to a freshman class of thousands at a university of 35,000 in a city of two million. I was seventeen, and immature even for my age, and I was finally meeting my match. This is the jolt: while I wasn’t always happy about the distinction, as it caused me no end of torment, in every class I’d been in from K-12, it had been an article of faith (and unfairly, I think, in many cases) that I was the most gifted kid in the class, maybe the school. It sank in: Guess what, kid: so were all 763 other people in here. Pack your lunch. You aren’t the most gifted student, the most gifted freshman, the most gifted in this classroom, nor even the most gifted of the fifty-two other souls living on 8th Floor North, McMahon Hall.

In fact, I wasn’t even the most gifted student in the cluster holding rooms 801, 803, 805, and 807. I wasn’t even the most gifted student in room 805; my roommate was taking the notoriously terrifying Honors calculus series, MATH 134. Most people took MATH 124 and found it involved enough; the Daily had warned us about MATH 134. Matthew, a very patient and well-prepared young man from West Seattle, didn’t think it was that hard. Meanwhile, I was floundering in pre-calc, which I had to take twice. The lesson of intellectual humility, the ability to see that there were always people brighter than me, and that intellectual gifts did not extend to every field, was the great lesson of my educational shock treatment. I have a dear friend whose typing is peppered with disaster, but at all things in the natural world, she is a genius. I have a wife whom I cannot cure of em dashes and ellipses in writing, but has the magical gift of knowing how to handle all people. My father was a dogmatic idiot when it came to theology, but with computers, mathematics, mechanics, and electronics, he simply understood them in a Spocklike fashion.

In my second quarter, I’d heard enough, and I took Bridgman’s HST 112 medieval survey. This time it was in a smaller Kane lecture hall, but there were still nearly 400 students. I was hooked. My TA, who is now a professor and author, was also the undergrad advisor, and I changed majors. Prof. Bridgman had a great deal to do with that. Until I’d taken quite a few other large lecture classes, I didn’t realize how truly great his method was.

To begin with, Bridgman had a unique voice and diction. To watch him without sound, one might have thought him very nervous and excitable. He would pace back and forth, rubbing his goatee, speaking all the while, then stop and face the audience to punctuate a point with hand gestures. I dug up a Youtube of one of his lectures from 2012, because there is no way to describe his voice. In this video, he sounds much as I remember him, but it seems he became more physically sedate as time advanced. Give him a listen, if you wish:

Bridgman from 2012 lecturing on 1939

In this video, he seems to have a mild case of Tourette’s, which was not in evidence in the 1980s. It manifests as what sounds like bursts of laughter or surprise. I don’t know the story there, but we can see that it didn’t detract from the audience’s rapt attention. Imagine him without those small and rare bursts, but moving between two podiums, scrawling notes on the transparency now and then, making animated gestures. Now, at roughly the age he was when I first took his class, I understand what it was. It was his love of history, of teaching, of sharing his knowledge, of presenting the subject so freshly that the class would vary a bit from year to year. Jon Bridgman did not recycle notes or lectures. A very humble and pleasant man, he said that this was because he could not read his own handwriting on older paperwork.

I only had one personal contact with him, and it had to do with my final grade (I’d rather not say what it was, but it was nothing to be proud of…I had not yet learned to learn, nor had I grown up, and I underachieved). I did it wrong. My transcript came out, and I had received a 0.0. I knew that had to be a mistake. This was in college before e-mail, before the web, and before mobile phones. I happened to encounter him near the HUB lawn, and approached him there. (As you can see, I didn’t have the maturity to realize that I ought to have gone to his office hours.) I was in my ROTC uniform, and I explained the situation. Despite my poor timing, Prof. Bridgman put up with me. “What grade did you expect?” he asked. I told him. “All right. Here is what to do. Please write a note and slip it under my office door, with your name and student ID number and class, and say that the grade should be that.” That simple. And that’s what I got. I never saw him anything but cheerful, and well he might be, considering the place he held in the hearts of the UW community.

One day, as Prof. Bridgman was motoring back and forth between lecterns, he stopped at the left-side one and wrote with the water-soluble marker. Words appeared on the screen. He cranked the roller; the words did not move. He turned it a bit more, then his voice lowered from its usual projected volume as he faced the class: “Good heavens. There’s been a terrible mistake. I’ve written on the glass.” Glancing about in minor embarrassment, like a child caught doing something mildly naughty, he muttered, “Oh, well…” and went to the other lectern, where the transparency wasn’t at the end of the roll.

I recall the day he was teaching the Reformation and events leading up to it. He explained that a key point of theology was the question of what constituted Christian baptism. Looking at the Bible itself, Bridgman explained with a smile, nothing contained therein said that baptism had to come from the Roman Catholic Church. “In fact,” he said, “I could stand here with a hose, read all your names, say ‘I baptize thee…’ and baptize you all. And there’d be nothing you could do about it! You can’t refuse baptism!” The class laughed. Then, in a smaller but puckish voice: “And I just might do that sometime, too.” His sense of humor punctuated all his teaching.

Prof. Bridgman was the one who taught me, in HST 113 (modern), why Orwell’s 1984 was such an important book. In HST 111, he taught me to appreciate the ancient Greek advances in government and philosophy, as well as the Roman sense of gravitas that governed actions of state under the Republic. When one day I stood upon the Akropolis, gazing down upon the Pnyx, where once was said: “Who would speak?” and the voice came, “I, Pericles,” I thought of Professor Bridgman’s voice explaining the importance of Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides’ account. I thought of him when I gazed upon the helmet of Miltiades, hero of Marathon, at the museum near Olympia. I listened to his 1939 lecture in the background while composing this, just for the pleasure of the memories his voice brings.

One of his most important books had a key purpose. There remain those who, in spite of all the compelling evidence, continue to attempt to deny or minimize the Holocaust. That is a felony in Germany and Austria; in the United States, it’s simple foolishness. Prof. Bridgman decided to demolish Holocaust denial, and thus wrote The End of the Holocaust: The Liberation of the Camps. An expert in the field, who could not be thought to have any inherent bias, and a job very well done.

When Prof. Bridgman retired, he met with resistance to the concept. Alumni took up collections for two purposes: to endow a Jon Bridgman Professorship in history at UW, and to sponsor a lecture series inviting him to come and lecture as he might desire, on any topic that he might choose. The video presented was from that series, which remained a success and lasted until at least 2012, as you can see. If only I had lived nearer Seattle, I would have attended every one.

Though he was elderly, and his passing was thus not a tremendous surprise, it still affects so many of us. All of us associated with UW will miss him, but those of us whose lives he touched will remember him when we are his age and beyond. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family and personal friends.

As for me, simply, thank you, Professor Bridgman. I didn’t know how much I could love the study of history until you showed me.


Memories from a too-young RA

From 1983-85, I was a Resident Advisor in McMahon Hall at the University of Washington. RAs did a lot. It wasn’t always fun, but it was full of surprises. In those days, most advisory staff were partiers on one level or another, and some had been troublemakers of one kind or another. Most were juniors, some seniors, and a few sophomores.

McMahon, UW’s largest dorm (we were required to use the term ‘residence hall’), held nearly 1100 students, probably two-thirds of whom were freshmen. In my first year as an RA, all but about five of my residents were frosh. It was organized by clusters of four to six rooms, mostly double, sharing a common mini-lounge, balcony, and bathroom. Each floor had twelve clusters, but the stairwell in the center divided the building into north and south towers. No one standing outside the building would have had any idea of the division, but your ‘floor’ ended at the building’s center stairwell. For example, in my first year, I was RA on 10th North.

I saw a lot of the men and women in the two clusters farthest from the center, because they had to walk by my door to get to the elevators. The men’s cluster was on my side, and it was an interesting place. It had a couple of Husky linemen, Gil Swick and Mike McDonald, and a tailback by the name of David Toy. Of the three, only Dave eventually saw much playing time. In the women’s elevator cluster lived Chris Sicuro, sister of quarterback Paul Sicuro. Paul started in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, the famous Sooner Schooner game.

Expecting to hear about trouble with big jocks who aren’t there to get an education? Not happening here, on several levels. For one thing, the players on my floor always treated me with friendly respect, even at the end of the school year when they might as easily have told me to go to hell. I had a class with Paul Sicuro once, nice fellow, and learned that he had about a 3.9 GPA. This might explain why he is now Dr. Paul Sicuro (oncology). In the Don James era, football player trouble was a great rarity. The same couldn’t be said for the basketball team. But this story is wandering.

In the cluster with Dave, Gil and Mike lived a fellow by the name of Chris. I never knew much about him, but he had that entitled, snooty personality that screams ‘ruling class.’ Not all in the ruling class have it, but some do, and Chris did. In general, he was dismissive and arrogant, but I was his RA, and if he needed me to perform one of my functions, I would do it. That cluster wasn’t very rowdy, and when they would cut loose a bit, I generally didn’t pay much attention. Nothing serious would happen, and if complaints started coming in, I knew they’d tone it down on request.

One fine Saturday night (I do not recognize that morning begins at midnight, so it’s Saturday until the sun comes up or I wake up) about 2:30 AM, I was about half in the bag. We weren’t supposed to have open containers of alcohol with the door open, so my beer was well hidden. The football players’ cluster had been a little raucous all evening, but I only knew it because their area adjoined my luxurious single room with bath. There were far louder events going on throughout the building. My residents were not disturbing my reading in the least, but I was getting sleepy.

Right about then, a procession passed my open doorway. It was Gil, Mike, Dave, and someone else whose identify now eludes me. They were carrying a mattress on their shoulders, and on it was Chris, dressed only in his underwear and apparently passed out. I took a wild guess what had happened: they’d finally gotten him to have a few beers with the peasantry, he’d gotten plastered, and they were having a little fun with him. They would probably take him down to the parking garage or something. Since the door locked behind you there, without his keys, he would have to wait until someone else was coming through the door. In the meantime, in the chilly garage, he would probably experience some discomfort. It was his chance to show, if he chose, that he was a regular guy with a sense of humor.

“Hi, John!” said my residents, stopping before my room. They were smiling, but the question was in their eyes: was I going to do anything? I sized it up, pretended to squint a little, and decided that this was a problem solving itself. I followed the Sergeant Schultz playbook. “Guys,” I said, “my eyes are real tired tonight, I’ve been studying. You should probably keep moving.”

They did so, beaming. A few minutes later, they waved on the way back, sans Chris. He showed up about ten minutes later, staggering down the hall in his briefs, dragging his mattress. He did not offer me a salutation. Not long after that, I went to bed.

Around eleven the next morning, when I was just becoming coherent, there came a knock at my door. This wasn’t rare, because residents sometimes needed access to the custodial closet across the hall from my room. If they wanted the mop, they had to leave their meal card with me. I opened the door to see Chris, now fully dressed, and looking as if he didn’t feel too well.

“I need the mop,” he said, in his usual tone of command to a minion.

“No problem. Everything okay?”

“It’s fine. Just let me check out the mop, all right?”

I couldn’t resist. “Sure, Chris. Did something happen?”

His look and tone grew impatient. “It’s what you need in order to clean up barf, all right? Now can I just get the mop?”

Like I said, I never had a problem with that cluster. Situations, but not problems. I believe that Gil has since passed on, but I hope Mike, Dave, and even Chris are still doing all right.

They were good times.

Queen’s guard

I once was, of sorts, for a day. And on that day I learned a great lesson.

Back in 1983, when I was in Army ROTC at the University of Washington, Reagan had invited Queen Elizabeth II to visit the Pacific Northwest. I suspect everyone was stunned when Her Majesty took the President up on his offer. One stop on the Royal tour was a visit to UW. She would do whatever else she did, put in an appearance and give a speech at Hec Ed (the basketball arena), then move on.

The word went out at the Husky Battalion in Clark Hall: no more than twenty volunteers were needed, with the duty of assisting the Secret Service and UWPD (or ‘U-Pud,’ as it was most often called) with security. A similar number were accepted from the AFROTC squadron and NROTC battalion, both of which also headquartered in Clark Hall: I think the Air Force was on the third floor, Navy on the second, and we were downstairs. A lot of us knew each other, especially through our Ranger FTXes (‘futtockses,’ or Field Training Exercises). The Marine Option NROTC midshipmen were most interested in joining us for fun-filled weekends getting soaked and freezing our asses off at Ft. Lewis, but a few Air Force cadets also participated.

The volunteer list filled up in record time, and I was fortunate enough to secure a spot. When the day arrived, we were to show up at some side entrance at Hec Ed, very early, in dress uniforms with white pistol belts. We would not be armed. One of our cadre officers, a captain in Special Forces, wore a pistol in a skeleton holster under the back of his dress jacket. If I recall correctly, a Secret Service officer at least perfunctorily searched us, or at least ritually asked us if we were carrying any weapons. We gathered around for a briefing from a Secret Service officer.

Each of us would be stationed at some specified point, shown on a chart with sections described by who would inhabit them. Mine was the Queen’s Tea Party, from whom no threat was expected, just in case you got the impression that I was about to have to do anything brave. The SS explained the pins worn by the various security contingents; a small enameled sheriff’s star pin would denote Secret Service personnel. A similar pin with the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) emblem marked those. Cheaper pins with one letter each would signal armed personnel, whom I presume mostly came from UWPD and were not in uniform, and others with varying duties.

In those days I was bursting with nationalism and patriotism, vastly honored to be representing my nation before an allied head of state, and even though the former have been beaten out of me by life, the latter honor hasn’t faded for me. It was the rarest of privileges. While the SS didn’t expect trouble, it had already been made clear to us (by the cadre) that in the gravest unforeseen extreme, we were to act toward a threat by sacrificing our lives if necessary. Not that I’d get much chance to, in such a case, since I would be facing away from the bleachers, but the point was made.

So we served at first as ushers, helping people to their seats, and that’s where the lesson came to me–but I’ll finish with it. Then we took our assigned posts, stood at parade rest, and stayed there while the royal entourage entered from my far right; I was too far from the center aisle to see anything without moving my eyes, which one may not do at parade rest. We came to attention as the PA played God Save the Queen. There were speeches; the Queen has a rather powerful speaking voice, and some University dignitaries said or did something or other. As you can tell, beloved alma mater’s administration left lasting impressions on me.

No disturbances occurred of any kind, except for the media overstepping the bounds of their designated kennel. The SS had put the NROTC Marine Option midshipmen over there for a reason. Meanwhile, at various times, SS and EOD team members would pass by. One guy had an attaché case; another’s arm was in a sling. One didn’t have to be a mental giant to figure out what that was about.

Then the entourage came back down the center aisle, and exited to my left–thus passing directly before me. There must have been twenty people, more women than men. The Queen herself wore a blue suit and a matching dog dish hat; she is shorter than I had realized. I am pretty sure I recognized a RAF officer’s uniform. Prince Philip stopped to speak to one of our cadets, who promptly promoted him to King by addressing him as ‘Your Majesty.’ I cringed inwardly. A tall officer whose uniform and bearing shouted ‘Colonel of Royal Marines’ came to a sudden, very military halt in front of me. He did a precise left face immediately, looking me directly in the eyes. I did not return his gaze, because I didn’t move, and he was taller than me, so I believe I stared directly through his nose.

One wonders why he did that. A little test of the military discipline of future officers of his nation’s most powerful ally? Simple puckishness? Did he see my last name, and think to himself–with the IRA supporters demonstrating outside–that he might have in (extremely remote and unlikely) theory had to trust his monarch’s life to this uniformed, unarmed teenager with a quintessentially Irish surname? I will never know. The entourage continued out, and the event closed. Consensus was that UW represented itself well, with those of us representing the armed forces doing our part.

But as we were ushering, and before we took up our posts, something interesting happened. An ancient lady, a bit heavyset and apparently about ninety years of age, was struggling up into the lower bleachers. I and a Navy midshipman were close to hand. We each took a side and half helped, half hoisted her into her assigned bleacher seat. As she was settled, she looked at each of us in turn. I don’t remember her face, but I won’t ever forget those clear, alert, intelligent eyes. She said, “Thank you, you young gentlemen. Someday someone will do this for you.”

It may have affected my nautical colleague as profoundly as it still does me, what must be at least two decades after she has almost surely passed on.

Freezing to death

As I write, it’s 21º F (-6.1º C) outside, not cold by my standards. For various reasons I understand, and some I do not, I have a bizarre natural cold resistance that welcomes the feel of -5 F on my face, and ice forming in my facial hair. But I’m resistant, not immune. I know this because I’m a great rarity: a survivor of third-stage hypothermia. And since some of what I’ve read about ‘what it’s like’ was obviously authored by someone who never felt it, maybe this is a good story for a cold night where I can feel ice in the air. I’ve told it enough times to friends that, maybe, it is time I wrote it down.

This happened at Ft. Lewis, WA, when I was in ROTC. I was young, in my second year, brash, opinionated, mouthy, motivated and clueless. I participated with a sub-group of the battalion known as the Ranger Company. It was purely voluntary, but among its numbers you could generally find the best of the battalion. They were tough, highly motivated, brave and dedicated to the military art. They respected the NCOs’ knowledge and soaked it up as fast as the latter would dole it out. They did extra futtockses (FTXes, ‘field training exercises’) involving long nights running around in the rain and cold at Lewis, being tired and miserable. They were in excellent condition, feared nothing, and were dedicated to winning or dying. They were not fanatics; they were rationally brave and intelligent. Had war come to NATO in the late 1980s, a number of Warsaw Pact formations would have been hurt far worse than they expected, thanks to some young men and women who had once worn a shoulder patch of purple and gold, and suffered in frigid misery patrolling in heavy fog and rain at 3 AM, and been expected to perform well anyway.

There I met some of the best people I’ve ever known. I didn’t complete the program in the end, for reasons which were about 90% the fault of my own immaturity, but I don’t regret my association with it. And one night, aged eighteen, it came so close to killing me that I could feel my life leaking out into the frosty night.

It was the usual FTX scenario: a night assault on a position with M16s firing blanks. (I hated that goddamn rifle so much that you couldn’t get me to buy a civilian assault rifle version for a buck. In fact, you’d have to pay me to take it away. Yes, I know they fixed some of its flaws. Still hate it and anything that looks like it.) A newly commissioned second lieutenant led us toward the pre-assault position. The idea was that a parachute flare would signal the ‘attack.’ We were supported by a psyops reserve unit, which had brought loudspeakers to heckle the opposition. They had a little camp area in the woods, where we had marshaled for the operation.

The night was cold but not seriously so, perhaps in the mid-twenties F, starry and moonless. The always-moist air of the western side of Washington, which can so greedily drain body heat, felt and tasted of ice. The lieutenant positioned us to await the signal, laying prone in the deep frosty grass, surrounded by forests. I don’t remember how long it took, but I was underdressed for a long laydown on icy ground. I hadn’t put the liner into my field jacket, and for whatever reason, the cold went straight into me.

The first stage of hypothermia involves convulsive shivering. This is not your ‘letting the dogs out to do their business for a couple of winter minutes’ shivering. I mean wracking shivering that you cannot suppress. That began for me at some point in the grass–I don’t recall how long it took, but the only other time I’ve felt shivers of that magnitude involved surgical anesthesia wearing off. At that point, I was at least somewhat mentally impaired and disoriented. It felt like it lasted an hour, though I doubt that’s possible. Time grew distorted as I lay there shuddering, miserable and unsure what I was supposed to do.

The second stage can involve hallucinations and an ebb in the shivering, though I promise you it still feels cold. I began to see strange hexagonal light patterns in the night sky, obscuring the winter constellations I knew so well from my teenage astronomy fixation. I also saw an aurora borealis, but not a real one. My mind conjured it from photos I’d seen, all of which were in static black and white. Thus, that’s how I saw it, not the authentic shimmery, changing, polychromatic Northern Lights of my wife’s Alaskan memories. For some reason, I noticed the starlight playing off the frost crystals on my field jacket sleeve. Some time during that stage, I saw some light explode in the sky and heard some noises in the distance. Only later did I realize that those were the signals for the ‘attack’ I was supposed to join in. I was confused and indecisive, and there I lay, awaiting some more definitive signal, or so I thought.

I was too young and dumb to realize my mortal danger during the second stage. It took the third for me to get the message.

After a while–and I’ll never know the actual amount of time–the last of the shudders faded away. Those who tell you that you feel warm in the third stage, certainly never lived through it. However, there is a sense of insulation from the cold as your body begins to mothball systems it deems non-essential: legs, arms, etc. You still know it’s cold, but it just isn’t quite penetrating the way it was when you thought you’d tear a tendon shivering. Evidently the lieutenant had failed to count up his people, and no one had registered that I was missing, because I later learned that no one was out looking for me. I’d heard a lot about how useless second lieutenants were, and how useless I too would be when I was (theoretically) commissioned one, but this was my first good look at the reality.

The hardest part, the hardest thing, about the third stage was the seductive reassurance of sleep. The brain rationalizes: you’ve finally gotten acclimated to the cold, now why not just give in to the fatigue and have a nap until morning? I tell the story through all the fogged memory of a mind impaired by my condition, but some memories are clearer than others, and one of them is why I live today. I had a moment of clarity that said: if you go to sleep now, you will die, out here on 11th Division Prairie or whatever the hell division prairie it is. I could feel life fading away, seeping out like sweat drains body moisture on a hot day. The cold had bitten, drank and was ready to sate itself. If I fell asleep, that’s where I’d be found eventually, dead at eighteen.

For some reason, for whatever reason, it registered with me that I had the choice to walk or die, and not much time to decide. I can’t explain why I made the choice I did, but I forced myself to my feet and started walking. Gods only know how I found the reservists’ bivouac, but somehow I wandered into it. No one checked me out, or seemed to realize that I’d been missing, and I didn’t say anything–I was both rummy and embarrassed that I hadn’t taken part in what I was supposed to do. In any case, they had coffee and stuff, and a fire of some sort, and there was ample opportunity to get warm. I didn’t tell anyone about my situation, so in the darkness and general banter of post-operation socializing, it went unknown and untended. Didn’t really matter; I wasn’t frostbitten and was no longer freezing to death.

Now as I look back on that night thirty years gone, I wonder how many other people have lived through that stage of hypothermia without some form of active rescue. I rarely read other survivors’ accounts. I wonder what others who died experienced, whether they saw the odd things I saw, why they fell asleep. Did it sneak up on them? Was there nowhere to walk to, probably true of most cases? What was it like for them? They felt the final ebb of life from their systems, the final fading, which I never did. And it’s too late for them to describe it, so I am as close as you can probably get.

The last time temperature had endangered my life, it had been sunstroke, and I’d been seven. The last thing I remember is them lowering me into a bathtub full of ice cubes. Before I was old enough to take a legal drink of beer, I had felt both extremes reach for my life, and come back denied.

I don’t fear the cold. Last year, when we got a rare cold snap down to -5º F, I couldn’t wait to go walking. I wore only rubber boots, sweats, t-shirt, windbreaker and a toque. I had gloves, which I removed early, and soon took my hands out of my pockets. I unzipped my windbreaker partway; it was getting hot in there. I took a twenty-minute neighborhood walk in the ice and snow, not long, just enough to feel it. It was so quiet, snowy, reflective, muffly, lovely. As usual with me, it was like an internal heater fired up (one whose pilot light had evidently been out that night at Ft. Lewis). When I came into the house afterward, I went straight to Deb and laid both my bare hands on her arm. They were hot, not cold, on her skin. She called me a freak, exactly as custom requires.

No, I don’t fear the cold. But I by the gods respect it. When I go out in it now, I feel it kiss me. Well, I know what it feels like when it gets to third base.

I think I’ll stick to the necking part from here on out.

Professor Willis Konick

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.