Friday, May 29, 2015

A Tribute to Edward F Callahan, PhD

It was thirty years ago when I walked into his classroom, and although I have only a scattered recollection of the works we studied, I will never forget Dr. Edward F Callahan, Professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross for over thirty years. He was--and remains--a short, stocky man with a squarish head and thick-rimmed glasses, with a predilection for button-down shirts and cardigan sweaters. Nothing memorable there. But his lack of being memorable ended there, as soon as the door closed and he began consulting the list of students who had signed up for his class. 

"Herr Hogenkampf?"

He pronounced my name with a distinct Bavarian lilt.

I nodded.

He lowered his glasses and peered at me. "What kind of name is that?"

"It's Dutch."

He scratched his forehead. "Sounds German to me."

I shrugged. 

Ed left his glasses low on his nose and looked around the room, filled mostly with female students I didn't know, and squinted at them, as if to say 'can anyone vouch for this guy?'

No one vouched for me, and Ed kept on going down the list. When he finished, he set his clipboard down and leaned back against his desk. "So, Herr Haagandaas, what brings you here?"

The truth was I had wanted to take a course taught by "the best professor at Holy Cross,' but I wasn't about to tell him that. It sounded way too sycophantic and the only thing I knew for sure about Ed was that he despised sycophants. 

"I needed a break from Chemistry."

He looked at me askance. "You're a Chemistry major?"

I nodded again, realizing it was dangerous to open my mouth in this place. 

He looked around the room, and then back at me: "Well, folks, looks like we're in a for a treat this semester. Not only will Herr Hogenkamp be voicing his Teutonic opinions, but giving us his chemical analyses as well. I can hardly wait."

The class laughed nervously and my friend Kathy gave me a sympathetic smile, the kind of smile you give someone when his dog dies. 

Dr. Callahan went on to go over the syllabus, and announce that our first work would be a poem by Yeats, which we would be discussing next class. When the bell rang, I eased out of my seat, trying not to appear too anxious to leave, but not wanting to be left alone on the room with him either. 

Kathy joined me in the hall as we filed out of the building. "He likes you," she said. 

I tried to figure out how she could tell this, when the opposite appeared to be true, but nothing came to mind, and I headed off to the Science Building where I could sit and listen to a lecture in peace.

That night I cracked open the poem, looking for the hidden meaning in the words like a good English major. But I was a Chem major, and I couldn't help but see the letters as numbers and the words as equations. It never occurred to me that there was a library full of texts which could have aided me in my analysis, but, truth be told, the only time I ever went to the library was to look for a date. (I found out after the semester was over that there was an entire section devoted to the criticism of Irish literature, much of which had been written by Ed himself.)

The next class started well, meaning that Ed lectured without asking any questions, and I began to see why the classroom was chock full. It was the 80's and the audio-visual revolution was just getting underway, and as a consequence, all the professors were being encouraged to bulk up their classes with A/V aides--all the professors except for Ed, that is, who didn't need movies or overheads or computer screens to hold the students' attention. Why would you need any of those things when you had intelligence, charm, wit and, most of all, command--and Ed had all of those things in abundance, especially command.  

And so Ed held court, and I fell under his spell. As I listened, the numbers turned back into letters and the equations became words again, and Yeats became comprehensible and--dare I say it--enjoyable instead of dense and dull. But like all good things, his lecturing ended and he began looking around the room, trying to solicit opinions. 

I knew I was in trouble when they came, first one opinion and then the next, all brilliantly formulated and eloquently articulated. I couldn't help but watch Callahan react to them, listening politely and interjecting a thought or two here or there. The third opinion finished--saying pretty much what the first two had already said--and he turned his gaze to me.

"I am sure," he announced to the class, "that you all are most interested in hearing what our German Scholar has to say."

The class all looked in my direction.

"Herr Hogenkaeze, what do you think?"

And so I told him what I thought, straight off the top of my head. The truth of it is that even had I done the research--a scenario which is the very definition of the word hypothetical--I would have given him my own opinion anyway, because we had all heard the real thing three times already, and nobody--least of all Ed-- was in the mood for a fourth. 

"I have been teaching this poem for over thirty years, Herr Hogenkamp, and that is the first time I have ever heard that opinion."

For a moment I wasn't sure if I had lucked into saying something profound: I hadn't. 

"Unfortunately, Herr Hogenkrieg, originality doesn't always imply genius," he commented, and then went on to torpedo every last one of my ideas. I listed in my seat like the Lusitania. 

And that's a microcosm of the entire semester: Ed assigned a work of Irish literature, which Peter read. Ed lectured about said work, rendering the words into an easily-digestible emulsion that actually made sense. Ed called on 2 or 3 students he could count on to articulate a well-researched opinion, and then called on Peter, who gave his totally unresearched, wholly original and barely formulated opinion. Ed explained to the class why Peter is wrong, entertaining and edifying the class in the process. 

Now, I can hear the question forming in your mind: "Just exactly why was this your favorite class?" 

The answer is that I never once, not even for a minute, felt belittled or put down. There is something about Ed that robbed his barbs of all offense, that took the smart out of his jabs. Thirty years have gone by since the end of that semester, and I can only vaguely recall the subject material, but what I still remember is how to think for myself, how to read something and not only comprehend the deeper meaning, but to apply it to the problems that plague our world, because if you can sort your way through the congestion of Irish literature, you can sort your way though any congestion, be it intellectual or spiritual or or whatever kind of congestion that confounds you.

A Survey of Irish Literature remains my favorite course because I learned to think for myself, and to defend my opinions under heavy duress. As you have found out, we live in a chaotic and conflicted world, in which you will find yourself, at various times: the object of derision; the butt of the joke; the scapegoat; on the outs; under fire; pressured. 

I know I have, but Ed Callahan trained me for those circumstances. I can thank Ed who taught me to think for myself and to stick to my guns when others around me didn't share my vision. I can thank Ed for teaching me that an original idea has merit. I can thank Ed who taught me to believe in my ideas and not let others dissuade you from your beliefs. I can thank Ed who taught me to hold on to your dreams, even when everyone else--people close to you, no less, and people whose opinions you trust--tell you to abandon them. As I continue to pursue my dream of being a published author, I rely on these things Ed taught me. When the rejections came, when the whole process took way longer than I wanted it to, when my support wavered, I didn't waver. Thanks, Ed.

I should tell you that my relationship with Ed did not end with the one class I took with him. In many ways, it just began. I am happy to say that he is still a cherished friend of mine, and someone with whom I have shared three decades of travels and adventures in Italy, Austria and back home. But those wonderful days are the subject of an another post. I would add that my family and I took Ed out to dinner last week, and after I exchanged the usual three kisses with him, he said: "OK good, now go away and let me spend some time with your wife."

It seems some things never change.

Cheers.
:)

Peter Hogenkamp is a physician and author living in Rutland, Vermont. Peter's writing credits include ABSOLUTION, the first book of The Jesuit thriller series; THE LAZARUS MANUSCRIPT, a stand-alone medical thriller; and The Intern, a serialized novel based loosely on Peter's internship, published bi-weekly on #Wattpad. Peter can be found on his Author Website as well as his personal blog, PeterHogenkampWrites, where he writes about most anything. Peter is the founder and editor of Prose&Consthe literary blog for readers and writers written by authors, editors, agents, publishers and poets; a frequent contributor and reviewer at ReadWave; the founder and moderator of groups on Facebook (The Library), Google+ (Fiction Writers Anonymous); and the chief of two tribes on Triberr, The Big Thrill and Fiction Writers. Peter tweets--against the wishes of his wife and four children--at @phogenkampvt and @theprosecons. Peter can be reached at peter@peterhogenkamp.com or through his literary agent (Liz Kracht of Kimberely Cameron & Associates) at liz@kimberleycameron.com.