by Mary Phillip '73
A college community that calls itself a family and claims to cultivate lifelong learning in its siblings should show such evidence in its "retired" professors--evidence that, in effect, makes the notion of retired professor an oxymoron.
I have discovered such evidence: retired professor of English, liberal arts aficionado, and oxymoron Harold (Hal) Harris. He was my teacher, and I recall a blustery day in January of 1972 when I and several fellow English majors overslept. We woke in panic, never gave breakfast a thought, reached for our wool, and headed up the hill for Victorian Literature. There was no sneaking into a class of this size (a "K" advantage that hardly seemed so that morning). Like criminals we crawled out of our jackets and slowly looked up. Dr. Harris's displeasure was clear, and we pooled with the snow in embarrassment. Harris's lectures were artistic marvels, like the mosaics of Byzantium. References to visual artists; Tennyson's historic "I am Merlin, who follows the Gleam; and the vivid characters of Dickens's masterpieces gleamed in presentations that could never by substituted with any amount of time stalking the stacks in Upjohn Library.
Harris "retired-but-didn't" in 1990, shifting his attention from finely wrought lectures to one-act plays. But he never stopped engaging with students on the subject of literature. For example, he continues a decades-long conversation with former student Katie (Fancher) Enggass '70. The two trade insights and criticism regarding his plays and her short stories. Harris considers Enggass a fine practitioner of a difficult genre (more on that subject later).
In 1954, Harris, a newly-minted Ph.D. (Ohio State University) passed up teaching opportunities elsewhere (Miami of Ohio, Wayne State) and chose a place of the "intellectually curious," the words he uses to describe "K" faculty and students.
For the next 36 years he taught English courses (among others: Victorian Literature, 18th Century English Literature, James Joyce, the Russian Novel, Literary Criticism) and did much much more. He launched the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, recognizing renowned writers from the 12 member schools. He helped initiate Scholar's Day, which brought scientists, philosophers, and educators from a variety of academic disciplines to campus. He was the founding editor of Three Dimension, a journal that published a "best of" student work from the eponymous three dimensions: the Senior Individualized Project, the Career Service quarter, and the Foreign Study program. The journal was a true liberal arts light, with subjects ranging from the New Deal ("The Senate of the Hundred Days," by David Kyvig '66) to modern poetry ("Wallace Stevens: The Image of a Poet," by Charlotte Hauch '66) to synthetic furocoumarin chemistry ("The Synthesis and Reactions of 6-Hydroxy-5-Formylbenzofuran," by James Weis '64). Harris's curiosity regarding other disciplines inspired him to be part of many faculty search committees. "I enjoyed the social and intellectual milieu these gatherings presented," he says.
Sabbaticals provided him his own foreign study experience. He and his wife, Phyllis, and their three sons lived in France and Turkey. "Those experiences broadened all of our horizons," says Harris. And when they were home, the family hosted some of this country's greatest writers and intellects during their campus visits. Members of the Harris family--like members of the Kalamazoo College family--got a pretty good liberal arts education by just showing up for dinner. Guest list at the Harris house included, among others, John Ciardi, James Baldwin, Richard Wilbur, Norman Thomas, and Peter Matthiessen .
Of course, there's another list of names, unknown except to Harris. He has a knack for remembering most of the students who passed through his classes--English majors or not. For example, "Ven Johnson [Class of 1983] wrote one of the most moving essays I've ever read," says Harris. "I don't believe he was an English major, and I'll never forget that essay. It was about his father. It was wonderful."
And then there's Katie Enggass. "It's been an extraordinary exchange," says Harris of the long distance (he lives in Kalamazoo, Enggass in New Mexico) critical conversation. "She's provided key insights into my plays, particularly Charlie's Boys, and I have incorporated many of her suggestions."
"It has been extremely helpful to send stories off to a thoughtful, interested reader. And he never sent them back to me with a rejection form letter," laughs Enggass. "Distance also gives a level of objectivity that I don't get, say, with relatives performing the same service. I was surprised and flattered when Dr. Harris first asked if he could send me a play he'd written. I was even more surprised when he indicated I'd been of some use in my critique. Perhaps our exchange has become a never-ending SIP. Now that's frightening."
Charlie's Boys is set in a Reagan-era inner city Chicago neighborhood and depicts the contentious relationship between a Jewish liquor store owner (and Republican candidate for a state assembly seat), an alcoholic and anti-Semitic neighborhood priest, and the store owner's liberal wife, who also is her husband's Democratic opponent in the assembly seat election. The contrasting idealisms of these characters abrade and can have the adverse effect of hardening into "tribal" hatreds. And yet they remain the most potent antidotes to a creeping modern nihilism as bereft of hope as it is full of violence.
Enggass's stories are as compelling as Harris's plays. "She's one of the finest short story writers I've read," he says. BeLight is privileged to share a very short prose piece by Enggass below, and be sure to look for her short story, "Giant Nothing," in the fall issue of LuxEsto, the very first story published by the magazine!
How to cut up a melon
by Katie Enggass
She was quite accomplished, her professorial skull packed with theater and history, full of sweets that rained down on us like rare foreign coins, her optimism like glints of mica even at the end.learned how to pick out a cantaloupe from my mother-in-law. She's dead now--cancer--each time I dust her picture I say hi. She told me to look past the textured part of the rind to its smooth background, which should be a neutral tan color. If that background is green, the melon hasn't ripened correctly. I guess everyone has a different trick. I remember simply being grateful for a way to make a choice. I was about to be married to her son at the time, to sign myself over, which made all decisions seem monumental. How are you supposed to make the right selection when you can't see the inside?
So there we were, poking through melons in the produce section, where some marketing person had decided to create signs characterizing all fruits and vegetables with the word: "style." The problem was a lack of creativity. We had yellow-style bananas and green-style beans and Texas-style grapefruit. Most entertaining to both of us, though, probably the first time we truly laughed together, were the fun-style piñatas hanging over the fresh-style lettuce. Immediately one thought of piñatas that would not be fun--filled with spiders, maybe, or explosives.
Wash the melon. The stem end is the North Pole. With the North Pole facing the ceiling, use a large sharp knife to cut the melon lengthwise in half in one swoop (don't saw), along the lines of longitude, not the equator. This is trickier than it seems. As the knife passes through the center, the blade often picks up a seed and drags it through the lower section of melon flesh. This gouges the flesh, leaving a little worm path in the perfection. To avoid this, you can try to rotate the melon as you cut, but often that approach results in a jog where your cut lines don't align. So, that's your choice: worm holes or the surgical flap.
Use a teaspoon. Make sure you scoop all seeds and all gelatinous matter, even if this means wasting the slightest bit of firm melon to make sure. Create a smooth bowl so that your slices later will have a clean, attractive inner curve. Now it is time to slice. Why is it so important to get this right? When did I get this way, obsessed with the insignificant, a barren-style human? Perhaps an empty piñata is the worst kind.
Whichever way you cut it, a medicinal smell will rise. I hope you see what I am seeing now: the perfect complementary colors of cantaloupe orange tinged with bright lime green just inside the rind. My mother-in-law favored silk scarves for her bald head during treatment and she often wore an extravagant flowery one with just this brilliant mixture. I wonder if she would like being remembered through mere melons. In reality she was quite accomplished, her professorial skull packed with theater and history, full of sweets that rained down on us like rare foreign coins, her optimism like glints of mica even at the end. I suppose, thinking about it now, she's beyond the option to pick and choose the style of her immortality. She should just be grateful to be remembered at all.