Opinion. Credentials or Qualifications? By Hal O’Leary. Enjoy your weekend, Yareah friends. Art is everywhere and up to you!
With the reader’s kind indulgence, I would like to spend this time and space recalling a few memories from a most important and rewarding time of my life. I refer to the eight years spent teaching at Bethany, a “Small College of Distinction,” as its PR so proudly proclaimed. To begin at the beginning, as Dylan Tomas might say, I was hired at the behest of a most progressive and wonderful Dean of Faculty, Dr. Barrie Richardson, who chose to overlook the fact that I had no college degree, having dropped out of college at the end of my sophomore year. Add to this the fact that, as a secular humanist, I was accepted (with some notable exceptions) by the faculty of a church-related institution whose founder also founded the Disciples of Christ denomination. Moreover, add to this the fact that during the entire eight years I retained my full-time position as artistic director of the Towngate Theatre in nearby Wheeling, WV, and it might be said that I had no business being there, but there I found myself . . . in more ways than one.
I hadn’t been there long when college president Dr. Perry Gresham decided that he would rather I had some kind of a degree. He sent me to a friend of his at West Virginia University whose name I no longer recall, to see what he might suggest in way of obtaining some credential. The only result of this expedition was that Perry’s friend simply said, “If Perry wants you to have a degree, why doesn’t he just give you one?” The subject never came up again, and I remained without a degree until some forty years later when, ironically, I was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by the very institution, West Liberty University, from which I had dropped out sixty years earlier. So much for credentials as opposed to qualifications!
At the beginning of my second year, I was asked to be one of a select few faculty members to develop an experimental freshman seminar for the purpose of aiding students in the process of learning to learn. We were to design our own courses around any theme we wished. The title of my seminar was “I Am the Best Possible Arnold Burns.” This title was taken from a line in Herb Gardner’s wonderful play “A Thousand Clowns,” in which Arnold Burns proclaims his right to be the best possible person that he, given his admitted peculiarities, could be. It was not only a right, but an obligation. The seminar proved most successful, and the title was shortened to a more accessible “Introduction to Yourself.”
It was for the seminar in early autumn that I devised an exercise in which I had students go off into the woods behind the campus and remain there by themselves, out of sight and sound of anyone else, for the two hours during which we normally met. It proved to be an enlightening experience for many of the students, and most especially one, a student named Sam. Sam was the son of a multinational entrepreneur and had grown up in the chaos of many of the larger cities of the world. I’m afraid he looked upon me with some suspicion, for the thought of spending two hours in solitude was something to which he strongly objected on the grounds that he would be “bored to death.” “Just do it, Sam,” I said, and off he went. When Sam returned at the end of the full two hours, I asked him how it went. “Like I said, Hal, l was bored to death,” to which I simply responded, “Just who were you bored with, Sam?” As a result, I think Sam developed a modicum of respect, not only for me, but more importantly for himself.
I kept a file of what I termed “Notes Across My Desk.” My favorite was from Mary King: “Dear Hal, I will not be in class today. I am going on an adventure.” Needless to say, I never heard nor asked what the adventure was.
As a teacher of public speaking, I have had students faint from fear, but on one occasion, at the end of a speech by a black student who ranted over racism in America, I laughed. Storming from the stage, he demanded to know why I was laughing. I explained that with all the energy he had expended in his tirade, there would be little left to inflict the harm which he threatened. I went on to suggest that if, instead of raging, he had just looked us in the eyes and quietly but firmly said, “Move over, Whitey, we’re coming through,” we may have wished to reconsider our thoughts on racism.
Admittedly, I was not as academically inclined as were many of the faculty, especially the head of the English department, Dr. Helen Louise McGuffey, who looked down on my admiration of the poet Robert Frost. When, as one segment of the speech course, I had the students find, study and orally interpret a poem, occasionally an English major might have turned to the good doctor for advice on what poem he or she might use. Their mentor would most often suggest something by Frost, “being what O’Leary is most capable of appreciating.” This characterization, I confess, bothered me, and I approached her with my concern. Hearing no denial of her assessment of my taste in poetry, I simply stated my position as having a desire that a student graduate from Bethany with a love of Frost rather than a hatred of Milton.
There was, however, one rather frightening incident. Sitting in my cramped office, I glanced up to see a student I didn’t recognize. When I asked if I could help her, she said, “I don’t think so.” At a loss as to how to proceed, and observing that she seemed troubled, I asked her to come in. I asked why she had come, and she said that her roommate insisted that she talk to me. Again, “Why?” became the question to which she replied that she was contemplating suicide. After a rather tense pause, I told her that she had scared me to death. It was then her turn to ask “Why?” I said it was because I feared that she meant it and might indeed carry out her threat. With this she burst into heartrending sobs, and I apologized for having made her cry. She assured me that there was no need for apology and went on to explain that she had told her roommate that I would be like everyone else and simply tell her she was crazy, and that if I did, she would. Barbara left college, but did write me a year or so later to let me know that she was doing well.
I was given the honor of reading the names of the graduates at commencement. We had one student, a Polish native, who wished for his name to be read in Polish. With the number of consonants in his name, he was known widely as Wally Alphabet. His Polish name was Vodjimer Bogoslav Marichkowski. I rehearsed it for hours, and he was the only graduate to have received applause at the reading of his name.
At the end, when I came up for tenure and declined to be a candidate because of my other commitment, I was assured by an acting dean that I would be retained in an adjunct capacity, but a new dean and president, frowning on my secularism and lack of credentials, decided that I should be let go. I appealed to the faculty with a resolution that the administration should honor the promise of my retention, but in spite of a vote of thirty-to-fifteen in my favor, the non-binding resolution was ignored, and I was terminated.
As indicated, those eight years became the most important and rewarding of my life, and I will be eternally grateful for the richness of that experience. Having sat through several boring and inane commencement speeches, I believe that, should I ever be asked to deliver one, it would be brief and in the form of the following poem composed for the occasion:
On this, your day, you will receive
advice from everyone you know.
There’s little of it you’ll retain,
And really there’s no reason why you should,
for what you will most likely get
are all the things that brought success to them,
as though your life should be a mirror of their own.
But who knows what your life will be,
what opportunities you’ll find,
what trials you may encounter.
Just be prepared for all that comes your way,
And toward that end take heed of this.
In opting ‘twixt the head and heart,
I’d choose the heart for happiness.
And for success, you need no more than this:
Keep all options open
for as long as well you can.