i don’t usually write letters to people expecting that i’ll put them on the blog, though a couple have ended up here. A few months ago, one of my college professors died and i wrote a letter to his wife. … With the end of the school year fast approaching, i’ve been thinking a bit of teachers and teaching lately, perhaps because i still go to the local high school each morning, and see educators on an almost daily basis. i think sometimes that the good ones little appreciate just how significant their work is. So i offer the following letter as an example of how one teacher and a textbook touched my life decades ago. (i hope that this might encourage any of you teachers, and have Dr. Pat Schoenrade at William Jewell College in mind as i share this.) To those of you who do it well, and take your calling seriously, thank you, thank you. Great is your reward. …
January 29, 2011
I was sorry to learn of George’s passing, and am still a bit curious why the death of someone I’ve only seen once in the past thirty years touches me so deeply. Would you indulge me while I share some of my memories of Dr. Martin with you? Writing them down, and reliving them here in my thoughts, might help me to understand why I feel his loss as keenly as I do and might, at the same time, give you occasion to celebrate, even more than you already do, the good soul that he was.
I met Dr. Martin sometime in the late 1970’s, probably ’77 or ’78, when I was an English major at the University of Georgia. I enrolled in his class on the poetry of John Milton, a small one as I recall, maybe 10 or 12 students, that met upstairs in Park Hall. I clearly remember Dr. Martin in a plain but very professorial gray sweater, leaning back in his chair at the front of the class, feet propped up and crossed on the desk, cigarette in hand. He was not a very animated speaker and his lectures were hardly scintillating, but he brought poetry to life for me and his classes were not at all, like some that I endured at UGA, to be dreaded.
The principal texts, maybe the only ones, that we used in the class were the poetry of Milton and the Bible, which was a grand stroke of Providence for one who, like myself, had just recently begun to take a genuine interest in Jesus and the Christian faith. The combination of scripture, Milton, and Dr. Martin’s lectures kept Christ, the cross, redemption, repentance — in short, all the matters ‘pertaining to life and godliness’ — squarely before me during that formative time of my life. It was no accident that I was in George Martin’s class.
I don’t believe that I performed very admirably in the class, though I somehow managed to finish with a tolerable grade (an example perhaps, on Dr. Martin’s part, of the grace that we had studied in our coursework.) Interestingly, the only term papers I retained from all of my years of higher education are those from Dr. Martin’s class, which I have tucked away in the textbook that we used in our studies. On one of those papers, I barely made a passing grade, and probably deserved a proper scolding for my poor performance. Instead, being the kind soul that he was, and hoping perhaps to encourage a non-Miltonian such as myself, the generous professor wrote “D — but what you said was good.” … Though some might say that I was “damned with faint praise” by his inscription, I can only say that Dr. Martin endeared himself to me by his benevolence and gentleness. Even his criticism was soft-spoken, a trait I still wish to attain.
After finishing undergraduate and then law school in 1980, I lost touch with all of my college professors. But in the early 1990’s, I left law practice to return to school, this time at the University of Edinburgh. To gain admission into their masters program for English literature, I needed reference letters from two undergraduate professors. I could well remember most all of my instructors, but I was certain that, 12 years removed from their classrooms, none of them would remember me. My strategy was simply to choose my two favorite professors, give them a call, and take a chance that I could induce them somehow to say positive, if fraudulent, things about me to the admissions committee in Scotland. To my very pleasant surprise, when I called Dr. Martin (and Dr. James Kilgo), he not only remembered that I had been a student, but remembered that I lived in middle Georgia, that I had gone to law school and that I was something of an outdoorsman. Our conversations during that process were few but pleasant, and always left me wishing that I had made better use of the privilege that was mine as his student. I wished, too, that I might have the chance to enjoy a long conversation with Dr. Martin sometime. At 40 or 50, I think I would have appreciated him much more than I did as a 20 year old.
The last time, of course, that I saw Dr. Martin was when I had the added pleasure of meeting you. What an honor it was to have y’all in the audience at Newberry. The professor seemed very much the same gentle, interested, encouraging soul that I remembered from college days, and I’m sure that he was. How I regret now that I did not make good on my intention of visiting him and you in Spartanburg. … I am grateful indeed that you went to the trouble to find me this week. It is touching to know that Dr. Martin mentioned me from time to time, and I’m grateful that you sensed I would want to know of his departure.
Just a final note, and this perhaps explains why I am so inclined to reflect on your husband’s life as I do … Following my course work with Dr. Martin, I did, in fact, come to faith in Christ, a faith that continues to be the anchor and the compass of my life. Lord only knows the role that your husband played in getting me to bend my knee and bow my will to the grace of God. Can I ever be thankful enough for the timely gift that George Martin was to me? Since I cannot say thank you to him (though I think I did share all of this with him in our conversations), might I express that gratitude to you, knowing that his work as professor was affirmed, encouraged and supported by yourself. … I cannot imagine how much you will miss him after so many years of life together, but I hope that stories like mine will help you, as one suggests, “not to regret that they had to end, but to be thankful that they ever happened.”
Please know that you and your family are in my prayers.
With kind and grateful regards,