How I Came to Monmouth College

As a graduate of a small liberal arts college, I always knew that, if I had a choice, I wanted to teach at the same kind of institution. But I also knew that anyone studying to teach any Humanities subjects in college had to be prepared to accept whatever job comes their way, wherever it is located. This was certain true in 1975, when I was finishing my dissertation in Classics at The Johns Hopkins University in 1975 and is probably more true now. I was lucky. I actually had a choice for my first teaching position. I’d been offered a one-year sabbatical replacement position at a small liberal arts college in New England and I was also offered a tenure-track position at Howard University in Washington, D.C. I was sorely tempted by that small liberal arts college but felt that I couldn’t turn down a tenure-track position. Besides, my wife, Anne, wa still working on her dissertation at Hopkins, so we agreed that I would accept the position at Howard, at least for a year or two.

Well, life is full of surprises. I actually wound up getting tenured at Howard and teaching there for nine years. I liked teaching at Howard and liked my students, but at Howard I almost always taught “service” courses to non-majors. In fact, my teaching schedule typically consisted of some combination of three courses, Classical Mythology, Vocabulary Building (i.e., English derivatives from Latin and Greek) and Introduction to Humanities, all of which I could eventually teach blindfolded.

I never lost my yearning for a teaching position at a small liberal arts college and did check out the job openings in Classics every year and sometimes even applied for someting. In the fall of 1983 I saw an add, not in Positions for Classics, but in the Modern Foreign Languages Job Listings, for a Classics endowed chair, with rank open, at Monmouth College in Illinois. “Open rank” was important for me at this point, since I was now a tenured Associate Professor and not every small liberal arts college would consider hiring someone at that level. The endowed chair was also attractive and intriguing, so I applied.

By second semester, I hadnt heardd back from Monmouth so I figured that I didn’t make their short list. Well, it turned out that that was true, but I also eventually learned that the folks on their short list didn’t work out and I eventually got a phone call from Monmouth. I wasn’t home when this call came from Bill Urban, a professor of history, who wound up talking to my wife, not to me. Anne must have made an impression because, soon after that, I was invited for a campus interview.

Traveling to Monmouth back then was an experience. I remember driving to National Airport with Anne and my three children in the car and then leaving Anne to drive home. Anne was not an enthusiastic driver in DC but agreed to the task. She and the kids were rewarded on their way home by seeing the elephants from the Barnum and Bailey circus parading downtown.

Meanwhile I flew from DC to St. Louis. From their I took a flight on a very small propellar plane — so small that the plane shook when they loaded the luggage! — which flew first to Burlington, Iowa, and the to Galesburg, Illinois, where Bill Urban picked me up. (There no longer are any such puddle jump flights to Galesburg. Anyone flying to Monmouth today has to fly into Moline or Peoria, Illinois, both more than 60 miles from Monmouth.) And the road from Galesburg to Monmouth, Route 34, was, at the time, a single lane in each direction, so Monmouth really seemed out in the middle of nowhere to this Easterner who grew up in New Jersey and was living in the DC area.

I stayed in a guest room in one of the dormitories, not very fancy and much like the dorm room I’d had in college. The campus was very small both in terms of physical plant and student body — only about 650 students at the time. I was worried from the start about the long-term future of the college, but at the same time, I saw an opportunity.

For many years Latin and Greek had been a one-person program. The Classics professor had been Bernice Fox, who had retired just a few years earlier and had passed the program on to a former student who was “finishing” a dissertation at the University of Michigan. Well, trying to finish a dissertation while teaching full-time at a small liberal arts college was a near-impossible task. So the college was looking for a new classicist.

Another challenge was the program itself, which was based almost entirely on courses in the original languages. Classical Mythology and Word Elements (= Vocabulary Buidling, see above) were offered but most of the courses were single author courses in the original language, like Vergil, Horace, Livy, etc.

So I left my campus interview somewhat ambivalent at Monmouth. I was drawn to the liberal arts model but worried about giving up my secure position at Howard for a more uncertain future in a small midwestern town.

The call came offering me the position in April, 1984, while I was atttending a meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (i.e., CAMWS — an organization which warrants its own blog sometime) and I actually accepted the offer.

The rest is history.