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Looking Back - Owen Rogal

February 2014 | by Owen Rogal

Just for the record, I'm not "retiring." The word rubs me the wrong way.

I'm "graduating," along with my wife Margi, by the way, who is leaving her position in the reference department at the Tredway Library at Augustana. We're part of the class of 2014. Like a good number in that class, we're not quite sure what we'll do when we leave school but know that we'll do something. But we do know where we're going, to Vermont, living in the mountains on the edge of the Green Mountain National Forest: looking out our windows, we'll see nothing but trees.

Already in the first week of the spring semester, I'm so taken up with my work in the classroom, I don't have time to think about where I have been, where I'm going. Nor do I especially want to. Ask my daughters and wife: I'm not one who looks ahead very much. Nor will I now.

But I am thinking of the people I work with and have worked with. Incredible people in so many ways. Sometimes I can't believe this chance I was given to work in this community. I'll write first about people who have left through the course of the years, who worked here, committed, sometimes idiosyncratic, originals, always interesting, always worth listening to, writing about them because remembered by very few if by any at this point.

For example, Sister Ritamary Bradley, who was teaching only part-time when I started at SAU in 1986, but who was a mentor for me, taking me under her wing, as she did with so many young faculty, but not just with young faculty: people in general, guys and gals, young and old. In my first couple of years I was often making the short walk from the third floor of Ambrose Hall to the east end of the second floor, where her office was, to talk over an issue or problem, and Ritamary would sit across from me, so clearly focusing on what I was saying, listening, patiently taking in my words, all of them. I often think—and I do mean often—when I'm with my students, "Too bad they can't sit in an office with Sister Ritamary. They don't even know that there was a Sister Ritamary at SAU, a first class intellectual and scholar as well as attentive and generous colleague." One of the persons who eulogized her at her funeral mass was Dean Ann Freiberg, who told a wonderful story about Sister Ritamary taking a bus to Cincinnati for a conference, sitting with people whose company she wouldn't usually share, getting off the bus thinking, "They certainly are different," but catching herself, remembering, "I was on that bus too," erasing the line she was about to draw between her and "them." Vintage Sister Ritamary Bradley.

So many people haunting my days at SAU: John Fitzgibbon, a member of the philosophy department, whose door also was always open to me, and who suddenly showed me, by something he said at the first faculty assembly I attended—I'm from New Jersey, had no friends or family in the Midwest, was feeling cut off in my first months here—that maybe I will after all be all right at St. Ambrose. And Wayne De John, a member of the history department, another scholar, who made sure my semester here that I felt as if I am a part of the community. Small gestures matter: Jim Mullins, who taught economics, walking up behind me—this was in my first year too—as I left Ambrose Hall, walking out the door behind the statue of St. Ambrose, and put his left arm through my right, and walked next to me for a few yards, talking about this and that. And Joe McCaffrey doing the same—not in my first year, maybe my third or fourth, but I was still feeling my way here—as I walked down the hall west to east on the second floor of Ambrose Hall.

One other memory. I'd met Dorothy Day—just for a few moments—when I was volunteering at the Catholic Worker in January 1968—but I don't think I'd ever met a priest before I taught at SAU, and one of the most striking priests I met was Father Bill Dawson, almost stereotypically sweet, kind, always, it seemed to me, smiling, always greeting people happily. Then I was in a march in Davenport protesting the first Gulf War, at the end of which Father Dawson addressed the assembled protesters, and all I could think listening to him was "firebrand," speaking as if he were on the barricades. Shakespeare's Henry V before Agincourt? Maybe I'm going too far, but I did think, Where did he come from? I'll follow him anywhere.

I mention only a few when there are so many others. I want to write short tributary bios of all of them, colleagues aside from Ritamary I work with in English as well as colleagues in other departments, administrators who watched out for me—people on the staff, people in the library and records and registration as well as in housekeeping, who were always ready to pitch in in any way they could to make my life at SAU smoother, who were at least ready with friendly hellos and small talk. And I'm not mentioning faculty who have been hired over the years since I was—incredible people, some of whom I've worked with closely, one of whom I'm team teaching with this semester, for example. One might think, after a quarter of a century in the classroom, can there be any surprises for this very old dog? Well, yes, I'm finding when I'm in the classroom with a colleague, the most intellectually invigorating of surprises.

And the students? I have had all sorts: students whom I thought were sharper readers and writers than I am, or was when I was an undergraduate; students who while managing difficult, challenging lives outside the classroom, remained committed to academics (a student, for example, who gave birth during a semester and missed only two classes); students who persisted and persevered, who stuck with me even when they wondered if they should. I remember one student in a section of nineteenth century fiction reading Moby Dick who couldn't make sense of Melville's strange, challenging, utterly beautiful novel but continued reading, and one day in class, the light went on: he raised his arms—as if he'd just scored a touchdown (he was a football player)—and said, in class, out loud, "I get it now, I get it." Who wouldn't love teaching people like this?

Or just this past semester, the nineteen students in my learning community, Be the Change, which I taught with Katy Strzepek, Jessica Nash and Leslie Ross—meeting with them was always a pleasure; they were always on; they always surprised as well as delighted. One day early in the semester, almost all of us (I think two students could not because of other obligations) went to the Davenport farmers' market in the parking lot of Modern Woodmen Park to buy food, which we brought back to my house and cooked and ate. We didn't visit the market just to buy a few apples and maybe cookies, stop in Fresh Deli for a cup of tea (as much as I love Fresh Deli), walk and observe. We were there to work. And we did, querying vendors at the market about what was available and what we could do with it, conferring with each other about different possibilities while the hundreds of other shoppers at the market passed around us, and then when we went to my house with our bags of food, cutting, slicing, and dicing, frying (one person standing at the stove almost continuously scrambling eggs) and sautéing, and then sprawling all over my rather modest living quarters to enjoy the products of their labor. What a great opportunity for me (and Katy, Jessica, and Leslie)—to see students cracking eggs.


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