Tag Archives: Minneapolis

Seeking Asylum in the World: 1980-1993

Part Seven of the essay Professor Without Portfolio.

I was fully inured to my Kenyon professoriate (but increasingly devitalized by it) when I piled Ellie and our two teenage daughters (Sam was in his second year at Dartmouth) into the Volvo on an early summer morning in 1980 and headed for Chicago’s Gold Coast. A year’s service as chair of Kenyon’s Department of Political Science had convinced me to take at least that much time away from the College and our hilltop home in Gambier, Ohio. The opportunity to do so was supplied by a fellowship to lead a research seminar for undergraduates at the Newberry Library in Chicago’s Near North Side on “The Idea of Privacy in the Western Tradition”.


I had then been 13 years at Kenyon, had reached the rank of Professor, and—until the experience of the chairship—supposed that I would retire, die, be buried and feted in Gambier. The chairship introduced me to the utterly strange world of academic administration. Suddenly the colleagues with whom I had designed and taught courses, criticized student performance, and negotiated tenure and promotions became my “patients”, each one suffering a distinctive and surprisingly advanced “illness”—egocentrism, rejection of institutional duty, demand of personal accommodations in compensation and perquisites which were not only inequitable but violations of collegiate policy. Their requests of me, their new chair, were very discreet and for “favors” that they knew were inequitable and unjust. Their discretion in making such requests was extended to the public denial of critical judgement of their colleagues in tenure and promotion cases, thus leaving the confusing impression that negative recommendations were rendered by the unanimous endorsement of the department. On three occasions, I stood alone before quizzical if not hostile students and colleagues to defend negative personal decisions rendered by universally positive colleagues.


In my haste to get a recess from the experience and the place, I encountered the severest imaginable criticism from my older  daughter; she would graduate from The Francis Parker School in Lincoln Park, Chicago, instead of with her friends at “home”! She and I have survived the breach. She has not forgiven me the substitution of Francis Parker for the finishing year in Ohio—but we have each borne and forgiven more serious affronts from the other both before and since and we love each other all the more profoundly.


Although the seminar on Privacy turned out to be popular—it attracted 25 students from almost as many colleges across the Midwest—Chicago turned out to be more fascinating for me and for many of the students. At its end, I resigned my professorship at Kenyon, joined the First National Bank of Chicago as a trainee, and thus launched at mid-life a 12-year career in Commercial Banking and Corporate Finance.


I’m still not entirely sure why I did that. Chicago’s bluff urbanity in the place of Gambier’s fecund rumour-mill and precious rusticity had something to do with it. A year’s fresh experience anywhere would have dulled the prospect for me of returning to the college and my departmental responsibilities, but the considerable charms of “that toddlin’ town” entirely obliterated it.


A yet larger factor was the malaise that swept into the college on the heels of the American withdrawal from Vietnam. The anti-war protest had enlivened the civic and intellectual life of the campus just as I began my teaching there. As the nearest thing to a local expert on the war and the Sino-Soviet relationship, the protest provided me a platform on which to establish my professorial standing in Kenyon’s “highly selective” enclave of privately educated sons of east coast professionals.  It diminished my “class” fear of both students and faculty, and gave me enough self-confidence eventually to notice that many of both were far less sure of themselves than they were anxious to seem. This was a critical discovery; it taught me something about myself that I might not have seen until much later in life.


My position on Vietnam—that American participation in the conflict amounted to “containment” and was in our national interest—was profoundly unpopular on campus and in academia. But the deliberative, even disputatious, culture at Kenyon in those days actually generated authority for those who espoused unpopular positions, so long as we did so with manifest care for the truth and civility.


Particularly at Kenyon, the discussion of the war occurred principally in the classroom rather than out on the quad, and the “teach-ins” were distinctly fair and respectful. It was the students who led the resistance to blockades, shout-downs, and building and office occupations, most of which were suggested by certain members of the faculty and staff who, ironically, regretted the braking effect of deliberation on precipitous action. In fact, an address by the studentpresident to an assembly called to close the college after the infamous Kent State incident resulted in its staying open, almost alone among Ohio’s institutions of higher learning. He turned the faculty away from closing down by arguing that we had sought refuge in Gambier from the world that included the Kent State violence in order to find deliberative counter measures to it. To give up the enterprise when it was most needed would be irresponsible foolishness. (I used the same argument from Augsburg’s chapel pulpit 30 years later, from which I was to preach just as the events of Nine Eleven were breaking—supplemented by a newer personal awareness that actual evil coexisted in the world and there was no reason to be surprised by evidence of it.)


By suddenly substituting in the aftermath of the war private for public affairs, and personal complaint for ringing rhetoric, the malaise took much of the civic life out of the place. Grade inflation set in, perhaps to help “our” graduates gain admission to the “best” law, medical and business schools. Graduation-credit equivalencies were suddenly easy to come by and were supplemented by an expansive list of “advanced placement” and off-campus study programs, perhaps to raise enrollment by making college more easily accessible. And these liberalities were accompanied by a major infusion of “soft” drugs, mostly in honor of Pleasure, newly enshrined as a legitimate objective of education, or to medicate a lengthening list of study-stopping or distracting psychic ailments. Those of us who had become legendary as “demanding” teachers were forced to lighten our assignments to retain adequate enrollments in our “elective” courses. Suddenly, there were few fora (and even those were ill-attended) on the vexing moral and ethical questions that had beckoned many of us to the academy in the first place. And there were no longer any acceptable ways to acknowledge true excellence; everything contributed to the transfiguration of “C’s” into “A’s” and true “A’s” into new “A’s”.


A simultaneous oversupply of employable Ph.D.’s deepened the malaise by suddenly lengthening the road to tenure and increasing the risk of being denied it by some bureaucratic bobble or vengeful colleague. This weakened collegiality and shifted institutional priorities to tenure and promotion processes and away from personal and professional achievements. Careers suddenly stopped progressing at home, and opportunities for fresh starts at other colleges or in related industries dried up. And those of us who had squeezed through the gates before the crush felt accidentally rather than deservedly privileged by good timing.


I would have fled half that hopelessness in any other industry. But those of us who professed the study of the human condition in and between such agglomerations as Polities, Tribes, Religions, Nation-States, Cultures felt “stuck”.  We resisted—unsuccessfully—the recasting of our Fields of Study as “Social Sciences”. Our fascination with Ideas and our skepticism of Data meant that we were lightly published, if at all, in the new spate of “refereed journals”. Our scholarship was argumentative and interpretive rather than research reports and methodological essays. We were not as sure as our counterparts that mankind was either destined to or was actually progressing morally and ethically.


Deep down, even the most ebullient of us suspected that because we had acquired our knowledge bookishly rather than experientially, and had certified its relevance for right living by reflection and discourse rather than by “practice”, we could not “do” and were left with only the ability to teach. (I traded that conviction after I left the classroom for one closer to the truth, namely, that such practical arts as banking and corporate finance serve private interest immediately, and the best academics begin, instead, with public things. Some of this insight was borne upon me by the conversation I had for years after I resigned my tenure and rank—with corporate figures that dreampt of professing their trade instead of practicing it, and academicians that dreampt of practicing a trade instead of professing it. One set of my interlocutors wanted to be better off economically, and the other morally. Very few, indeed, suspected that in our culture either dream excludes the other.



The truth is that the last half of my 15-year tenure at Kenyon eroded the promise with which it had begun. I saw (invented?) that promise at my first Kenyon commencement. A legendary professor of history was feted that day upon his retirement. Decked out in his academic robes and slightly stooped, he stood before the College to receive its collective gratitude and an honorary Kenyon degree conferred by the Board of Trustees.  The whole place came to its feet in a spontaneous expression of institutional, even communal, self-congratulation. I saw myself moving down the enchanted paths I imagined he had trod, establishing a storied reputation as citizen-hero and transformational teacher, receiving the visits of grateful alumni at every Homecoming in the living room of my farm-ette—and eventually around my headstone in the local cemetery.


Even while enduring the persistent exploratory probes of Kenyon’s privileged undergraduate ruffians, the critical elements of this image took salutary shape. I surprised those early challengers by confessing and firmly defending my convictions concerning the war in Viet Nam, and softened them, ironically, with a blunt candor to resist the “new” morality that substituted drugs for reflection as the route to understanding. Most of all, I represented to them a genuine fascination with ideas and celebrated the insights that our classroom interaction quite frequently generated. Even the most cynical of them began to see that drugs armed the mind with a miasma that obscured its image of both God and man.


In the end, I won their respect by the only form of teaching my fear of them would permit: I listened to them carefully and long enough to eventually confront them on each of our disagreements. Many of the most challenging and thoughtful of them got to coming over to the house to continue a discussion that had begun in the classroom—and then invited me into the fraternities to get me on their ground (and to return the hospitality).


(The test that I nearly failed was of my chaperoning skills for a moveable dance early in my second year. The daughter of a colleague of mine joined a coterie of volunteer dance companions imported for such occasions from a women’s college in northern Ohio and came into my particular zone of responsibility draped drunkenly over the strong, willing and wobbly body of a manly senior. All evening, I had been asked to share a “smoke” with students by providing a light for cigarettes that, in many cases, resembled those my father had made so brilliantly with one hand while guiding a team of horses in some task with the other. The students’ creations that evening were less refined, and the “tobacco” smelt strange—and when the colleague’s daughter came through in such imminent danger of giving up her favors on the dance floor itself, I realized the conspiracy of which I (and perhaps she) were subject. I found the president of the fraternity among the audience loudly anticipating the fast-approaching catastrophe and compelled him to agree that our watches, as well as the wall clock, had somehow gotten slow by about 15 minutes. With a loud and authoritative shout, I ended both the event and the spectacle. I learned the smell of “weed” that night and never again went near the dormitories on dance weekends.)


Having escaped that very close call by a widely admired deception, my reputation for intelligence and prudence leapt and I emerged as something of a classroom and advising legend. But within less than a decade, the realities of my professorial life became caricatures of my original expectation. What I originally assumed as mutual respect among professors turned out to be back-biting envy all too often or sharp-elbowed rivalry. The friendship for which I longed was possible, but only among the unranked and unelected. Many faculty seemed to suffer envy in the face of scholastic achievements by their colleagues. (A notice that I posted early in the 1970’s to the members of the department that a young colleague’s first book had been published by a major house elicited an anonymous “So what?” from one of them, and a “Who cares?” from another.) Sharp, personal repartee and quarrelsome public questioning greeted even departmentally sponsored guest lecturers, to say nothing of the presentations of Kenyon faculty. Whole departments showed up at public lectures either to cheer or castigate the lecturer. The intellectual life of the college became a tournament rather than an inquiry, a rivalry rather than a deliberation.


So—the year-off from my chairship of the department, and temporary relief from the lonely burden of responsibility for its liberating mission in an academy less and less interested in (or capable of) Liberal Education almost inevitably escalated into thoughts of resignation. Hence, at midlife I left the academy to more fully pursue my academic calling. I left the distracting trivialities of the ivory tower for what I hoped would be the gravities of the world. I abandoned colleagues in the hope of finding friends.

Developing a Self to Contend with the World

Part Six of the essay Professor Without Portfolio.

During the frequent station stops along the way from Ohio State through Hawaii to Kenyon, I learned that finding a job is a lot easier—and far less satisfying—than finding one’s place in the world. In fact, I now think that one’s place in the world does not even exist until one’s Self has developed enough perspicacity to recognize it. Known as “discernment” in the parlance of Vocation, such perspicacity seems to sharpen in deep reflection upon the events of one’s life—as though reflection was the stone, discernment the knife, and life the foot upon the pedal or the hand upon the wheel. And the life force rises and falls respectively during episodes of good or ill “fit”, good or regrettable work. (After the farm, my best fit (and worst work?) was practicing Journalism at Ohio State—and it entailed a distinctly maturing dose of suffering. Until the Augsburg presidency, my best “good work” (and least comfortable fit?) was professing Political Philosophy at Kenyon—and it revealed the dependency of good teaching on episodic learning (which disorients you just as you were becoming comfortable with the last course correction).  Although good work and good fit came closer together for me at Augsburg than at any other time in my life so far, my best “good work” has never—and will never–escape the strictures of duty.)


Although the kind of dialectic under discussion here may seem a tautology—or at least a paradox—it is neither. Self takes shape through interaction with the world, and its role in subsequent such interactions is made larger thereby. Eventually, the Self becomes strong enough—independent enough—to actually contend with the world, even-Steven (but never better than that while we are in the world).


My particular Self certainly lacked the capacity to contend with the world—especially the world of the conspiracy cabals of the late ‘50’s at Ohio State and, in the ‘60’s and ever since, of the exclusive partisan clubs among faculty at every college and university in the land—until I was well into my professoriate at Kenyon. The thing that effected its eventual invigoration was the recognition that the dialectic of world and self couldn’t advance vocationally without a third element—a teleological element made accessible by education and close acquaintanceship with admirable persons who could draw the Self upward (rather than relying on lower forces to propel it in that direction from below). The Ancients called that element “the good” and thought it rooted in Nature; many of the “moderns” who acknowledge it  think it a product of wishful thinking and believe it rooted, if anywhere, in History. Some very few call it “destiny” and think it a gift of the Divine. Whatever it is and whence ever it comes, it leavens the dialectic and enables it to rise—morally and consciously.


Only a couple of years earlier, with the confusion and self-consciousness of adolescence hard upon me, I encountered a sudden, stultifying fear for which this dialectic offered a balm. Triggered perhaps by the failure of my first venture in romance (she was Catholic, and both of us “knew” that any such inter-sectarian relationship had no future whatsoever), the fear was of the prospect of being profoundly and permanently alone. I reacted ambiguously—by casting about for ways to ingratiate myself with any nearby and popular group, on the one hand, and by seeking a radical independence of all groups, on the other (i.e., solitude in the place of alone-ness). In the long run, the stronger of these was the latter—because it entailed freedom, both “from” the prevailing biases of the groups, and “to” a life chosen by my lights and “belonging” to me (as one’s place in the world should seem). Of the two, I preferred independence. My experience suggested it as “realistic”; even when he was around, my father’s disappointment in me constituted an abandonment. His death was the ultimate abandonment—and it sent me rather more in search of an independent (rather than servile) inclusion, and a proud (rather than lonely) solitude.


The first “independent inclusion” I sought was of my peers. By that time, I had become acceptable to my mother and the portion of polite life in that part of the country that was governed by females, and secondarily by my father and his farmer friends. I was heir apparent to the 160-acre Appalachian farm he had acquired at the very end of the war. As the inheritor of his bass voice—and blessed by my mother’s subjection of me to piano and choral lessons—I was regularly asked to read Biblical texts in church or sing solo there or at the Grange, Farm Bureau, and other farmer meetings in the region.


But among my contemporaries, my standing was shaky.  I was too skinny—even with sharp elbows I couldn’t block out rival rebounders; too Eastern—older of two offspring of a college-educated Philadelphia mother who became a demanding teacher in the Southeastern Ohio school district she helped found; too musical and literary—no locker-room tales of romantic dalliances, too few of risky adventures with comrades, and nowhere near enough badinage skills to qualify as the kind of raconteur that was admired in those parts in those times.


Obtaining full acceptance by the trend setters among my contemporaries without becoming the group wise-guy or comedian was best done by handsome fellows with first-team varsity ability in sport.  I was a good pitcher of softball, but that was after-school church stuff—not enough physical combat to rival the standing of football. (I came close to measuring up when I inadvertently fractured a batter’s ankle with a fastball.)


So—I chose “thinking” as my strategy. I had learned something of the art from my mother. She made good use of it in constructing the speeches that her education, accommodating disposition, civility and clever turns-of-phrase qualified her to make to school, church and farm audiences all over the region. Her father had been a Methodist minister known best for his graceful homilies. My father’s curse-laced speech and sharp wit was widely admired among his compatriots. So, thinking and fluent rhetoric had a good reputation in the family. Hence, I have always equated them, and have become a devotee of forensic rhetoric—of clear, fascinating and instructive expression in the classroom, from the podium, and on paper. (And a preference, in private, for “rich” speech, though free of obscenities.)


At the time, thinking seemed a distinctive strategy. It was non-confrontational. It didn’t require an assertion of “rights” or “due to’s”. It needed but a certain persistence, a constantly furrowed brow, and a self-effacing interest in the remarks of interlocutors who thought themselves particularly smart or learned. It played out in rhetorical gambits with which I could acceptably interrupt and enter the conversation of the moment: “But what about….?” Or “Don’t you think….?” Or “Didn’t I just read ….”?


Although I didn’t realize it until greater maturity came to me, thinking had the added advantage of going straight to ideas. It didn’t pause over feelings. Whether the idea of the moment was “good” or “bad” didn’t matter half as much as whether it was “sound”. Thinking allowed for conversation with charlatans as well as angels, with people I secretly wanted to punch—or embrace. It allowed for a relational life outwardly devoid of love or alienation.


Although the strategy didn’t work so well for my immediate purposes—it didn’t lift me directly into the local “in” crowd—it did foster a peculiar form of reflectiveness useful for breaking free of the tyranny of popular opinion. (The other day I found notes of a week’s worth of “all nighters” in my 19th year to elect “qualified” judges—one or two only of good and knowing friends who approved of  me and my character—and to deny to casual critics such as store clerks to whom I had given too little or too much cash for my purchase or drivers irritated by the abruptness or hesitation of my left turns the power to flay my tender soul with a sharp word or obscene gesture.)


Beyond that election of those possessing the exclusive right to judge me, perhaps the earliest and most elementary realization of my search for independence and a place of my own was that writing is less a vocation than a modus-operandi. That turns out to be true, also, of academic fields-of-study. Political Philosophy, for example, is a profession—defined by a code of conduct among practitioners rather than by their dedication to justice, civility or neighborliness. Only when one consciously choses the aim of one’s political philosophy as well as a realistic strategy for effecting it, does one have a love-thy-neighbor vocation—either political, non-political or anti-political.

From Politics to Political Philosophy: 1966-1980

Part Five of the essay Professor Without Portfolio.

Just as I was closing in on the B.A., I was encouraged to apply for admission to the M.A. program by one of the several mainland profs found taking “leave” at the University of Hawaii in those days—Bob Horwitz of Michigan State University. To test his notion that I would make a good academic, he hired me to interview Hawaiian homesteaders on Molokai, the Big Island (Hawaii), and Oahu for his Ford Foundation land study. Each of these families homesteaded 30-35 acres, all but the house and yard of which was planted to pineapple and harvested by Dole Corporation. My first published academic writing grew out of that work. It concerned the “unrealized promise”, as I saw it, of a timber industry on the Islands’ watersheds, which were “reserved” by the missionaries-turned-land owners exclusively to irrigate sugar cane and pineapple crops. (Ellie’s family had direct experience with this Hawaiian form of “colonialism”: On a certain Friday early in the 20th century, her grandfather was kicked by a mule that was used to “flume” cane to the mill on Maui by way of wooden irrigation raceways. He died early the following week; the Planters did not provide weekend medical services on the plantations.)


The land study work introduced me to Alan Spitz, a student of Horwitz’s who had been in Army Intelligence in Japan. He had married Mariko there, and they had two children almost exactly the ages of Sam and Kelly. He and I often took the four of them on Sunday mornings to the comparatively empty beaches at Waikiki or Diamond Head, and talked of cabbages and kings and other such things as they got sand-caked and sunburned. (“What were you doing? They could have been burned to a crisp or carried off by sharks!!”) Over the years after Hawaii, Alan often invited me from Kenyon to discuss the Marxism of Mao Tse-tung and related matters at seminars and lecture series he organized as department chair or dean at Washington State, Michigan State, and the Universities of Wyoming (Laramie) and of New Hampshire (Durham). He admired my notion that the “totalitarians” were prompted by “ideology” rather than opportunity, but didn’t think political philosophy was within his intellectual reach. For my part,  I admired his humility—and wondered why I, of all people, blundered in where angels feared to tread!  I lost track of Alan and his family when his nomadic academic career carried him to the University of Alabama at Huntsville, and mine to the First National Bank of Chicago.


Horwitz, himself, brought me to Kenyon from the University of Washington in 1967 to help “refound” the college’s department of political science, an assignment he had won as Kenyon prepared to admit women after 145 years of men only. The department had been roiled by the doctrinal dispute of the day—between the social science and traditional “civics” treatment of the subject—and had been reduced by retirements and resignations. In moving from Michigan State to a liberal arts college, Horwitz (who had studied under Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago) was pursuing his pedagogical preferences—but also a rare opportunity to build a political science department in an image he had learned from Strauss. At Kenyon, he became the classic academic entrepreneur. Even the most accidental encounter with him on campus or in the village became a departmental meeting or petition. The president and dean worried that he would exact a new position or speaker invitation from them during the briefest of exchanges at the post office or in the grocery. He made us the second largest department in the college, close upon the heels of English, the blessed beneficiary of Kenyon’s post-war recruitment of John Crowe Ransom and the Kenyon Review, the house journal of Ransom’s  “new criticism”. (Eventually, of course, all of us in the humanities at Kenyon and similar places were eclipsed by the employment promises of the bio-sciences.)


Horwitz’s singular dedication to the Kenyon assignment was characteristic of him—and helped me moderate my own similar propensity later on. Despite the medical and dietary advice he received from the Cleveland Clinic in the early days of heart bypass surgery, he died about two-thirds of the way through my 15 year tenure there. (He would regularly come out to the house on slack days at the college on the pretext of consulting on a departmental issue, make straight for the refrigerator, and consume whatever forbidden fruit he could find there—all beyond the knowledge of his wife and doctors.)

Marriage as Antidote to a Life Too Public

Part Four of the essay Professor Without Portfolio.

A year earlier, I had met among the university’s officially-sponsored student organizations one  Eleanor Chiye Omoto. A san-sei (her grandparents had emigrated from Japan to Hawaii), she had come as far East as Ohio State to secure the mainland post-secondary education that Japanese and Chinese families in Hawaii of even modest means then thought superior to any existing option in the islands. We married in the wake of The Spokesman saga, and commenced in Hawaii a 25-year marriage that produced three complicated, distinctive and wonderful children (Sam and Kelly in Hawaii and Kate in Seattle), helped me acquire three post-secondary degrees (the B.A. and M.A. from the University of Hawaii, and the Ph.D. from the University of Washington, all in Political Science and Chinese Studies) and gave us for much of 13 years a rich and fulfilling life in Gambier, Ohio, home of Kenyon College, about an hour’s drive from where I had grown up. There the children were raised pretty largely by their mother in partnership with the public schools;  “Dad” was AWOL—writing his dissertation, teaching, advising, and getting caught up in the infinitesimally insignificant and yet infinitely absorbing issues of campus life. Ellie refused the offers of time and curriculum to earn an undergraduate degree, and we separated and divorced in the 1980’s, after we had moved to Chicago and all three children had left home. We remain in close and regular contact.


During the first two-thirds of the Kenyon sojourn, I was busy defending the American military presence in Southeast Asia. During the rest of it, I sought with increasing desperation to defend liberal education against the growing attack of pre-professional undergraduate training.


Ellie had helped me escape the addictive, cabalistic life of dogmatic journalism I had fallen into at Ohio State. She thought I would make a good academic. Our marriage forced me to corral the peripatetic scatter of my life. I began moving systematically toward a Bachelor’s degree in Politics, the subject that I liked most to write about, and I experimented along the way from Ohio State to the University of Hawaii with several alternatives to the future lost in my father’s death.


In the wake of the collapse of The Spokesman, I edited a weekly journal on “super modified” automobile racing. It was assembled and published in Granville, Ohio, and entailed my carrying a 35mm Heiland Pentax to the infields of dirt tracks around the Midwest to photograph—and dodge—spectacular spin outs and wrecks. (I suffered one scare in those days that almost broke me of my smoking addiction. I switched to “chewing” because composing and laying out the racing paper required the uninterrupted use of both hands for about four solid hours at a time. One morning, during a one-sided exchange with a highway patrolman particularly critical of my driving, I got over the chewing but not quite the addiction; I swallowed my “cud” and suffered a day’s worth of violent “hick-ups” unrelieved by—well—regurgitation.)


For a while during this period, I wrote a weekly column on urban affairs and race relations for a Black-owned daily in Columbus whose staff, to our mutual entertainment, couldn’t avoid overexposing my half-column author’s photo. At the outset of the Hawaii sojourn, I wrote “features” and sold ads for a dual-language (Tagalog and English) bi-weekly newspaper on Oahu near Pearl Harbor. Within a year of my arrival in Hawaii, friends of Ellie’s family recommended me for a job at a 24-hour service station between Ala Moana and Waikiki in Honolulu. Eventually, I managed the night shift and developed a close relationship with the Hawaii Armed Services Police (HASP) who came to the station as needed to quell the all-too-frequent melees between shore-leave sailors down from Bremerton and the local Hawaiian men who regretted the naval incursion upon “their” vaunted beaches and night life.

From Journalism and Politics to Political Philosophy: 1957-1969

Part Three of the essay Professor Without Portfolio.

The exception was writing—and it was more a pledge than a practice. About two years into an enrollment at Ohio State that had yet to yield a pattern of progress toward a degree in any subject, and to meet one of the University’s general-education requirements, I signed up for a Journalism class. It was by a wide margin the most enjoyable experience of my academic career. It was experiential rather than theoretic; practical rather than abstract. Suddenly, writing became the noblest profession. The “muckrakers” were my heroes. Heywood Broun’s columns, and later Mike Royko’s, became my favorite reading. The newspapers in Mississippi and Georgia that were pointing out the civil rights inequities in the South became the employers of my dreams.

Almost immediately, my classroom and “field” writing performance seemed to the Ohio State faculty to warrant my designation as campus political and governance reporter and then columnist for the university’s Daily Lantern. (In those days, the Lantern published 15,500 tabloid copies a day, 5-days a week.) I dropped everything else to indulge this new passion.  I ended the year-long run of my dance band, The Bill Vern Quintet, and cancelled its remaining “gigs”; withdrew from the ROTC intercollegiate rifle team;  resigned as “social director” of the Scioto Club, one of a dozen residential units built into the Ohio State Football Stadium “horseshoe”; stopped doing the home work for my other courses and organized what remained of my life around the publishing schedule of The Lantern.


Within a year of almost daily front-page bylines and bi-weekly columns (during which my sympathy was solicited by every one of the conspiratorial revolutionary and reform groups that were vying with each other to lead the University into the ferment of the ‘sixties, the dean of the School of Journalism noticed that I had become “dogmatic” in my published criticism of the University—its Woody Hayes-protected and coddled athletes, the “white bars” in several of its fraternity constitutions, its hesitation to embrace the lunch counter sit-ins that marked the infancy of the civil rights movement, and the refusal of the Fawcett Administration to grant even the least of the petitions made by campus governance in behalf of students.


He was right. The notoriety of my reporting, the interest in my column “Framework”, and the lionization by the cabals had conspired to create of me a self-important ideologue loyal to the ideas of those whose association I cherished. And I knew it—but I could neither confess nor repent of it. As soon as my reports and columns were no longer acceptable to the The Lantern editors,  I sold everything I owned and started my own weekly news magazine, The Spokesman, to publish “alternative” opinions on public life—such as the Castro and Che Guevara insurgency in Cuba, the “fact” (as I saw it then) of American “imperialism” in Latin America and Asia, the “rabid” conservatism of the Republican Party,  etc. I hoped these public “positions” would sustain the standing I had acquired through my Lantern reportage and “Framework”.


Publishing the 8-page magazine—and distributing it after dark without license on the University campus to the applause of those who thought as it did, and the bitter criticism of those who leaned as it did but who preferred a harsher language, an even more radical stance, and—above all!—their own sole proprietorship—exhausted me. Each week of The Spokesman’s 12-week life span consisted of four days of research, composition and design culminating in thirty-six hours of printing, collating, stapling, and circulation and a day and a half of physical and psychic recovery. Topics for upcoming issues were selected willy-nilly. Not enough attention was paid to soliciting advertisements or sponsors, and in three-months The Spokesman was out of money and I was out of anima. I had abandoned the Christian persuasions of my youth upon entering college and had not yet found an alternative philosophy for sustainably rebalancing life and ambition, for reconciling success and failure, and for shrinking the psychic distance between mania and depression. At the end, I was entirely exhausted and utterly alone.

The Future Lost—and Found: 1953-1962

Part Two of the Essay Professor Without Portfolio.

The discovery of capabilities fundamental to a promising life in academe also punctuated—with a semicolon rather than a period—the search beginning in my 15th year for the future that was to replace the one lost in my father’s death. His passing shattered a prospect constructed more by circumstance than imagination. It was to carry me away from the farm after high school to university and return me with knowledge of agriculture superior to my father’s. That would transform our relationship from disappointed father and failed son to competent son and proud father, from master-servant combine to full equity partnership—and to a solid place in a world of my own.   

In loving honor of this prospect, rather than embrace of it, mother granted me a year to see if I could manage the farm while keeping up my studies. I couldn’t. Too many school days were spent chasing the beef cows that we had purchased to replace the dairy herd. They were to help finance my sister’s and my schooling, but the cost of containing, feeding, and doctoring the Herefords made them a liability rather than an asset. They simply strode through fences that had by their very appearance restrained the docile Holsteins.

Bill Frame and his sister Polly near their childhood home.

Within a year of Dad’s death, Mom sold the farm, thus administering the coup de grace to my family-farming prospect. We moved into the second floor of the principal mortuary in the half-dozen towns within 20 or so miles of the farm. The house had been the natal residence of a leading family in Amsterdam, already at 1,500 a town half its traditional size, retracting along with the Bituminous coal mining and iron ore smelting that had given it birth. It was offered to us because a new regulation stipulated that cadavers awaiting interment could not be left unattended. Restoring the mortuary as a residence met the letter of the law and produced an hospitable offer to the Widow Frame just when the three of us needed it most.

The Frame Farmhouse which was home until after the death of Bill’s father.

The new home gave me and sister Polly, two years my junior, immediate distinction. We embellished it with tales of bumping into cadaver-laden gurneys when returning home after late dates or fetching new business in the mortuary’s big Cadillac hearses from the morgue in Steubenville, 30 miles away. When we went off to college with no more than a handful of classmates from our shrinking classes of 50-60 each, we carried an inventory of stories from our life in the mortuary—playing hide-and-seek in the casket showroom, for example, or being denied the use of our bathroom during “viewings” by the steady stream of rustics that had never known anything other than a two or three “holer” out back and a galvanized bath tub in the kitchen.


(Even now, I enjoy telling of soliciting the help of a local bully to help me retrieve from the hospital morgue the body of a very large neighbor. As we lifted the sagging body from the “slab”, the bully at his shoulders and I at his feet, the air compressed in the lungs by the maneuver made the corpse moan. The bully dropped (threw down?) his burden well short of the gurney and fled the morgue, bug-eyed and white-faced. He “thumbed” his way back to Amsterdam, refusing to come into the hearse or even to apply for his pay. Thereafter, he exempted me entirely from his bullying—and the funeral home from his list of acceptable employment.)


Mom lived in the Funeral Home for 40 years, became a pillar of her new church in her new community, taught for three years at The American School, Tangier, Morocco, and spent the last 10 years of her 98-year life in a nearby retirement center arranging the weekly programs of its education fora.


And I went off in search of a place in the world which I could call my own—a place, as I increasingly imagined it. in which morality and ethics, faith and reason, my private and the public interest were compatible if not fully reconciled. Obviously, the cataclysm of my father’s death destroyed the graphic prospect of a commercially viable and communal family farm, and forced me to cast the search for its replacement in abstract and generic terms. Until the McIlwain Experience, I had in mind a dozen such replacement prospects, each of which required post-graduate education—in theology, music, journalism, among others. With one exception, I turned away from each of them after a brief dabble.

Professor Without Portfolio

Most of my life has been spent in universities and colleges—and for a moment just short of retirement, in a seminary. I have often wondered what I was doing in such places. Was I there to learn? To teach? To supervise? Perhaps to worship?

The truth is that I have come to regard such places as fundamentally unmanageable, increasingly difficult to teach in, all but impossible to worship either God or mammon in, and—worst of all—inimical to learning. All this makes mysterious my lifetime association with the academy.

In writing this “chapter” and the next, I have been trying to solve this mystery for my children, my friends and my self. I’ve had some success in the pages just ahead, as I hope you agree—but the investigation remains “open”.

Professor Without Portfolio is a seven part essay. What follows below is the introduction. If this blog post is your starting point, the links below will take you to the reminder of the essay.

Part One: Introduction to Professor Without Portfolio

Part Two: The Future Lost–and Found: 1953-1962

Part Three: From Journalism and Politics to Political Philosophy: 1957-1969

Part Four: Marriage as Antidote to a Life Too Public

Part Five: From Politics to Political Philosophy: 1966-1980

Part Six: Developing a Self to Contend with the World

Part Seven: Seeking Asylum in the World: 1980-1993


I entered upon graduate academic life as a young father without prospects—other than the meagre Teaching Fellowship offered me by the University of Hawaii’s Department of Political Science. I had just graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from that department, and gratefully accepted the fellowship to bring to bare adequacy the income I was receiving then from a miscellany of dead-end jobs. I came to the academy for a license, not for learning—but I have come since to embrace the axiom that that the only reason to be anywhere freely for any length of time is to learn.

Bill Frame as a young father and graduate student in Hawaii.

And when I first came into the academy, I did learn! I found folk there who had learned the fine art of close reading, and others who practiced the matching art of disciplined deliberation. The most joyous incidents in my life have been discoveries that have exploded into view like a Ruffed Grouse from an Ohio thicket as I went hunting through the pages of a great book with the help of careful conversation in classroom, office or living room.


The stage for these joyous incidents had not yet been set when the Registrar of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu looked up in the spring of 1962 from his audit of my mottled 6-year transcript of general and professional courses and announced that I had, in fact, earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Chinese Studies. The mottled record began (and was quickly interrupted) at Westminster College, New Wilmington, PA, resumed at the Ohio State University, and culminated in the degree at Hawaii (and the fellowship)—by which point I was husband, father, and, among other things, Night Manager of a big service station between the Ala Moana shopping center in Honolulu and Waikiki Beach. Although it came two years late by the standards of the day, the degree was at least weak evidence that the academy was the right place for me. I took the money and stayed on; I got back on the horse that had thrown but not trampled me.


The decision was vindicated almost immediately. In my first graduate course, I was “asked” to summarize Charles McIlwain’s Constitutionalism: Ancient and Modern by a quiet, young professor of American Politics who, fortunately, thought the origins of the agreement at Philadelphia in 1787 lay, as did Montesquieu (of the whole of English law and culture!),  in the shadows of the Saxon forests. I spent a frantic week reading and re-reading McIlwain’s little book, and delivered myself of what the prof declared as “mastery” of the argument that the jurisprudential fundamentals of constitutionalism took form in English, even European, feudalism. Ever since that experience, I have longed to repeat it—to emerge from the close reading of a rewarding book with a little new light in at least one eye that allows me to see such connections as, in this case, between feudalism and Federalism (or, in the case of books written in restrictive and censoring cultures, to find the secret of construction that reveals the author’s true teaching). And though I continue to undertake long, slow close readings, I have emerged from every one of them so far with new understanding. Thus have I come to believe that recognizing generative connections between superficially disparate eras, people, events (and generic contrasts in superficially similar phenomena) are collateral gifts of the open minded, the constantly curious, and the frequently surprised.


I was so thrilled by the McIlwain achievement that I immediately presumed that I had somehow earned the gifts with which I accomplished it–that I merited them individually. This arrogance (quite momentary, as it turned out) reflected my extensive but failed effort to reverse my father’s disappointment in me, and to overcome the self doubt that it had largely engendered. The sudden burst of arrogance was a great, albeit tarnished gift; it allowed me to confront for the first time and begin the defeat of my deepest-dwelling demon—the failure of my father’s tests of me and of his own fatherhood. He died in my 15th year, and I never won from him as much praise for all the assignments that I fulfilled as the amount of disappointment he expressed in my failing even one of them. From the moment that I found the discipline and discovered the ability to comprehend an argument the size and complexity of McIlwain’s book, I stopped trying to satisfy him and began trying to understand how he and I had gotten into such an unholy tangle. It took a long time, but eventually “we” straightened it out—in the broad hall of careful recollection, attentive observation, and my own eventual realization that forgiveness both is and yearns for love. That realization welled up only after I was well into my career in the academy. It transformed my ambition from reversing my father’s disappointment of me into finding and following a moral code that I could defend before him as well as the best of my teachers. That transformed ambition has supplied drive enough for a lifetime—a demiurge altogether as challenging as quarreling with “the child inside” but far more satisfying.