In our mostly pusillanimous culture, an encounter with men of real courage, natural goodness and strong faith can leave an impression lasting a lifetime.
In the late 1980s, I was slaving my way through graduate school, working simultaneously on advanced degrees in French and music, while teaching courses in each subject at a level beyond full-time employment, but with no health insurance and for wages that no fast-food employee would accept today. And I was married, with two noisy, hungry, happy toddlers. Desperate for a little extra cash – and, frankly, for a little peace and quiet – I was also serving as an NCO in the Army National Guard. Then in February, my wife gave me the cheery news: our cramped apartment would be more crowded come July. To my appalled academic advisor, I announced that I simply had to hit the job trail, and finish graduate school as I may, however possible. Providentially, 1989 was the only year I can ever remember when there were actually more academic positions in languages than new PhDs to fill them. With only an M.A., I landed three on-campus interviews and two offers of full-time positions, something absolutely impossible today.
The first and most memorable interview of my life took place on the beautiful campus of Henderson State University, in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Nestled in the scenic foothills of the Ouachita Mountains, the tree-lined campus of H.S.U. features a number of stately buildings with a classic quadrangle at its heart, bespeaking its origins as a liberal arts and teacher-training college dating from 1890. I received a very warm welcome from a search committee of four professors, three of them obviously very senior gentlemen from the World War II generation, and one a much younger woman. Everything about their dress and manners was proper, gracious, sincere, kind, and courteous – all the virtues one associates with traditional Southern hospitality. Throughout the day-long interviews, their questions were probing but patient, and it was clear above all that they wished to avoid making me uncomfortable in any way, while still finding out exactly what sort of person I really was.
I met with them all as a group a couple of times, and individually in their respective offices, where I noticed that one of the gentlemen had a copy of the Holy Bible sitting prominently but naturally on one end of his desk. It was obvious from its condition that this hefty volume was no paperweight, but had been consulted with great frequency. He also had a picture of himself as a young man in the 1941 Army khakis uniform. I could just imagine how many of his classes over the past forty years had been illuminated by wisdom gleaned from strife and scripture.
Late in the afternoon, I was led on an amiable walking tour of the campus, as my three gentlemen hosts reminisced about events they had lived together, and colleagues and students long gone, sometimes conversing among themselves as if I was not even there. Clearly, they loved each other’s company and the academic life and fellowship they felt privileged to have shared.
Finally, there was a brief driving tour of the town, with quaint shops, antebellum homes and a few classical buildings providing relief from the usual Walmart squalor. I could not help but notice that my guides were quite eager to show me the variety of churches within easy distance of the campus. Then, quite abruptly, during a lull in conversation, one gentleman asked me point blank: “Tell us, Professor Williams, what is your church affiliation?” For a moment, I was so enthralled at being addressed as “Professor” for the first time in my life that I did not fully register what most people in an academic setting would consider the indecorous nature of the question. Only when I said “I’m Catholic” did it suddenly occur to me that they had just violated who knows how many federal and state statutes by asking such a question during a job interview at a public university. I then also realized they had been pointing out only Protestant churches throughout the town of Arkadelphia.
Later that evening, this scene brought me back to my Oklahoma childhood, when many public school teachers had simply ignored the 1962 Supreme Court ruling against school prayer and continued to lead students in prayer when the school day began. I remember vividly the year 1969, and my junior high civics teacher, Mr. Trompler, an appropriately named behemoth of a black man who commanded respect with his pro-wrestler physique and booming voice. The very first day of class he led us in the Lord’s Prayer, and then made sure we understood who was the Supreme Judge in his classroom: “Nobody but the Almighty gonna be telling me where I can pray!” Now here, in the Ozark Mountains twenty years later, I found university professors whom judges and journalists and academics would have declared no less backward and recalcitrant and “intolerant” than Mr. Trompler, despite their doctorates in the liberal arts and their membership in the “Greatest Generation.”
In the moment, I detected the unease at my response to the religion question. Despite this, or maybe because of it, I wanted to blurt out right away how much I admired them for asking it. But I held my tongue… and we glided seamlessly into other topics, such as the impending arrival of my third child, which elicited heartfelt congratulations all around. At the end of this long day of demonstration classes, interviews and guided tours, the female member of the search committee was assigned to drive me back to my hotel so I could relax a bit before dinner. She felt duty bound to advise me of my suddenly dwindling chances of landing the position: “Your teaching demonstrations were great, and I know the committee likes you personally, but… If you were hired here, you would be only the second non-Protestant on the faculty. I am the first.” (As it happened, she was Episcopalian, but I left her with her comfortable delusion.)
As predicted, I did not receive an offer. But I left that campus with enormous respect for these Christian gentlemen who vetoed my hiring. Their anti-Catholicism was wrong, of course, but whatever motivated it might have itself been fundamentally right. At the very least, I had spent time among academics who were men of real conviction, something I had already learned was distressingly rare. I thought to myself what fine colleagues they would have made, and what a blessing it was, for them and their students, that they had been able to share long careers of meaningful teaching and fellowship.
Now, more than thirty years later, I have experienced the same sort of fellowship and consider it one of the great blessings of my life. As I approach my own retirement from academia, I watch my colleagues depart one after the other, and I wonder if any future generation of professors will be as fortunate as we have been, as the gentlemen in Arkansas were before us. Every once in a while, when I chance to think upon these old professors whose names and faces have long escaped my own aging memory, I offer a little prayer for the Christian gentlemen of Arkadelphia. They have no doubt long since met their Creator, and learned to their regret that their antipathy to the Catholic Church was misplaced. I fervently pray that their passing was mostly an occasion for making new friends as they were welcomed into heaven for having lived and upheld faith in Christ as best they understood it, and in defiance of the corrupt laws of faithless, hollow men.
Timothy J. Williams writes on religion, politics, and literature from his home in rural Ohio, where he and his wife raised their nine children. He graduated cum laude from the University of Kansas with a doctorate in French and holds Master’s degrees in French and Music Theory. In 2010, Dr. Williams retired from the Ohio National Guard with the rank of Major.