Saturday, May 20, 2017

Professor Grumbles

There is a sure sign that you have passed a milestone:  You'll know that you are getting old when you start attending far more funerals that weddings.  Yesterday, we lost one of the good ones...One of the irreplaceable ones.

A couple of decades ago, I met Professor Grumbles on my first day of teaching.  I had received a phone call from one of my favorite professors, asking if I wanted to teach a weekend class on Mexican History. 

“Sure,” I said.  “When does it start?”  I owed this professor, and I probably would have agreed to anything he asked...Within reason.

“Day after tomorrow.”  This was unreasonable, but I did it anyway—through a full semester of Saturday morning classes, each lasting two and a half hours.  This is teaching hell, where neither the sleepy students nor the bored professor want to be there.  Despite the obvious obstacles, that first class went well and I have done no honest work since.

The very first day, as I exited my too-small classroom in one of the oldest buildings on campus, waiting outside the door was another professor who was clearly irritated that I had kept my class to the last minute.  I remember thinking, "Who is this man?"  He was old, short, overweight, and dressed in khaki shorts, a dark t-shirt, and a faded khaki photographer’s vest with bulging pockets.  He looked like a retired Greek fisherman.  (To be fair, so did about half the rest of the faculty.) 

We hated each other on sight.  He wanted in that classroom early and I believed that if the students had paid for two and a half hours, they were going to get the full measure.  It took a few years for us to actually get to know each other, but we became the best of friends. 

Saturday mornings are the deepest corner of teaching hell, which is why there was a class available for someone who hadn’t even applied for it.  But why was Dr. Grumbles there?  He was a full professor, who was tenured, and who had enough seniority that he certainly did not have to teach on the weekends—unless he wanted an extra class.

I have a theory—supported by no one but me—that the best way to determine who the best professors are is to visit the faculty parking lot on the weekend.  There are few professions where a good job can be done in a forty-hour work week, and that includes education.  Perhaps I just liked the crackpots, but I frequently noticed that all my friends at Enema U—all the faculty that I respected—could be found working through the weekends...And that certainly included Professor Grumbles.

Years later, when he was the department head, Professor Grumbles and I had a meeting with the Dean of Accelerated Distributed Distance Learning Excellence Department (ADDLED).  Or something similar.  She was in charge of the weekend college and we wanted to offer a new course combining language and history for which we needed her permission.  We sat in her office and waited patiently while she had a long telephone conversation.  As we waited, we scanned the books on the shelves behind her, all of which were full of the kind of self-help books one can find in grocery stores.  “Building Teamwork Through Meetings", "Ten Steps to Positive Management” or “Learn to Lead With Post-It Notes”. 

For the next fifteen minutes, we couldn’t look at each other.  One glance and we would have busted a seam laughing.   Eventually, we explained the course to the dean, who immediately responded that she didn’t know if either a language or a history course was being taught on the weekends.  Now, Professor Grumbles and I had been teaching just such classes on weekends for years, in a classroom not twenty feet from her office….all of which he patiently explained to the woman for whom we had been working for years.

“Oh,” she said.  “I didn’t know.  I’m never here on weekends.”

“I’ll be happy to submit a proposal to you,” answered Professor Grumbles.  “On a Post-it note if you prefer.”   The meeting went downhill from there.

Dr. Grumbles showed up regularly in this blog, and always as a sympathetic character.  Come to think of it, he is largely responsible for this blog.  I had written a throw-away piece about learning to sail to enter in a contest.  He liked it and suggested that I write another one...And another one.  That was eight years ago and the good professor somehow found time to comment on each and every one.  See those ads to the side?  They generate a modest amount of money that is enough to pay for a limited number of bound books, each of which is a collection of the blogs for that year.  Professor Grumbles is one of the few people to own the entire set. 

Actually, he wrote half of one the blog posts.  The entire post was just a set of emails we sent back and forth discussing movies, another of his great loves.  Though the post does not indicate it, the emails were sent back and forth during a long meeting where some administrative moron (redundant) read his powerpoint presentation to a group of people possessing at least 50 college degrees.  This is the real reason iPads are taken to meetings.

His support is not that surprising.  A great professor—not so coincidentally the one who offered me that first class—once told me that the rarest thing at a university was loyalty and that the vast majority of the faculty had no idea what loyalty meant nor were they prepared to pay the price it required.  Professor Grumbles was one of the few who did.  He was kind, gentle, and patiently friendly, though this didn't mean he made friends easily.  When he did acquire friends, he stuck with them. 

Something just occurred to me:  That small list of faculty capable of loyalty and the list of faculty who worked weekends, and the list of people whose courses I thought worthy of students' attention…are all pretty much the same list.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

The good professor taught German and I have frequently wondered how I managed to get a bachelor’s degree from his department and never met him.  Whatever the reason, it was not until I became part of the department that I really got to know him.  God, the arguments we had.  And the friendship we formed. 

The good professor got his start in German because of an elderly Mercedes.  This was a pre-war car and the price was cheap because it was in miserable shape.  Luckily, the car came with an owner’s manual.  In German.  By the time that manual got painstakingly translated, he was hooked.  In college, he and a friend bought a motorcycle with a sidecar and traveled across Europe.  By the end of the trip, he was deeply in love with languages.

Another love was the theater.  A professor of Languages, somehow Professor Grumbles was also at one time the head of the Theater Department.  He loved the stage and threw himself into every part.  I lost track of how often the beard and mustache came and went, depending on the role he was playing.  I liked him best in HMS Pinafore, but I must admit that he made a perfect Santa Claus.

One of his favorite courses was the history of German film.  He loved to show movies in his classroom, but towards the end, Professor Grumbles was getting a little deaf.  The sound level in that classroom slowly grew in volume over the years until it was thunderous.  Eventually, I would sneak up to his classroom and use a remote control to lower the volume without his knowledge.  He'd raise it, I'd lower it, and then he'd demand to have the audio equipment repaired or replaced.  Eventually, the university just stopped scheduling classes adjacent to his room.

Eventually, Professor Grumbles became department head and had his turn dealing with a group of faculty that was about half wonderful and half disaster (with a bloated chupacabra thrown in).  As anyone could have predicted, he kindly gave everyone a clean slate and an offer to start over fresh—and everyone immediately reverted to character. 

Professor Grumbles, at least in my opinion, was a great department head.  He was respectful to the administrative trolls, patient in department head meetings, and disbelieving of everything they said.  As was frequently required, enthusiastic departmental cooperation was always reported. 

The university seems to lose a lot of the good ones.  You could make a great university with the professors who have left Enema U in the last ten years and Professor Grumbles was one of the best.

I have to stop.  Professor Grumbles said that while he liked my blog posts, he began to lose interest after 1500 words.  We’re there.


  1. Professor Grumbles will be sorely missed by all who had the pleasure of coming under his tutelage and engender his friendship. God speed Professor Grumbles.

  2. I just remembered this. I think this was the first appearance of Professor Grumbles.

  3. Loved both blogs. Wish I'd met Prof. G. Sounds like the sort of seditious old coot I'd enjoy hanging with. I've found that since being forced into semi-retirement by cruel circumstance, that my sense of humor has lost its edge somewhat. I suppose you need to be around people in order to make fun of them.

    That said, it is folk like Dr. Grumbles and yourself that restore my faith that God will not let everyone go to heaven. Most of those who don't will likely be young tenured professors of Eastern proto-feminist sociology and Jai-alai coaches. That will leave the sort of folk who will sit on the beach by the Sea of Glass drinking fruit punch and talking about the erratic flight characteristics of angels who had once been assigned to kids with ADD.

    I look forward to out conversations.