In Memorium

You have served many, many freshman and sophomore students with warm, personal, and solid advice about their academic programs, just as you served many generations of English majors before your retirement. Advising is an essential, though usually unheralded, form of teaching. By continuing to advise students, you have continued to teach; and the College is much the better for the instruction you have undertaken since your formal retirement.
— In recognition of Edward Demin Holst, PhD (1906-1994) following his retirement, September 1971

In September 1967 I walked into a classroom in Garland Hall at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and my life was transformed. I don’t recall the room exactly, but remember it was cramped. We baby-boomers were headed into colleges at a record pace. Schools could not keep up with the needs we represented despite the new construction everywhere. I also don’t remember exactly what I looked like back then, but I suspect it was somewhere between half time hippie and full-out hippie. I am fairly confident I was deeply tanned, underweight, and wearing Jerusalem sandals with a toe loop. If the weather was warm, I probably wasn’t particularly well covered, either.

Garland nightI suspect I was also completely lost. College was great for me and I was academically successful: all A grades at that time, advanced placement, and exempt from several classes including composition. On the other hand, the hardest part of my school experience was related to my lack of social exposure. I was taking classes with people who had read classics, traveled much more than I, and were – well, middle class. I had not even seen the University until I went to take my placement exams 50 years ago this month.

It was against this backdrop of the baby boom, rapidly growing higher education programs, the social upheaval of the 1960s, my academic successes, and my profound insecurity that I met someone who would become my champion. He taught English 206. I recall him being overweight, liver-spotted, quiet, balding, overly formal, and sure of himself. Students didn’t look so sanitized back then. We were kind of a scraggly looking bunch, especially in contrast to Professor Holst.

Had anyone told me back then that Dr. Holst would become increasingly influential in my life, I would have thought them delusional. Now, however, I would celebrate their perspicacity.

Thanks to the UWM Archives in the Golda Meier Library, I now know that Edward Holst was born in August 1906. He earned his undergraduate degree and his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin at the Madison Campus. His Master’s Degree in English was from the University of Chicago. He came to UWM in 1946, two years before I was born. Fifteen years later he was named Professor and simultaneously became Department Chair. In 1966, he became Associate Chair, then retired in 1971, a year after I graduated.

Thomas HardyI believe that we were reading Thomas Hardy when a paper was due. I had dutifully done my reading, probably underlining portions of it and writing in the margins. Thinking back to that time, I suspect I also wrote a small stack of note cards to capture portions of the work that could be useful later in my paper. The draft of the paper would certainly have been handwritten. I smile as I try to recall if I had used carbon paper or pressure sensitive paper to create a copy of the final draft.

In any case, I was gob-smacked a week later to get my paper back, ungraded, with a simple note on the last page encouraging me to schedule an appointment to meet with Dr. Holst in his office in the upcoming week. I had tested out of a semester of freshman composition and all of sophomore composition, so there must have been something else amiss.

A few days later, Dr. Holst sat across from me at his desk in a room that was so tiny and so far up in the rafters of the building that it felt like we were having a Tolkien moment. His room was at the top of the old maple trees that filled the U shaped by the building and its neighbors. The leaves’ color filled the room when lit by the sun behind them. I recall a Handel lamp on his desk, his tweed jacket, and his sweater vest. I believe his trousers were corduroy. They were definitely brown.

Our exchange during this first meeting has become muddled in my memory. The process of consolidating and reconsolidating his comments over the ensuing five decades has done little to improve the accuracy of my account. I am a visual learner after all. However, his meaning was clear and the message concise. I could decide to be a good and successful student at UWM churning out technically accurate papers to fulfill requirements. Alternately, I could decide to communicate my ideas, but that would only happen if I started to believe them, and by extension myself, worthwhile.

I was pissed.

Being the self-effacing ass that I was back then, I decided to call his bluff and play his game. I set up three appointments to meet with him while I would prepare my next paper. I would also have an opportunity to re-write the ungraded paper that brought me to his office in the first place. These meetings meant that I would need to read ahead and move past mere comprehension of the novels. I needed to analyze, synthesize, and apply them.

Professor Holst was neither unpleasant nor pleasant during our three 60-minute meetings. He maintained a manner that I have grown to think of as formally enthused or perpetually curious. His inquiries never seemed to question my ability to think, but rather to determine precisely what I thought. The UWM Archives hold notes from an interview he did prior to his retirement. In it he describes himself as chipper. He really was.

Oak leaves are seen in the late afternoon sunlight near Pearse Hall.

Oak leaves are seen in the late afternoon sunlight near Pearse Hall.

Other details of those meeting are a blur. I vaguely remember a space heater glowing red during the third one. I do know that he did not ask me to have a fourth. He often had another student in line to meet with him after me. After that first wake up call, I always took my full time with him.

Many people have contributed to me having a life of the mind. Srs. Owen and Muriel, Fr. Justin and Brother Agathangelus were early influences. Drs. Fisher and Durning joined Professor. Holst as vitally important in my undergraduate years. Then Drs. Pollard, Prasse, Guttmann, and Hirschman took things to another level as they anticipated that I would join them as a colleague during and after graduate school. Almost half of these transformers are now deceased.

Last week a young friend of mine reported on a recent job interview. One question he was asked prompted a reverie of my own. The interviewers wanted to know which five people, living or dead, that he would wish to invite to a dinner party. They unknowingly asked the right young man, not only because he has a deep interest in history and philosophy for a 22-year old, but also because he has held dinner parties of his own. He could think of a menu to go with the people of his dreams.

My reverie used as its launch pad my recent research on Professor Holst. Emily Dickenson, I would think, could take one end of the table. On her left, Alfred Adler would sit with Bayard Rustin. On Ms. Dickenson’s right, Elizabeth George would sit with me. At the head of the table, between Bayard and me, my beloved Paul would engage us all with his curiosity and enthusiasm.

6500_1097698854439_1585664913_30268540_2422555_nWe’d start our meal quite early on a summer evening so that by the time we had finished our entrees the light would be still sufficient to enjoy another hour on the patio. We’d be joined there for dessert by another two dozen people. Ms. George, the only living one in the bunch at the dinner table besides myself, would need to help me with dessert and tea because everyone else would be so very deep in discussion.

Who knew that Piaget would have so much to say to Sternberg, or that Mrs. Obama would take issue with Janis Joplin’s perspective on exercise? The Infant of Prague? Definitely overdressed! And did you hear about Barbie? She has been devastated ever since Ken came out.

Clearly the boy who got off the Jackson-Downer #30 bus in 1966 is still me. But just like the Velveteen Rabbit was brought to life by the boy’s uncle, Professor Holst called something to life in me. Now, for example, I write and know I need to reflect before I write something more.

[I am taking a month’s hiatus from posting what I write. On or about July 1, I will post again via WordPress on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.]

2 thoughts on “In Memorium

  1. Old St. Mary’s has different color outfits for the Infant of Prague depending on the liturgical season. I was wondering if he’d left naked for Good Friday…


    • I forgot about this Infant drag, Tom. Do you recall if he also got removed or shrouded in purple for holy week? Some of my knowledge of liturgical drama has been forgotten with neglect.


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