Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Reverend John Coffee.

The two most legendary professors I've ever had are now both dead.

I have had other great professors. There have been some really important ones in terms of mentoring me in the things I believe I am good at: David Akiba through many photography classes; Richard Hoffman through many writing classes. In grad school, Ken Peterson will always be the most influential professor I had in terms of my educational philosophy, and overall just one of my favorite people.

(I know this list of random names will mean zilch to most of you, but the act of documenting them is important for me due to my increasingly alarming memory issues. I can't tell you how often I forget Ken Peterson's name, and he was the one I had most recently! Also, kind of strange that none of my favorites have been women. Hm.)

But in terms of plain legendary, the ones whose classrooms were wonderful not just for the education or the mentorship but for the overall experience, the ones everyone always tells stories about, the ones who are characters, there are only two--Alan Hankin, and the Reverend John Coffee.

Alan Hankin, a science professor at Emerson, died while he was actually still my professor. It's the only sudden, unexpected type of death I've had to deal with in my life, and I actually still can't really talk or think about it too much.

The Reverend John Coffee taught history at Emerson, and he died earlier this month at the much more reasonable age of 83. Even though he already looked to be as ancient as life itself when he was my teacher almost ten years ago, the news was still tragic, since as Allie said, we all hoped he would be the first man to never die.

John Coffee always wore the same maroon V-neck sweater worn over one of the most remarkable hunchbacks I've ever seen outside of a Disney film. A tiny white man, he'd amble into class with his briefcase at the exact time class was to start, take out his folded paper of notes, and sing out in his epic storyteller's voice, "WORD OF THE DAY!"

He would proceed to tell us about some ridiculous word which was unrelated to anything we were studying, which 90% of the class had never heard of before and which 99% of the class would never hear of or use ever again.

His classes were lecture courses, plain and simple, and the man knew all. He knew about history, he knew about religion, and he loved absolutely all of it. He was also almost entirely deaf, and he would sometimes ask questions to the class, to which many students would attempt to answer.

The Reverend John Coffee: "Does anyone know the capital of California?"
Various students: "Sacramento!"
"It's Sacramento!"
The Reverend John Coffee: "Nobody??"
Students: "Sacramento!!"
"It's Sacramento, sir!!!"
The Reverend John Coffee: "Why, I can't believe NO ONE here knows the capital of California! It's Sacramento!"

(He also always stressed that his favorite US President was Zachary Taylor, because he was the one to make California part of the United States in 1850. "Have you ever been to California?" he asked. "Smartest move our country ever made!")

Although, there was one particularly obnoxious student in my History of the Bible / History of the Constitution class who sat in the front row and was one of those people who knew the answer to every question and needed everyone to know it, and John Coffee never "heard" him either, but I think that was on purpose.

John Coffee's classes were pretty much the easiest things in the world to get an A in, although somehow there were still people who didn't. All you had to do was show up, and occasionally write short papers on whatever the hell you wanted related to the class. And if you didn't complete the paper in time, all you had to do was write a one-page letter with an excuse. He urged us to make these excuses creative; I mean, he didn't want to get bored. If you had good attendance and turned in the papers, you didn't have to take the final. The roll call of who would have to take the final and who didn't was always a perfectly dramatically timed reading during the last class.

"Guccini! (pause) No test. Dougherty! (pause) No test. Smith (pause) (pause) (pause) (pause) (little grin) See you on Monday."

While his lovability as a professor was widely known throughout the school, there were still some assholes who would 1) show up for roll call because of this no-final attendance policy and then sneak out fifteen minutes into class because they assumed he was old as balls and wouldn't notice (but John Coffee was no fool); 2) talk or generally be obnoxious during his amazing storytelling. This wasn't the first time I had the thought, "Geez, you guys are jerks," while at Emerson, but it still ranks high in unbelievability of jerkiness just because it was so dumb. Any time spent in a John Coffee class was pure gold. Why would you want to purposely miss that shit? Oh well. I still need to learn to not be bothered by the misguided decisions other people make in their lives.

Kathy remembers his most famous stories that he liked to tell better than I, but our favorite ones to randomly re-enact include these:

1) He particularly enjoyed acting out the story of John Brown going door to door and asking this of the people inside the houses:
"Do you believe in the institution of slavery?"
(His voice would get soft and innocent here, bringing his hands together and nodding fervently) "Oh, yes, yes, of course!"
(Cocking his skinny wrinkled hand to form a gun) "BLAM!"

This drawn out BLAM! in his nasally, wavery old-man John Coffee voice was so good  I don't think we will ever tire of remembering it. BLAM!

2) He had worked at Emerson for forever, and had all sorts of ridiculous stories about what it used to be like in the past. I think this story he used to tell was about a student from a 1960's or 1970's Emerson life:

"I walked into the dining hall and he had stood on a table, stripped himself stark nude, and declared himself Jesus Christ."

Stark nude! Jesus Christ! *slaps table*

The most famous and true John Coffee tale is that Stephen King met him through his daughter or someone or other, and named the main character of The Green Mile after him. This is also one of the most wonderful stories of all time, considering that the John Coffee in the book/film is an overwhelming large black man while the Reverend John Coffee, as I mentioned, was a wrinkled and white-haired small white dude.


We saw him once on the T, a couple of years after we had graduated. It was during the summer. After only seeing him in slacks and the maroon sweater for years, he was wearing shorts and a t-shirt with loafers. It was on the blue line. I think he was going to the beach.

He always talked about how he would go to California when he retired and spend the rest of his happy days under the sunshine and palm trees. I don't think he ever did, but this is not too surprising--people on the East Coast love talking about the dream of California, when their realities will never actually leave the Atlantic. The Mamas and Papas knew what was up. (You know the preacher liked the cold. He knows I'm going to stay.) We know where we belong, us East Coast people.

Still, I imagine that wherever he is now, he can go to California whenever he damn well pleases. He might not have to be there all the time. I imagine him on a Massachusetts couch with his family, reading books about history and religion and being content, and being able to open his front door to reveal sandy white beaches and palm trees every now and then, if he wants, just for kicks. I hope the sun always feels warm on his shoulders.

1 comment:

  1. I graduated Emerson in 1983.... I took western civilization and comparitive religion with him. Being a UU the religion course was amazing.... He personally took our tiny class all over Boston to visit every kind of religious house of worship and ""minister....shaman " we rode the t with him and ate with him. He truly influenced me the most of anyone I have ever take. A class with..... And I still use the words!
    Karen Zampa Katz

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