Over the tree-tops I float thee a song
Over the rising and sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide.
Over the dense-pack’d cities all, and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
Eddy Weber Dow was my English professor at University College (Rutgers University) in the mid-seventies. He died June 9, age 85.
I don’t know exactly what I expected to learn in college. I wanted to work in writing, probably journalism I thought, and I knew I needed a college degree to get into the game. So I drove trucks in the daylight hours and lurked around Armitage Hall (Camden, NJ campus) after dark. Eddy was the guy everyone hated to take classes with. Students avoided him because he was serious and demanding; no one got a free ride. More than once he told me University College classes could be no less stringent than classes in any other part of the University. That was fine with me since I was pretty serious and demanding myself. I took any class he was willing to teach.
I first saw Eddy Dow as the classic absent-minded professor. He wore old broken eyeglasses with only one earpiece. He carried books and such in what looked like a laundry bag, and I noticed a bottle of spirits gurgling around in there once or twice. His rosy cheeks hustled past me on the street one frosty winter evening and he seemed to lust for the cold in a way that made me think of Hemingway in Eddy’s icy Michigan winters. He had been raised in a rural Michigan small town, and yet his feisty spirit seemed too large for a body fighting to contain it.
He once saw me staring at a bulletin board in an Armitage hallway, slapped me on the back and said, “You’ll read anything, won’t you!” Thanks to Eddy, one thing I learned in college was that reading anything could be a virtue.
He taught a “Popular Culture and Literature” course one semester. Beethoven and Tchaikovsky were to be valued, but was there also something in John Denver screeching a “Rocky Mountain High” or the Beatles’ tale of Eleanor Rigby? What might it say about our experience of life that Eleanor wears a “face that she keeps in a jar by the door”?
Theodore Dreiser had a deserved reputation for using Literature as a lever for reform and social justice. Could similar gravity be discerned in modern comic books? If not, why would the United States Congress investigate the subversive dangers of comic books and engender a code of morality that comic book publishers “voluntarily” adopted under government inspired duress?
I was editor of the school paper so Eddy and I had occasion to pass a lot of notes back and forth through the school mail system. Email was unknown; we used paper in those days. I had the temerity to correct his grammar and usage — and he expressed his delight at this affront by giving it back to me as only a fastidious English professor could. Those exercises put me in good stead when I went to work with publications, and I had to argue with editors who refused to see it the way I wrote it.
I can’t say I ever really knew Eddy Dow. He was a professor, and I was a student. But he and I had a quirky and fun relationship brimming with respect for one another. Nathaniel Pallone was dean of University College in those years. Speaking at a Camden campus event, he mentioned with delight approaching an uncomfortable hilarity that Eddy Dow had commented about there being a “surfeit of deans” around the place. I could never be quite sure why Pallone said that, but it suggested some level of bravery on Eddy’s part; I suspected there was more to it than a professor’s offhand comment and a dean’s public acknowledgement.
Eddy taught me that the study of Literature was not poring over musty old books in library stacks. It was the everyday questioning of everything we accept as life. It was being open to any new idea or interpretation, no matter how loony it might seem. It was an egalitarian notion of ideas and intellect. And it was just plain okay to be weird or strange if that was in honest pursuit of intellectual integrity and artistry.
In the end, Eddy taught me that college, and life, were about more than a degree I needed to get the job I wanted. Life, and a zest for living it, is far more important than how we look and what kind of work we do. That’s a lot to learn from one man.