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.