With a striped button down and tucked sleeves, he enters the classroom. “Hello.” He takes his reading glasses from his shirt pocket and begins the class, as he does every class, with a poem:
She was young; / I kissed with my eyes / closed and opened / them on her wrinkles. / ’Come,’ said death, / choosing her as his / partner for / the last dance,
-R.S. Thomas, “A Marriage”
Professor of English John Somerville read this poem to his English-104 class last spring, shortly after the passing of Mrs. Busch, wife of Professor of English Christopher Busch. Even the football players shed a tear.
In the first class of each semester, before reading the poem aloud, he reminds the students of Flannery O’Connor’s simile: literature is like a frog. Though it is often necessary to dissect and analyze the body of the work, sometimes it is best to appreciate the work in its wholeness. That is why Somerville will not dissect the poem he reads at the beginning of each class, but rather lets the lines resonate in the classroom.
Somerville is set to retire after thirty years at the college and forty-two years teaching. He holds the Barbara Longway Briggs Chair in English Literature, and was director of the Visiting Writers Program for twenty-five years. As his impending retirement approaches, students ought to look back on his time at Hillsdale College as Flannery O’Connor looks at a frog – that is, as a story worth investigating and dissecting, but also appreciating. At the heart of Somerville’s narrative is his love of story and student. His desire to collide those two worlds animated his time here. Like Faulkner, Somerville subscribes to the belief that our lives are epics without authors, inhabiting a cosmos of our own.
Somerville’s students quickly learn that his love of story manifests itself in the humorous, tragic, strange, and always interesting. His humor reveals itself particularly in his love of accents. He refuses to read a piece of Southern literature without putting on a Southern accent, which he says is an impersonation of his Aunt Betsy. And, accompanied by some fascinating tales about his early life in South Korea, and his two visits to North Korea, he often does a fantastic Kim Jong-un impersonation.
Somerville also loves to tease students. He said he will always remember me as the student who wrote his descriptive essay about throwing rocks into a pool from a fifth story apartment. Once, a prospective student sitting in on a Great Books class got sick in the middle of class and as she ran to the bathroom, he softly called after her, “Come to Hillsdale.”
Perhaps my favorite story of Somerville’s is when he was at a graduation party for a student of his and a local resident stopped on the street and called out to him in the front yard, “Aren’t you the guy I sold meth to?”
“I don’t think so,” Somerville said.
You may not know that Somerville is also the nephew of the late TV evangelist Billy Graham : “Franklin Graham stuffed snow in my boots when I was young,” he said.
Some stories carry more weight. Ask him about John Lennon or the Rajneesh cult and you will realize that Somerville has a lifetime of experiences funny, beautiful, and tragic, and sometimes heroic. He once saved a student’s life, performing the Heimlich maneuver during class. But I have shared too many of Somerville’s stories already, and they are not mine to tell. Instead, go to his office and hear them from the man himself.
Somerville graduated from Covenant College in 1976, after transferring from Montreat College. Then he took a couple pit stops before grad school. First, he worked as a camp counselor in the summer of ’76 at Sky Ranch, teaching roping to the kids.
“We practiced on the kids, although it was meant for cattle. We had to stop because the local infirmary was getting way too much business,” Somerville said.
He then worked at a parking lot in Dallas.
“My uncle helped get me the job,” he said, chuckling. “It was nice because I would read all day, and listen to KCHU, which was an eccentric local radio show. They once played a three hour interview with a man who seriously believed UFO’s came out of the polar ice caps.”
The parking lot job was also pleasant, Somerville noted, mostly because the local college nurses had to talk to him as they entered the hospital.
His story took a significant turn in 1977 when he met Karen, now his wife of 41 years. He and a couple of friends attended a Presbyterian conference in connection with Montreat College where they noticed two tall blondes walk past and sit down at a table. They are now his now wife and sister-in-law.
“George and I walked up to them and I said to them, ‘You don’t want to go to Montreat College.’ In three weeks time I was doing all I could to get her to go to Montreat,” Somerville said.
Karen ended up going to a school near her hometown in Florida, and Somerville began a letter writing campaign to convince her parents to let her go to school at Montreat.
“I got my Aunt, Ruth Graham, to write one. My local pastor wrote one. I would write to her every day, and write rough drafts for each letter.”
The Somervilles have four daughters. The oldest is Erin, and the younger three, Mary, Katherine, and Elizabeth (Liz) are triplets. Katherine was born with cerebral palsy.
“She really suffered there at the beginning,” Somerville said, “came close to dying, and had some real serious problems. She lived her first eleven months in the hospital.”
He jokes that she’s arrogant and an egoist, but then, in all seriousness: “She’s the happiest person I know. We have a great relationship. I am so glad she didn’t leave, because she has been the greatest blessing of my life. Of course my wife too. God has blessed us in so many ways.”
Somerville, a proponent of the traditional grading method, is often perceived as harsh in his grading standards. But he simply wants his students to realize their writing abilities. According to his daughter, Liz, he loves to help students grow in their writing skills.
“In high school, I would often dread having my Dad read through my papers because I knew that half of the paper would be bleeding red ink by the time he handed it back to me,” Liz said. “I miss those times, though. Bringing my paper to him in the late evening hours, while he would be grading an Intro to Lit paper and sitting with his legs crossed on his chair in the living room, a Hershey’s chocolate bar tucked between his legs to ‘warm’ it.”
Somerville often says he doesn’t know what he’ll do without papers to grade or classes to prepare for.
“I hope that he can take this time for himself and finally write a book with Chuck Hinkley,” Liz said. “Or, maybe he will finally have time to read all of the books he has accumulated over the years.”
An epic of intrigue, laughter, and serious intellectual study, Somerville’s time at the college influenced many, and his interest in the well-being of his students and desire to help them draw out ideas and stories of their own epitomizes the role of great teacher. I speak both for myself and the campus: Dr. Somerville, you will be greatly missed.