PLENTY of fathers are saluted on Father's Day for their prowess at everything from driving junior to practices to building their family’s summer retreat.
Dads deserve kudos a-plenty. But what about the guys who never became dads, but who have a lasting influence nonetheless?
My husband Stanley had just such a man in his life – his Carleton University English professor, Dr. Russell. A craggy, serious, Harvard-educated Italian American, Russell was a formal fellow, always dressed in high-quality but retro three-piece suits. In those days, he smoked Marlboro Lights in class. He was so passionate and knowledgeable about his subjects that he won over Stanley completely.
In second year, Stanley became so fully immersed in Russell’s Literature of Existentialism class that he became convinced that nothing mattered and wound up dropping every other course that semester. Then, barely operational in his existentialist fog, he slept in on exam day and missed the final test -- which meant he’d have to re-take the exam in the fall.
He was, of course, devastated. Later that week, he sheepishly joined Russell and his Existentialism classmates for an end-of-year farewell dinner. Sympathizing with Stanley’s regrettable situation, the good professor made a suggestion. If everybody agreed, he said, the dinner guests would give Stanley an oral exam right on the spot, and his grade for the impromptu test would be entered as the mark for his missed final.
Luckily, Stanley’s classmates were kind enough to allow that, and they proceeded to grill him on everything they’d learned together that year. As he remembers it, they quite rightly cut him no slack. His answers weren’t perfect, but in the end he was given a passing grade.
Stanley went on to complete his undergrad degree, and Russell eventually retired and moved back to New York, his hometown. More than 20 years later, when Stanley found himself there on business, he tracked down his old professor. Remembering Russell’s deep love of the arts, Stanley asked him to take him to one of his favourite places in New York. They wound up wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Russell expounding on the pieces he most admired. Stanley couldn’t have had a better guide.
Russell was divorced and had no children. As a practicing existentialist, he was a bit of a misanthrope. Over the next 10 years he and Stanley kept in touch, talking on the phone now and then. A couple of years ago, Russell, who had moved to Florida to escape the New York winters, revealed that his health was failing. Stanley decided it would be a grand scheme to visit his old professor and see what wisdom he could winnow out of him in his old age.
He stayed at a fleabag hotel near Russell’s retirement home and spent several days with his mentor, talking on the beach, eating in restaurants, meeting Russell’s sister, and hearing the story of the old man’s life. What a life it had been. He’d had a difficult youth – when he was little, he confided, his father had suddenly vanished, and he was told that his parent was dead. His older brother, forced prematurely into an adult role, often took his disciplinary methods too far. Some 40 years later, Russell discovered that his father was alive, but had been locked up in an institution for reasons too complex and private to go into here.
Stanley also learned that his professor had once been an accomplished professional saxophone player, whose musical career had progressed to the point where he had been a member of Louis Prima’s touring band. He traded the stress of the road for the relative calm of academia, taking an English degree that led to a PhD from Harvard and, ultimately, his professorship at Carleton.
In his retirement, Dr. Russell dusted off his old sax. After decades without playing a note, he got his chops back. He spent a part of every day of his later years playing the songs he loved best, accompanied by CDs with backing tracks by some of jazz’s greatest session men. He studiously taped his top performances, keeping up a running commentary between takes. During Stanley’s visit, Russell, who was now too weak to pick up his instrument, played him a tape featuring some of his favourite tunes.
Their time together was wonderful for Stanley, who got to know his finest teacher on a far more intimate level, warts and all. It appeared to mean a lot to Russell, too. Other students had also kept in touch with him over the years, which must be satisfying for dedicated teachers, especially those who have no children of their own.
Russell died within a year of their visit. While sad to hear it, Stanley was glad he had taken the time to reconnect with this complicated intellectual man. He asked Russell’s sister if she could part with some of his saxophone recordings, if nobody else wanted them.
Now, when I call Stanley at his office, sometimes I hear jazz in the background -- the sound of a solitary Dr. Russell playing his saxophone, forever bent on perfection.