“I’m sorry your president got shot,” Dean Jack told me the day Ronald Reagan was hit. He was a true character, Jack. We called him “Jack the Ripper” because there was no one he did not rip into—except me.
For some reason, I was Dean Jack’s “fair-haired boy.” As soon as I applied for a job with him at Olympic College, friends on the faculty warned me. He’s a Tartar.
I thought Dean Jack was a terrier. A little over five feet tall, he made up for his lack of stature with an abundance of aggression.
“So, it says here you’re from University of Virginia,” he noted right off. I acknowledged, smilingly. Not too many of us were in Washington State.
“What do you know about William Faulkner?” Everyone at U.Va. had heard the stories about the Nobel laureate who had honored us as distinguished visiting professor in 1962. He was a legend, and he was our legend.
Dean Jack’s devotion to William Faulkner was deep and genuine. He let me know, in the first five minutes of that interview, that he had gone to Oxford on a Fulbright Fellowship—specifically to study William Faulkner.
One of the most quoted passages of Faulkner was from Intruder in the Dust:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.
I had actually known a Garnett, an Armistead. And in our U.Va. class there was even a descendant of the famed Confederate General William Barksdale of Mississippi.
At Gettysburg, on that July second afternoon that Faulkner made immortal, the mounted General Barksdale led the way, hat off, his wispy hair shining so that it reminded [a Confederate staff officer] of ‘the white plume of Navarre’.”*
Our Mississippi Barksdale was named Beverly, but no one dared to rib this powerfully built Cavalier.
What I never mentioned to Dean Jack was that as poetic as Faulkner’s passage was, I seriously doubted that every Southern boy would dream of that July afternoon in 1863—especially if that 14-year-old was Black.
I needed the job, and I needed to stay on Dean Jack’s good side. We got on well. He soon chose me to teach courses in the Naval Shipyard at Bremerton, Washington, and GED courses at the S’Klallam Tribal Reservation in Port Gamble.
Teaching for Dean Jack led to my being selected to teach US diplomatic history to Admiral Rickover’s brightest of the bright—his handpicked enlisted nuclear sailors at Submarine Base Bangor. This was a time when Subase Bangor was daily picketed as “the Auschwitz of Puget Sound.”
When I faced those “nukes,” it was humbling. At every lecture, they would pursue me. Their questions were respectful, but probing. They forced me to concede I did not know the answer. But I promised to race to the college library and find an answer.
And for Dean Jack, I would share every story I could recall of Faulkner. It was like drawing a jewel from my leather purse, just for him. He purred. He beamed.
“Why does he like you?” my wife asked me when we escaped from a dinner with Dean Jack. Good question. I think I was his connection to the world-renowned William Faulkner. And remembering Dean Jack’s devotion to Faulkner softened any of his sharp edges in my reverie.
William Faulkner was a guardian of our souls against the existential dread that pervaded the castles of the mind throughout the world of 1950. This, from his Nobel lecture, provides the reason Dean Jack revered Faulkner, the world’s Mississippian:
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail
This is the same spirit of Thomas Jefferson, who could face the threatening horizon of 1826 and yet say, “I steer my barque with hope in the head, leaving fear astern.”
Dean Jack never asked me what I thought of meeting the great American novelist. I would have been bound by the U.Va. Honor Code to tell him: Mr. Faulkner left the Grounds in 1962. And I did not set foot there until September of 1963.
But I affirm Faulkner. Man ensouled will prevail.
* Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg – The Second Day. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987