Monday, February 23, 2009

In Memoriam: William Harris

The world lost William Harris this past Sunday. His absence will be felt keenly by students of art and literature all across the world who read his essays and poems, and used the resources that he created to allow interested autodidacts to access the Greek and Latin languages.

I began a correspondence with Bill several years ago after reading his commentary on the fragments of Archilochus, and he was a constant force in my intellectual life. He shared new thoughts with me; he urged me to explore new areas and attempt difficult things; he expressed a confidence in me beyond what I deserved, and, most importantly, offered me at the same time the sort of blunt criticism that only a real friend gives, which is a terribly valuable gift, being so rare. When I expressed interest in returning to school, he offered without solicitation to write for me a letter of recommendation, which was overly generous, since, he said, "as faculty adviser I always felt like a lawyer, aim for a win."

Both his essays and our private correspondence contain lessons that I will keep with me throughout my life. He possessed a beautiful balance of traditional intellectual rigor and open-mindedness to fresh methods and ideas. He urged me to teach to the brightest students in each class, so as not to fail them, but in a manner that would challenge other students to rise above their typical work. He reminded me that the sounds I made in my head while reading poetry silently do not have the real potency of sound waves. He confirmed my belief that education is not restricted to schools, but, in fact, often flourishes more fully elsewhere, where determination and curiosity are not stifled by poor methods and dull people.

Much of what I could say about him can be found in his own words. I leave you with these two paragraphs, which end an autobiographical piece, the first of which is a touching reflection on his own life, and the second a meditation on life in general:

If in conclusion I would say that I have not had an easy life overall, living for those early years poor as a professor in a small college in bad times could possibly be, having several failed expectations with both marriage and friends, being a loner with gregarious penchants who ends being a content loner after all. But I have done as many things in my life as there was time to do. A friend remarked that I was "a jack of all trades" and he added with a thoughtful smile that I was a master of most. Like my Dad who died suddenly at age 93 never thinking of dying at all, I have no thoughts about either mortality or immortality. As to thinking about dying? I don't have the inclination, and above all, considering the pace of the work I am doing, I just don't have the time.

It is still winter for me here with lingering snowflakes, but soon it will be back to the carpentry and cabinetmaking in the woodshop, a lot of house windows to be repainted later, then firewood for next year to be got and stacked under the south shed overhang. But of course I will be waiting as deep snow melts away, thinking about Spring, that grateful time of the year when the tulips first push up their tentative heads, signaling that soon the world is to be reborn in a rush of verdant leafage once again. Then get out the tiller and turn over the garden, where two months later my wife will be kneeling almost hidden by corn and squash and tomatoes as she fills her basket with the goodness of the earth for our dinner. Such fare is not only good to the taste and good for the body, it is a witness that the earth itself is a good place and there is room for many of us to live a good life, as long as we learn how to use it. And above all, if we learn how to use it well!

ὅ τι τερπνὸν ἐφάμερον διώκων ἕκαλος ἐπῄειν γῆρας ἔς τε τὸν μόρσιμον αἰῶνα.


Blogger Laura Gibbs said...

Thank you for this posting. I have been a fan of William Harris's online writings for many years, but I had not found that autobiographical piece before. How inspiring that was to read; I hope I will be able to say I made such good use of my years as he was able to. Thank you for sharing this and for your kind words of tribute to this great teacher who touched so many lives.

1:22 PM  

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