Friday, February 23, 2018

Artistic personalities... a look back at my first English professor and his ilk

Because I'm tired of writing about politics and mean-spirited people who send me hate mail, I've decided this morning's post will be about one of my old professors at Longwood.  He was an interesting character and I loved his class, although his methods were very unorthodox.  I'm not sure, but I don't think he got a lot of love from the other English professors.  It's probably because he was a very eccentric man... or at least that's how he seemed to me.

Last night, I looked up Otis Douglas III.  There isn't a whole lot about him online.  I never knew how old he was, but when I knew him, he had a rather rumpled look, with wild white hair and old sweaters.  Some might think of him as an "absent minded professor", although I never really thought of him in that way.  I figured he was well-seasoned by the time I met him in 1990.  He'd been teaching at Longwood for almost as long as I'd been alive.

The class I took from him was called Rhetoric and Research, otherwise known as English 100.  It was a basic class that almost all freshman took upon arrival at Longwood.  It was supposed to help us learn how to write.


A short blurb about my former English teacher from a 1974 issue of The Rotunda...  If any of my classmates are reading this, I highly recommend checking out the whole paper.  It's a hoot!  Especially the letters to the editor!

As I was researching Mr. Douglas, I learned that his family was from Reedville, which is a town not too far from where I grew up.  I've only been to Reedville once.  It was in 1998, when a friend and I caught a ferry there.  She was working for a bike tour company, scouting out places to do new tours.  Since she was visiting my neck of the woods, she and I got together and spent the day driving around the Northern Neck of Virginia.  We stopped in Urbana and Irvington, then went to Reedville with bikes, which we brought to Tangier Island.  

Tangier Island is a tiny, fascinating place in the Chesapeake Bay.  It's accessible from Reedville, Virginia, Onancock, Virginia, and Crisfield, Maryland.  Unfortunately, environmental concerns now threaten Tangier Island's existence.  I'm sure there were concerns in 1998, too.  Beach erosion and serious storms are big problems for the little island.  I'm just glad I got to see it twenty years ago.  It's a very interesting place populated by just a few families who have been there for generations.

Mr. Douglas's roots were apparently near the water, not far from Tangier Island.  I found evidence that he has many kinfolk from Reedville and the Northern Neck, and ties to the College of William and Mary.  I also noticed that there was a United States Navy minesweeper known as the U.S.S. Otis W. Douglas.  She was purchased from the Douglas Company of Reedville, Virginia in 1917 for use in World War I.  Sadly, after serving in Brest, France until 1919, she encountered storms on the way back to the United States and sank.  I'm not sure, but it appears that the Douglas family of Reedville might be linked to McDonnell-Douglas, the company that makes airplanes.  At least the Wikipedia article about the ship implies that maybe it does.  Reedville is not a big place, so I can't imagine there were many other Douglas families there in the early 20th century.  

I grew up near the water, in fact in a county not far from the Northern Neck, but my family comes from Virginia's mountains and valleys.  I found out that Mr. Douglas's father was kind of a famous man.  Mr. Douglas is the son of Otis Douglas Jr., a very well-regarded football player and coach who once played for the Philadelphia Eagles.  I don't have to read too much about Mr. Douglas's father to know who he is.  The photo of Otis Douglas Jr., included in his New York Times obituary, reveals that his son bears a striking resemblance.  In fact, when I looked at Otis Douglas Jr.'s picture, I was momentarily stunned by how much he looked like a cleaner cut version of his son.  

I learned in an obituary about Mr. Douglas's sister, Eleanor, that their family moved a lot, due to their father's career in sports.  They lived in twenty-six states and Canada.  Mr. Douglas never mentioned any of this in class.  Much like my former philosophy professor, Dr. John Peale (son of Norman Vincent Peale), he kept it quiet.  Instead, he engaged us with stories about how to publish articles and talked about how difficult writing well is. 

My very first English professor at Longwood was very intent on teaching his students how to gamble.  I remember Douglas telling us that writing well is one of the hardest things a person can do.  He taught us that it takes many drafts to get something just right.  He wanted us to write many drafts of papers about rather mundane subjects.  Our class consisted of nothing but keeping a portfolio with assignments that I recall seemed either bizarre or tedious.

Mr. Douglas didn't have us write essays.   He'd have us write directions to locations.  We had to pay close attention to specific details as we wrote our directions.  I found the process pretty boring, although I enjoyed Mr. Douglas's offbeat teaching style.  He wasn't like any of my other professors.  He would tell us stories sometimes, but mostly, he talking about playing games of chance, like Blackjack. 

He even had us learn the basics of shooting craps.  I had never shot craps before I met Mr. Douglas, and I haven't in the 27 years since I was a student in his class.  I don't gamble.  But Mr. Douglas taught us the basics of the game, and as he taught us, he had us write about how to shoot craps.  It was bizarre and I'll never forget it, because it was so unconventional.

I also remember the one final paper I wrote for that class.  I really don't know where my wild streak comes when it comes to writing things down, but for some reason I decided to write a paper about sadomasochism.  I titled it "The Chains of Love".  I think I was inspired because I was reading a lot of Nancy Friday's books at the time.  

The late Nancy Friday was famous in the 1970s for writing My Secret Garden, which is a book about women's sexual fantasies.  It was shocking and groundbreaking at the time.  I think it was published in 1972 or thereabouts, right around the time I was born.  In those days, people evidently didn't talk frankly about sex, but it was obviously a topic of interest.  Nancy Friday went on to write several other very successful books about sexual fantasies, most of which I read when I was in high school and college.  Because there's a provocative side to my personality, I guess I decided to write about them in Mr. Douglas's class.  He must have liked my paper, because I got an A in the class.  I had been told by an older hall mate that Mr. Douglas didn't give out As.  Obviously, she was wrong about that.

Incidentally, I was a piss poor English major.  I mostly got Bs and Cs in my major, except for classes that focused on creative writing.  I also got an A in a non-fiction writing class.  That class was taught by a similarly eccentric professor named Mr. Woods, who would never correct anyone who called him "Dr. Woods" by mistake.  Mr. Woods could be spotted riding his bike around campus.  I had him for two classes.  One class mostly involved him talking about Madonna's Sex book, which had just been published and was causing a scandal.  He also talked about the Price Club a lot.  I got an A in his class because I wrote about being flashed while riding on a bus on I-95.  I'm sure I've written about this incident before, but since I'm in a stream of consciousness mood, I'm going to write about it again.

It was during my junior year spring break at Longwood and I had gone on spring tour with the Camerata Singers, which was the auditioned choir.  We went on a recruiting tour every spring break that generally culminated in New York City.  We'd perform at churches and schools, then take in a Broadway show.  

The choir was usually pretty exhausted by the end of the spring tours.  Such was the case in 1993, as we headed south toward our college.  I was looking out the window, daydreaming.  Some guy in a bright yellow car pulled up alongside the bus.  I looked at him.  He looked at me.  I looked away.  He dropped out of sight.  When I turned to look out the window again, there he was.  But he'd pulled out his penis and it was kind of flopping there as he drove alongside the bus, flashing everyone who happened to be looking out the window.

Naturally, I let out a yell of surprise, which woke everyone up.  I think more than a few people were traumatized by that guy, getting his jollies exposing himself while speeding down Interstate 95.

I figured I might as well get some traction from being flashed, so I wrote about it and actually drew a crude picture of what I saw.  Mr. Woods was apparently impressed.  He wrote, "Oh my God!  Is that what I think it is!"  And yes, the paper got an A.

Mr. Woods was often compared to Mr. Douglas.  The two of them were kind of outliers in Longwood's English department back in the 90s.  They were affectionately regarded by students, especially those who were kind of slack.  I'm not sure they were as well-regarded by other professors.   I remember being at a department social and mentioning to one professor-- one I never had, though she had quite a reputation-- that I liked Mr. Douglas's class.  I noticed a flash of kind of a disgusted look on her face.  Then, she diplomatically said, "Well, he has what you'd call an artistic personality."  

Maybe that's what's "wrong" with me, too.  My whole life, I've been annoying, bewildering, shocking and offending some people, while apparently delighting others.  My husband seems to adore me, even if my parents never really did.  I never had a lot of really close friends or even too many close family members.  Some people I thought were "close", actually weren't.  And yet, here I am, married to the nicest guy ever who loves my inappropriate sense of humor and love of shock value.  On the other hand, maybe my experience is everyone's experience.  Maybe everyone feels like they're "weird" and eccentric.  I may have to think some more about that today as I wait for the weekend to begin.  

I am sitting here realizing that I have a lot of time on my hands, time that I'm using to look up people I used to know, learning their histories.  I hadn't thought of Mr. Douglas in a very long time, but it appears that he has a very interesting story.  I love it when I make these discoveries and uncover cool stories.  It feels kind of like striking gold.


6 comments:

  1. YOU WRITE SO WELL AND THIS IS VERY INTERESTING...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good stories! BTW I grew up (allegedly) in the Wilmington, DE / Baltimore corridor, but spending my summers on the Delaware shore. By the time you were born I would only return there a few more times. It is fun knowing of some of the places you talk about.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have only been through Delaware... when I was on those spring tours I wrote of!

      Delete
  3. Great stuff! I enjoyed reading your article. I was in Dr. Douglas's class In the Fall of 1990. I vividly remember one afternoon, when Mr. Douglas came in the the classroom, and overheard a female student say, " Guys suck!"
    Otis paused and responded "They're not supposed to."
    It was classic Mr. Douglas.
    You nailed it... we wrote papers on how to play Craps.
    Another interesting story that I learened is that he taught two of my friends a system to win at Craps, and had them go to Atlantic City to play for him, as I think he was banned from Casinos because of his system of winning. (Think of the movie 21 with Kevin Spacey.)

    Is Mr. Douglas still living?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment! I don’t know if he’s still living. I think he moved to Charlottesville. I had him Fall of 1990, too, and I remember he was in Richmond at that time.

      Delete

Comments on older posts will be moderated.