~From Communications Coordinator Jill Salahub
John Calderazzo and SueEllen Campbell
This Thursday, May 5, the English department will be holding a very special celebration. John Calderazzo and SueEllen Campbell are retiring this year, and as sad as we are to see them go, we are sending them off with our best wishes at this upcoming event. To honor them here on the blog, I’ve been collecting memories and well wishes from a few people who studied and worked with them over the years.
I myself had the honor of learning from John as a graduate student, and have enjoyed his company as I stayed on to work in the department, (I will miss your visits to get chocolate and check in, John). I never took a class from SueEllen, but finally got to spend more time with her when we served on a committee together, planning our department’s latest retreat. I will miss their dedication, their wisdom, their laughter, and their kindness, but wish for them only the best of things as they move on. What follows, in no particular order, are more memories and good wishes.
There are lots of wonderful memories I have of John and SueEllen, but the one I’m thinking of is the night they held a “star-gazing party” at their house in Bellevue some years ago in the summer. My son Ben was home at the time, so we went, figuring it had to be a great event. It was. There were maybe a half-dozen telescopes of varying powers of magnification standing in their back yard. We were looking at Saturn’s rings. Weird but it’s literally breath-taking to see such a colorful spectacle. John invited us into the house, the living room, and showed us the improvements he and SueEllen had made on the interior. But what it was–the whole thing–was the joy of sharing an hour with people who were so interested not only in this world but in the solar system. In everything, really. Interest. Enthusiasm. Profound awe. A respect and concern for knowledge. Sharing. Those are the qualities I see in John and SueEllen. Those are the qualities they brought to Colorado State. I’m happy to know that they’ll go on living nearby and being a resource the community of the vitally interested.
~Bill Tremblay, (recipient of the John F. Stern Distinguished Professor award for his thirty years teaching in and directing the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Colorado State University)
I’ll admit, I almost didn’t answer the call [when Jill emailed and asked for memories]. There are others who know him better, I thought. People who are friends with him, who were advised by him, who, you know, actually ENGAGED with professors during their MFA and beyond. I took just the couple of classes…
And then – here’s a measure of how indelibly John Calderazzo gets into the mind of his students (or this student, anyway), I heard him say what he said so frequently in class, referring to writing and to publishing, “Think of writing like a dinner party. You may have all kinds of great things to say, but if you don’t open your mouth, no one’s going to hear them.”
So I thought I’d speak up and share that John Calderazzo is one of the main voices of encouragement in my head, the voice I use to tell myself to make the effort to put this into words, to pitch the story that needs to be told, to rewrite this essay or story again so that it engages the people it needs to engage.
He’s also the teacher I think of the most when I’m trying to build a lesson so that students are excited by in-class writing exercises. I think of the evening he came into our creative nonfiction workshop, took off his watch, put it on the floor, and put a concrete cinderblock on the desk above it, extending out into the air above, and then proceeded to tell us a story about how the watch belonged to his grandfather, was one of the few relics left of a person he admired – he never said anything about the brick, just left it hanging there. And then he told us to write about an object so that the reader could feel the brick hanging over it. Ah ha, I remember thinking at the time, yes, that’s exactly what it means to hold a reader in suspense.
I’ve never used this exact exercise in my classes – at least, not yet – but it’s the ideal I strive for: to get students to feel the element I want them to work on, rather than just telling them about it.
So: okay, sure. I may have just taken the two classes. I may not have kept in touch the way I wanted to. But John Calderazzo is one of the professors I think of first when I think of my time in the MFA at CSU. His excitement, his enthusiasm, his quiet energy were central to the MFA program as I experienced it, and shaped the writer I’ve become today.
~Emily Wortman-Wunder, (MFA Fiction, 2003)
I had a rather lackluster undergraduate career, dropping out at one point for a year after failing almost all my classes that semester. When I returned to finish my B.A., I was a better student, and completely inspired by a poetry professor I had. I graduated thinking that at some point, I would pursue an MFA in poetry. In the meantime, I worked at Aims in the Writing Center and did some freelance work. My then-husband was in a writing group with John, and he’s actually the person who suggested I take a created nonfiction workshop with Calderazzo at CSU. So I sent John some of my work and asked him if I could guest-register in his graduate creative non-fiction workshop. It was such a transformative experience, that I signed up for another semester. John finally suggested I bite the bullet and apply to graduate school.
So I did. I knew I wanted to teach full time at a community college because I believed then, and still do to this day, that two-year schools are the last great class equalizer we have left in this country. I was a fervent Marxist in my 20s, convinced that a vibrant, artistic, and productive society depends on economic fairness and opportunity. Interestingly, I’m returning to those roots in my 40s as I see the social, fiscal, and political policies of the last three decades take root and bear fruit. A vanishing middle class, education out of reach for many, and now, Donald Trump as a possible GOP nominee in a presidential race (it boggles the mind)—it brings me back to that particular time in my life, before insurance and mortgages, car payments and retirement plans. Unlike some of my professors over the years, John encouraged me in my goal of teaching at a two-year school. He was less invested in the trappings of academia, and he was more interested in helping me forge the path I wanted. He also knew I wanted to continue writing creatively, so John helped me fashion a degree in Communications Development where I focused on creative non-fiction, composition theory, and critical theory. My two years at CSU, with John as my thesis advisor, were some of the most fruitful and intellectually engaged years of my life. I forged lifelong friendships, I learned how to be a working writer, and I grew into the teacher I was meant to be. John taught us that good stories are everywhere, often in the most mundane places. It’s the writer who makes the ordinary extraordinary. And in fact, John is the professor who most helped me grow out of being a sort of immature writer who tackled “Big Topics” and “Great Ideas” into a writer who could find greatness in a humble or ordinary place. “The personal,” John told us, “is universal.” For a young woman in her 20s, this was a pivotal connection for me to the world, and it made me feel much less lonely—part of a greater human experience.
John is, of course, and incredibly accomplished writer himself, and he took teaching seriously. He invested in his students, shaping their lives in important ways. Sometimes, great writers obtain university teaching positions, and teaching is clearly secondary, a sort of quid pro quo or modern-day patronage. There is a price; the writer becomes more an object of the university’s sales pitch to prospective consumers, the result being students themselves become secondary to the writer’s own work and the university’s reputation. In John’s classes, we never felt that. Our work was as important to him as his own, and some of the writers who’ve emerged from CSU’s programs under John’s guidance are testament to his investment.
Finally, he was unfailingly kind. When discussing the mixed blessing of spell check to my students today, I recall the story of my final thesis submitted for review where I spelled “canon” (the literary one), “cannon” (boom). John, with a smile, told me to never abdicate my own authority over the editing process—to a computer, an editor, or anyone else. “Our words,” he said, “are all we have.”
~Shawna Jackson Van, (MA English: Communication Development, 1998)
*John Calderazzo has the same initials as Jesus and a better beard.
*John Calderazzo has what could best be called mountain wisdom, as in I would climb a mountain for his advice on life or writing. Not coincidentally, he also knows a lot about mountains, particularly exploding ones.
*I believed everything John Calderazzo told me. How many people can you say that about?
*John Calderazzo listened when I talked, which seems like a small thing — but I noticed. It made me feel like what I thought and said was important, and it made me want to have better and deeper thoughts, and share them, as well. Some take authority as a license to stop listening, but John saw it as a vocation to attention.
~Marty Moran, (MFA Poetry, 2007)
As a grad student, I always appreciated SueEllen’s ready smile and that John always had a story in his pocket.
~Liz Warnar Jackson, (MA English: Rhet/Comp, 2002)
Picture this: John Calderazzo is mowing his mountain yard, shirtless and hairy as a silverback gorilla. He kills the engine and stands there, hands on his hips, surveying his domain. His thighs bulge from the short-shorts that only older, confidently anachronistic men will wear. Overhead cirrus clouds paint his name across the sky in broad strokes and a red-tailed hawk glides in the thermals, screeching “JAAAWN!, JAAAWN!” because John Calderazzo has received a phone call, a very important phone call, and on the other end of the line is me. I’m standing in my back yard in Fresno, California watching my dog dig another hole because she’s not a very good dog, and I am listening to John tell me about how he just got done climbing a 16,000 foot mountain in Chile or Argentina or Uruguay and how he’s figured out that his body is uniquely equipped to handle the rigors of mountaineering, that his lungs are like super lungs or something and how he just spent a few days dancing on a glacier with the natives as part of some kind of elaborate fertility ritual. I take a drink of my beer. Then I tell him how I blew my knee out getting up from a chair. I tell him I bought a kayak because I can’t hike or run or really even walk a lot. I tell him that later I might walk to the 7-11 to get some more beer. I tell him it’s kind of a ritual for me. I also tell him that I miss him and, when he says he’s mowing his lawn and looking out at the horizon and thinking of me, I almost cry. Sure, I’m being silly with this story, making John out to seem mythic and god-like. But there’s a lot of truth in that image for me. John may be freakishly short and hairy, but he’s also a giant. He looms over my creative and professional life in so many ways, it’s nearly impossible for me to separate who I am as a writer, a teacher, and person from John’s influence. I know. I know. That’s a lot of pressure. But its true. In February, here at Fresno State, I attended a memorial celebration for Philip Levine, a man who I was lucky enough to call a friend, a man like John in many ways, who once worked in the auto industry, a man whose influence looms large over everything in Fresno, a poet who wrote the songs of the common man. I sat there listening to one poet after another talk about how a single class 40 years ago with Phil Levine had changed his or her life, how they were, in so many ways, still taking that class with Phil. I was pretty sure nobody would say that about one of my classes. But I knew immediately who occupied a similar role in my life. The first class I had with John Calderazzo changed my life. There’s really no other way to say it. A philosophy major who’d spent the three previous years painting houses and fixing toilets for tourists, I was halfheartedly admitted to the MFA Program as a fiction writer and I thought that all creative nonfiction was nature writing. I entered John’s class a blank slate, dumb and empty as a bucket, free from the heavy burden of knowledge and ready to be filled with wonder. John did that for me. He filled my head with wonder. He introduced me to books and writers—Bernard Cooper and Joan Didion, among others—who I still foist on my students today. Cooper is the test, really. If you love Maps to Anywhere, I know we’ll be friends and I know that John would love you, too. Because for all his silverbackness, for all his macho mountaineering shit, at his core, John is the kindest, gentlest, most curious kid I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. He’s better than me. Always. But I’m trying to get there. I still teach the books he taught me, still use the writing activities he used, still think of him nearly every time I step into a classroom—and it’s been ten years that I’ve been trying to be like him. I won’t be dancing on any glaciers anytime soon. But John will always be a part of my teaching and my writing; so while John may be “retiring,” he will never leave. I remember so many things that John has said to me—from the “fuck this” in the margins of one of my essays to his lecture on “deep history,” that still lingers with me today. He dropped a sheet of paper on the floor in our classroom and asked us to consider the layers of history beneath this one single sheet of 8.5 x 11 white paper. And these words I write today, this sheet of paper, is only the surface layer to the history of John’s influence on my life and on the lives of so many students. He goes deep. Way down to the core. And I thank you every day, John, for taking me seriously as a writer, for challenging and inspiring me, and for being my friend. I love you, man.
~Steven Church, (MFA Creative Writing: Fiction, 2002)
Of all of the teachers I have had in my life (and there have been a lot!), John was the one who took me far outside of my comfort zone to reveal things I could do as a writer that I was way too scared to try on my own. More specifically: As a literature-focus graduate student, I was curious about writing. I enrolled in John’s creative non-fiction workshop graduate course, and upon seeing what pool of incredibly talented, outgoing writers I had joined, I immediately withdrew from the class after the first day. I was terrified and intimidated–no way could I sit among these experienced MFA writers (I had never done a creative writing workshop before) and give valuable feedback, let alone share my novice writing with them. That night, I got a phone call at home from John. He listened to my emotional story about feeling completely underprepared for a workshop like that. Then, he spoke to me with compassion, generosity, concern, and with a gentle push for me to reconsider my decision. He saw potential in me that I did not. He wanted me to be brave. His words lifted me up, and I re-enrolled in the workshop. It was a challenging class, but in all the right ways. His teaching methods and his classroom environment were inspiring and encouraging, which enabled me to make myself vulnerable and grow as a writer more than I could have imagined. There are not enough or adequate words to express my gratitude for how his encouragement and personal concern for me changed the course of my life during and after that. I’ve gone on to write more and to teach writing. To top things off, after that course I experienced my greatest joy as a writer: one of the stories I wrote and revised for his course was published in Holding Common Ground, and experience that never would have happened without him.
SueEllen was my mentor, guide, and personal support through my entire graduate school experience at CSU. I could not have accomplished what I did without her. Her guidance got me through my fear of teaching for the first time, the demands of graduate school, and my research, writing, and revising of my final project. The countless hours she spent listening and coaching me through my teaching and writing led her to feel like family to me. One of my many favorite memories was the opportunity she gave me to teach in her Nature Writing class. That experience–designing my lesson plan to teach the Mary Oliver literature I was most passionate about–shaped the course of my life. I have since made teaching literature and writing my career. The lessons and experiences I learned from SueEllen helped me step into and begin my career. She believed in me and gave me the courage to do what I love. I am forever grateful that I had the opportunity to work with an amazing, inspiring, kind, and gracious woman who turned my graduate school experience into one of the greatest highlights of my life.
It is hard to summarize all that these two amazing teachers have done–at the personal level, in the department, the college, the community, and in the world. Their knowledge, curiosity, and care of their students and the natural world have shaped many lives. Above all, their life’s dedication to be environmental educators, writers, and stewards have been the greatest inspiration. Mary Oliver’s words describe perfectly the life that John and SueEllen show for the rest of us to learn from and follow: “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” She also has words that describe this moment in their lives and all that they’ve accomplished: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
Thank you from the bottom of my heart, John and SueEllen!
~Amanda (Gordon) Henkel, (MA English: Literature, 2001)
If you haven’t already seen it, check out this recent CLA Magazine article about a new award being created in honor of John and SueEllen, Words for the Earth.