In Spring 2016, English major Alexander (Alec) Pearson did an internship where he researched department history. He graduated at the end of that same semester, earning his Bachelor of Arts in English with a writing concentration. Alec collected and wrote a lot of material that semester. One thing he did was interview some of our previous department chairs. One of his interviews just so happened to be with John Pratt. At the time, we imagined this biography and interview would be part of a larger series, simply one of a set. We had no idea we’d be using it to honor his memory instead, and yet we are so glad we have it for that very reason. Read the interview here: http://english.colostate.edu/2017/01/memory-john-pratt/
In Spring 2016, English major Alexander (Alec) Pearson did an internship where he researched department history. He graduated at the end of that same semester, earning his Bachelor of Arts in English with a writing concentration. Alec collected and wrote a lot of material that semester. One thing he did was interview some of our previous department chairs. One of his interviews just so happened to be with John Pratt. At the time, we imagined this biography and interview would be part of a larger series, simply one of a set. We had no idea we’d be using it to honor his memory instead, and yet we are so glad we have it for that very reason.
~from Alexander Pearson
John Pratt came to the CSU English Department from the Air Force Academy in 1975, and served as the department head until 1980. He was the college’s first Fulbright professor, having spent a year in Portugal in 1974. During his time as chair, he displayed a deep integrity, a great commitment to education, and an ongoing focus on advancing the cause of women within the Department and the university as a whole.
He had a great love of teaching and found time to teach classes even as he fulfilled his duties as department chair, regarding that as his true calling. John Pratt wrote, published, or edited more than eighteen books, and numerous scholarly articles, poems, and book reviews. After stepping down as department chair in 1980 and another Fulbright fellowship to the (then) University of Leningrad, USSR, he returned to teach as a professor at CSU until his retirement in 2002. (Read his obituary for more about his life.)
Interview with John Pratt by Alexander Pearson, Spring 2016
Alec: Would you mind telling me about how you came to join the English Department?
John: All right, I had been serving the Air Force for twenty years, most of which had been with the Air Force Academy in the English department.
Alec: The Air Force Academy has its own English department?
John: Oh yes, it’s a full university. I had been a pilot but they were taking all of us old farts off flying status because, bottom line, they were running out of money and the only assignment I could have gotten was to the Pentagon. And I didn’t want to do that. I found out that CSU was looking for an English Department chair, from outside, so I signed up for it, I went through the selection process and I got the job in 1974. At the same time, I got a Fulbright fellowship to Portugal and I worked out a deal with the department where I could take the Fulbright and then come up as chair. They had never had a Fulbright professor before, so they said fine, so I came up in 75 as chair of the department.
After about six months here, I had formed some friendships. I had been visiting all of the department members in class, so I could find out who they were and what they did, because I didn’t know anybody. And one of my colleagues took me aside and said “John, there’s something I need to tell you. You know that our department is pretty well divided up.” And I said, “I know. There are a lot of differences.” “Well, because of your military background, half of the English department thinks that you’re no good, and the other half wants you to shoot the first half.” And that was one of my introductions to the department.
Alec: You said you had a Fulbright professorship in Portugal. Could you elaborate on that, I hadn’t heard of that before.
John: The Fulbright fellowship is a national fellowship, any teacher, any professor can apply for it, and they have Fulbrights in many, many countries, and it’s a year-long fellowship. You may know about the former student, Yusef Komunyakaa, who is going to be reading, and I had a lot to do with getting him accepted here, he was the first black student to be in the Creative Writing program. And he has gotten a Fulbright since, and many other remarkable awards.
Another thing, when I was in the military, one of the things you’re supposed to do when you take over a command is start training a successor. I told the department that I’d stay five years as chair, but I didn’t tell them that I’d stay longer. I looked around at that point and found that the only woman who was head of a department was head of Home Economics. All of us were men. In part because I had four daughters, whom I had been training to be as good as men, I looked around and found a member of the department whose classes I’d been to were doing very well, I was very impressed with her, her name was Rosemary Whitaker. So I appointed her as graduate chair, as undergraduate chair, all these various positions, so when I decided to step down after five years, she was a shoo-in. She became the first woman head of a major department, her successor was a woman, the current department head is a woman, and I feel very pleased about that.
Alec: What would you count as your achievements while you were chair of the department?
John: I was just lucky in many cases, I hired some very good professors. There wasn’t a great deal more that was really important. My primary interest had always been teaching, and so I think probably the most important thing was I hired women, I appointed women, and I gave them a much better opportunity.
Alec: Do you have any sort of other amusing anecdotes, or non-amusing anecdotes, about your time as chair?
John: Well, I’d been chair about three years and I received a phone call and a follow-up letter from the UCSB for the job of dean of the faculty there. And I really wasn’t very interested in it, and I’d never been approached in that way before, so I thought I’d head down and see what was going on. So I went out for an interview, and there was a whole group, maybe about ten people, and a woman was head of it. And she introduced me, and she said, John, we think you should know this, this is not an interview. We have looked at your record, we’ve looked at your publications, we want you to come out here as dean of the faculty. That’s definite. And she asked, John, do you have any questions. And I said, there’s the English department and the American Studies department, both of which I would be the dean of — which one would you prefer I taught a course in? And she looked at me with a strange look on her face, and she said, John, I’m sorry, our deans don’t teach. They just administer. And I said, I’m sorry, this dean would teach. And administer at the same time. And she turned around and looked at the people there, then she turned back to me and said, John, I’m afraid we don’t have anything more to say. Have a good trip. They turned me down because I would take one class as a dean, and they said our deans are too busy to teach. And after that I didn’t look into or get asked for anything else. I held a few positions within the department but I just thoroughly enjoyed teaching.
Alec: So what was your specialization as professor and teacher?
John: Well, I started out in American Literature, then I published a couple of novels and quite a few articles.
Alec: Which novels would these be?
John: Two on Vietnam. I started in Vietnam 1969-1970. In the Air Force Academy I called that my ‘Vietnam Sabbatical.’ I served for an outfit called Project CHECO, Contemporary Historical Evaluation of Combat Operations. And we wrote top-secret papers on what the air force was doing in Vietnam and so on. So when I retired I did a novel on the air war in Laos, called The Laotian Fragments. And I did another one, not really a novel, really a collage, called Vietnam Voices. Actual writings from all aspects of the war.
Alec: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that in the library.
John: Yeah, the library had a major collection. I gave my last collection of books to the department just recently. And these are all books written by English Department people and they’re in the department library now, along with all the other books that I’ve written.
The service for John Clark Pratt will be held on January 30, 2017 at the Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church, 4501 S. Lemay at 1:00pm.