~from Communications Coordinator Jill Salahub
This past week, John Calderazzo stopped by my office for some chocolate before heading to his last class — the final meeting of his last class ever at CSU. Once he discovered I had chocolate in my office a few years ago, John started stopping by sometimes before class, even helped stock my supply, and we’d spend a few minutes catching up. On this particular day, we talked a bit about how weird it was that he was headed to his last class, what a strange thing to be in the midst of such an ending, such a big transition, how unreal it seemed to both of us. It’s like that quote, “the days go by slow but the years go by fast” — I took my first class as a graduate student with John almost 15 years ago, and just spent the semester on a committee planning our department retreat with SueEllen, and the time between feels more like a few years than the decade and a half it really was, and that’s only half the time John and SueEllen have been at CSU. I still can’t quite wrap my head around an English department without them in it. And yet, that’s exactly what is happening.
At a special event last week, we celebrated John and SueEllen’s retirement. Current faculty, staff, and students, along with family, friends, and alumni gathered together in the Greyrock Room at the Lory Student Center. There were snacks and something to drink, a cake for later. As people entered, there was a table where they could write a message for John and SueEllen on large index cards which would later be collected into an album. With John and SueEllen by the door, greeting people and being congratulated, it almost had the feeling of a wedding reception receiving line, except in this case it reminded me of the lines from that Mary Oliver poem, “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” because it’s this particular kind of wonder and warmth that John and SueEllen embody.
After some time eating, congratulating, and catching up, Department Chair Louann Reid opened the presentation portion of the festivities. She started by saying what we were all feeling, “We’re not the least bit happy they are leaving, but so happy they were here.” She gave thank yous for all those involved in planning the event and to all those who attended. She then said about those who would follow her at the podium, “The speeches will be brief even though we are English people — we understand brief; they will be English brief.”
Debby Thompson came first. Her task was to “talk about SueEllen Campbell’s career in roughly five minutes,” which early on in her drafting made her realize she’d have to leave a lot out.
In her four books and over 30 articles, SueEllen has written on everything from Samuel Beckett and mystery novels to critical theory, ecocriticism, and nature writing. I want to note how readable, indeed how beautifully written, even her most “academic” essays are, and also how unpretentious. There’s a sense of generosity about them, an invitation to wide and diverse audiences to join the conversation.
Debby went on to say that SueEllen is “probably best known for her foundational and enduring work on nature and the environment” and that her “boundary-crossing between post-structuralism and nature writing is just one example of the true interdisciplinarity that she practices.” She listed just some of the course titles of classes SueEllen taught, a mind boggling range of topics. “To all these courses, SueEllen has brought passion, dedication, and integrity. She’s beloved as a down-to-earth teacher who challenges students to dig deeper and deeper, and to ask tougher and tougher questions rather than settling for answers.” (Her students from her final course, “Literature of Ice and Cold,” were in the back of the room, standing around a table they’d nicknamed “the Arctic Circle”).
Debby closed noting SueEllen’s importance to her personally, as a colleague and a role model, a writer and a scholar.
Next up was Steven Schwartz, who also had the daunting task of having only five minutes “to tell you about a man whom I’ve known for thirty years and frankly I love dearly.” He shared that John is “a teacher, an author, a loving husband, a devoted uncle, a world traveler, a backpacker, mountain climber, kayaker, python hunter, a journalist, a national speaker, a field and track enthusiast, a dog lover, an environmentalist, and a man I recently watched do five, count ‘em, five handstands on his 70th birthday.” John is also a storyteller.
John has a remarkable ability to find stories everywhere in the world and shape these narratives, whether on paper or spoken, into illuminating and often entertaining reflections about our existence on this planet. He’s a masterful communicator of the stories that make us most human. They may be small stories, porthole views on our collective experience, or more sweeping ones that investigate societal forces, but they are always told with a commitment to speak out of a passion for the lived life.
Steven went on to share stories from his “John journal,” a record he’s kept of stories John has told him over the years. He talked about John’s impact on his students, sharing an excerpt from something alumnus Steven Church wrote about him. Then Steven talked about John’s writing, by sharing something John had written, saying “I hope you can hear the loveliness in that passage, the yearning and intimacy, the comfort of those words to any reader who has experienced that lost feeling and come out of it by the grace of nature. That is how John came to be among us in Colorado, by way of his heart but also by way of finding his voice as a writer.” He ended by sharing his most recent entry in his “John journal,”
He was telling me recently about his students and how he not only cared about them as writers, but how, in fact, he cared about them first as people. If they became writers, well, that was great, but if they became editors, or grant writers, or reporters or did something else with their lives, that would be fine. “Mostly,” he said, “I’m interested in their happiness, and if I’ve contributed a small measure to that with my instruction, then I’m fulfilled.”
Atmospheric Science Professor Scott Denning got up to speak about both John and SueEllen next. They’ve worked together doing education and outreach about climate change. He talked about how John and SueEllen taught scientists the importance of speaking from the heart, of story telling, of speaking a truth that “ripples beyond the university to the larger world.” He ended by echoing Louann’s opening statement, saying he was “sorry they won’t be working here anymore, but it’s been so great having them.”
Then it was time for the people in question to speak for themselves. SueEllen went first. She talked about how in the past few weeks “reality is getting real,” and that it was the first time since she was about three years old that she didn’t know what she’d be doing next year, but the time ahead was full of possibilities and a new openness. She spoke about how she was “deflected” from law school by way of a graduate degree in English. She said that her formerly shy self never saw herself as a teacher, but her first moment in a classroom another side of herself emerged. As a writer, she turned from modernist fiction to nature writing because of a love of the outdoors, and shifted from academic to personal writing due to a “low boredom threshold.”
While at CSU, she’s taught over 50 different classes and has appreciated the ability to follow her interests. She appreciates the “civility and warmth of the department” and has “felt surrounded by friends.” She ended by referencing a recent New Yorker Cartoon where a couple is standing in the entry of their apartment looking at their mail. One of them reads an invitation and says to the other, “Should we even go to this farewell party if we’ll never see them again?” SueEllen closed her speech by saying, “Thank you for coming to my farewell party. You will see me some more.”
Finally, John stepped up to the podium, saying how good it was to be among so many friends. “I can’t imagine a better present than being here with you all. I’m thrilled and humbled.” He reminisced about his first visit to campus, when he thought to himself, “If I apply here and get the job, will I like it?” 30 years later, surrounded by friends, he can answer that question, “yes, a million times.”
CSU for John has been not so much a job as a place to grow and evolve. He was able to explore his passions and curiosities. He talked about his experiences reading, learning, and doing outreach, about making the world a better place and contemplating the beauty along the way.
He shared the sweetest story about teaching a group of elementary school kids to write poetry. He told them to write a poem about what they are not. Quickly, a student finished the exercise and rushed up to show it to John. The poem was about being the fattest girl ever, 10,000 pounds, about getting sick and dying, going to Heaven and being so fat it broke, and crashed back to Earth. In this way, Earth was filled with Heaven and “no one was ever mean.” He said that the English department was, “Earth filled with Heaven.” “You’ve been my friends, an inspiration and fun to be with too.”
Along with many of us in the crowd, Louann was in tears when she returned to the podium. It’s hard to see good people go. As Louann closed out the speeches, she said that no one had mentioned John and SueEllen’s “productive contrarianism,” how good they are at making us think differently, to reconsider how we are doing things and come up with a better way. She mentioned the Words for the Earth award being created in their honor. The program ended with a standing ovation and more tears, and Louann calling “let them eat cake!”
I saw John again a few days later, pushing a cart of books down the hallway, in the process of cleaning out his office. He thanked me again for the things I’d posted to the blog, the memories I’d collected, and in reference to the celebration we’d held for them, he said “It was one of the best days of my life.” As we parted, I felt myself still unable to say a real good-bye, unable to believe they were really leaving. In that same way some keep a light on, a fire burning, ever hopeful and prepared for a return, I will always have chocolate in my office, just in case.
A special thanks goes to Stephanie G’Schwind for all the great pictures of the event, some of which were used for this post.