God Bless You, Mr. Hengeveld

Texts from Mr. Hengeveld's Classes

Late in 2007, I was listening to NPR, and I heard a jazzy-souding cello. The show’s host was talking about the artist, and his singular contribution to jazz, to the cello, and specifically to jazz cello.

I recall speaking out loud to the radio. “If it’s jazz cello, it’s Fred Katz.” And it was. He was, at the time, eighty-eight years old, and a bunch of his work was being reissued on CD. I could not have been more thrilled to hear his voice, and to hear he was still alive and productive.

Fred Katz was one of my two favorite professors at Cal State Fullerton many decades ago, where he taught musicology in the Anthropology Department. And now that we were well into the age of Google, his appearance on NPR prompted me not only to look him up (and order his CDs), but to look up my other favorite college professor as well. His name was Dennis Hengeveld, and he was an English professor.

At first there appeared to be no relevant results whatsoever. Strange. As I scrolled down, however, there were several entries for Mitzi Myers, an authority on the history of children’s literature. Included in the results was her obituary. She had died in 2001 as a result of injuries received during a house fire the year before, her injuries apparently the result of her trying to save her extensive and valuable children’s book collection. At the end of the obituary, I read that Dr. Myers’ husband, Dennis Hengeveld, had died in 1983.

My best guess is he would have been around forty years old then. There was no indication as to the cause of his death.

Until my first class with Mr. Hengeveld, my academic encounters in the subject of English literature had been spotty and unsatisfying. Junior High English was fine, but it was mostly about grammar. High school brought the introduction of Great Literature. Julius Caesar. Moby Dick. Boring. Difficult. I didn’t get it. I was able to slide through with B’s and C’s, but it was a grind. I became quite familiar with Cliff Notes. I continued for fun, though. These extracurricular titles included The Hobbit plus The Lord of the Rings trilogy,  Jane Eyre, and Gone With the Wind. I read all the time, but declared myself “stupid” about English lit.

I remained stupid through my freshman year of college. In spring semester, I was unfortunate enough to have an instructor who spent a chunk of class time warning us students “…not to believe the things they are saying about me in the English department.” How a bunch of dumb freshmen were supposed to have special access to the inner political rumblings of the department was beyond any of us; meanwhile, I knocked my head against the wall, did my best, but could never do better than a B minus. He was the worst English teacher I’d ever had.

By sophomore year, I still had more core curriculum English to take. A roommate suggested Mr. Hengeveld.

It was a survey class of poetry, drama, and prose. Mr. Hengeveld himself was young, short, slender, and sported red hair and a goatee. He had a magnificent, rich voice, and was very friendly and funny. One of the first things he taught was that you don’t have to have a degree, or be particularly brilliant, or wield some heavy-duty literary theory in order to understand what was going on with a piece of fiction or poetry. You only have to read it. Yes, he spoke of structure, and themes, and recurring metaphors, and helped us notice those. Mostly, though, he said, you can do this. We could do it, and it was fun. He made us a promise: he would not grade down for any analysis we offered, as long as our evidence came from the text itself, whether or not he agreed with us. He wanted the work to speak to us, not to impose his view of the work upon us.

Only a few weeks into the semester, I stopped being stupid about English. I began pulling A’s.

Some people keep all their old text books forever; I have kept only those shown above, all from Mr. Hengeveld’s classes. I take them out from time to time and thumb through them, looking for some of my favorites. I find them, and smile. “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love,” by W. H. Auden, “Sunday Morning,” by Wallace Stevens, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and more. Through the study of these works I learned to analyze writing, thereby to enjoy literature more thoroughly, and thereby to demand more of the reading experience. It was the beginning of the end of junky best-sellers for me.

When I learned of Mr. Hengeveld’s early death, I was very sad, and I was left bereft of even the simplest information I’ve grown accustomed to being able to find out about anyone. I really knew very little about him personally. I could put it in a short paragraph: He was probably around 30 when I was taking classes from him. He was madly in love with his wife, whom he talked about frequently. She liked Elton John, and they went to his concerts. He was convinced, after the release of Plastic Ono Band, that John Lennon was the genius of the the Beatles, and based this opinion on the lyrics of two songs in particular, “God,” and “Working Class Hero.” He also loved Bob Dylan. His specialty was Elizabethan drama, but he adored Beat poetry as well. Most of all, he loved his subject matter, and found joy in everything he taught.

Had I not encountered Dennis Hengeveld, I might not have started writing. I might still be reading badly-written best-sellers. This is a teacher who changed the course of my life.

So, thank you Mr. Hengeveld. And God bless you.

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  1. #1 by kittyshcherbatsky on February 9, 2012 - 9:55 am

    A good teacher is more than priceless. And far too often they go unoticed and unappreciated. It’s great to hear someone paying tribute to a great teacher.

  2. #2 by Consuelo on September 29, 2012 - 1:43 pm

    I, too, was a student in a class taught by Dennis Hengeveld, and I remember him fondly. He was funny and insightful. http://www.dailytitan.com/archives/1983/1983-05-06.pdf. Sadly, his summer’s lease really did have all too short a date.

    • #3 by speculativemartha on September 29, 2012 - 7:40 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment! He was funny, wasn’t he?

    • #4 by speculativemartha on October 12, 2012 - 8:51 am

      I feel kind of stupid. I only just now noticed your Daily Titan link. Thank you so much!

  3. #5 by Len Masterman on October 11, 2012 - 3:10 pm

    Grateful thanks for your generous comments about Dennis. I shared an apartment with Dennis in 1962-63 when we were fellow graduate students in the English Department at Rice University in Houston. I was over on a Fulbright from the UK, and Dennis was a great friend, colleague and companion with whom I spent many a late night discussing literature , philosophy, life, women, politics and sport. He introduced me to American literature, culture and society, and was someone who was intelligent, reliable, funny, and a really great friend. We both worked and partied hard in what was for me an unforgettable year.

    When I returned to England I lost contact with all of my Rice friends. It was only last year that I thought I would Google Dennis to see what had become of him. I failed to locate him and feared the worst on the basis that such a talent would surely have blossomed into a major academic and authorial figure were he still around. So I was both delighted to discover your blog and immeasurably saddened to hear of Dennis’s passing at the tragically young age of, I guess, no more than 43 or 44.

    Google has since informed me that he married Mitzi Myers, a glamorous doctoral student who became an authority on children’s literature. What a great surprise. Mitzi was seriously attractive and attractively serious, and I hope that she and Dennis were able to enjoy a great deal of happiness in their years together before Dennis’s tragically premature demise.

    I know nothing of the circumstances of Dennis’s death. He was quite a heavy smoker, which may have been a factor. And Google also informed me of Mitzi’s passing in tragic circumstances. But I am pleased that Dennis is remembered and was appreciated by his students. He had everything it takes to be an exceptional teacher. Thank you for confirming this, for taking the time and trouble to pay your tribute to Dennis and for providing me with the only information I have on an old and much valued friend.

    • #6 by speculativemartha on October 12, 2012 - 8:41 am

      I am so glad you took the time to comment. It sounds as though you went through the same process I did. I also feared the worst when Google brought no results on him, and even became a bit frantic trying to figure out what happened. My first search did bring up several Mitzi Myers references, however. He had talked about his wife a lot–enough that I knew she was at UCSB, that he commuted up there on weekends. He was obviously deeply in love with her. So I knew enough to make the connection immediately. I was shocked. He was so lively and funny in class. I recall that for all his general informality, no one used first names. He was Mr. Hengeveld; we were Miss or Mr. Whatever. He treated us like adults, and insisted we give credit to our own intelligence. What a gift. Thank you again for writing.

  4. #7 by Don Wright on September 25, 2013 - 9:50 pm

    It was in the fall of 1968 that I took my first class from Dennis. There were several of us recently discharged Army veterans who wound up in Professor Hengeveld’s class. He seemed genuinely interested in those who had been in the military. The Vietnam War was raging and he voiced his opinions in that genteel manager of his. Over the next few years I took about 5 classes from him and got to know him personally. Dennis had a profound effect on my life. He had this way of boring into the meaning of things, and how important it was to express personal feelings. The weekend commutes to Santa Barbara to see Mitzi took a toll on him. I remember she traveled south at least one weekend to share the traveling burden. In the late 70’s my wife and I moved to New Hampshire. One evening I called Dennis and Mitzi answered. She informed me Dennis had died of skin cancer at age 44. He was a heavy drinker and smoker. There were many times he and his students retired to the local bar to continue the lecture. And I have to smile about the time we had more than a few drinks in his apartment when he brought out a cape he claimed was from West Point and swirled it around. There was an earlier mention of the poem “Sunday Morning.” I can still hear him reading “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair…”. He also talked about flying to Houston when he was close to receiving his Ph.D. Someone in the English department at Rice made a mistake in the schedule. He had to return home and fly back later at his own expense. He wasn’t perturbed at all. Finally he was “Doctor” Hengeveld, but he was the same old Dennis. He was encouraging as I made my way through the English Literature Masters Program. It is warming to hear that Dennis Hengeveld had a positive, if not galvanizing effect on others. I’ll never forget him.

    • #8 by speculativemartha on September 25, 2013 - 10:32 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. If you were there in ’68, we may very well have been in some of the same classes. I too remember “…late coffee and oranges…”

  5. #9 by Michael Gallap on July 10, 2014 - 10:59 pm

    I took two of “Mr” Hengeveld’s classes at CSF, Eng 101 in the fall of 67, and 201 spring of 68. I remember his wicked smile, which along with that red goatee, gave him a decidedly Mephistopholean air. I went to chat with him a year or so later, and never saw him again. I still write, as a hobby, and whenever I do I always wish I could hand my work over to him, to see his wry comments written in the margins. I am so sad to hear of his early passing, and also recall how he doted on his lovely wife. He told us in class once that ” She was homecoming queen of Rice University” with great pride in his voice. My understanding from his comments, between puffs on that ever present cigarette, was that made the trek up to UCSB in his VW to see her every weekend! I agree that he was without doubt the most fun, most dedicated and just plain most fun instructor I have ever had, and I have two science degrees from Berkeley, one a doctorate, and a law degree on the side!

    • #10 by speculativemartha on July 11, 2014 - 8:55 am

      I am amazed, over time, how people continue to find this post I did in 2012. He’s one of those instructors you remember, no matter how many brain cells get lost over the decades. I don’t recall the homecoming queen comment, but I do recall that he not only was crazy about her, but he revered her intelligence. I can’t remember exactly which terms I took which classes, but I might have been in the 201 in the spring of 68. Not sure. A lot of the late sixties and early seventies is pretty opaque at this point, but Dennis Hengeveld’s approach to literature has stayed with me all my life. The key was his love of literature, from Shakespeare and Marlowe all the way to Dylan and Lennon. Thanks for commenting.

  6. #11 by Michael Gallap on July 14, 2014 - 9:59 am

    Thanks for the nice reply. I just noticed that I have a typo in my comment.. I meant to say, “..the most personable, most dedicated, and just plain most fun instructor I have ever had..” I guess the fun part really stuck in my head…God, I can still clearly picture that smirk he used to get, and the twinkle in his eye, when he was about to tell an anecdote…

  7. #12 by Joe Pangrazio on July 20, 2015 - 10:09 pm

    Dear Martha,
    Thank you for writing about Dr. Hengeveld. His Shakespeare class in 1981 was one of the top experiences of my education at CSUF. Those of us who encountered him are very fortunate. Over the course of the semester I spent with him it was apparent he was ill. We worked through some of Shakespeare’s major plays,but his reading of King Lear is something that is branded on my soul for life. Today I heard someone say they just didn’t understand Shakespeare and I realized how extraordinarily lucky we were to to have had Dr. Hengeveld break it open for us and serve it in that classroom like a Christmas feast. I always admired his disdain for the 20th century and his preference for another, and take great comfort in believing that somewhere on another plane he’s sharing a pint with Bill Shakespeare and having a laugh.

  8. #13 by fr randall ackley on December 20, 2016 - 5:26 pm

    I looked for reasons for passings of Mitzi and Dennis. We were together at Rice from 1962-65. I think Dennis my best friend there. Oddly, he told me he went to grad school to avoid Vietnam. I was the old man of our group, a veteran of Korea and the military, had wife and twins. Yes, Dennis would write his papers with a six pack on hand, did not seem to affect them? His wife was our star scholar, and the prettiest one of all. I wondered why AI never got a response from him, would see Mitzi at MLA when we both gave papers, mine on American Indian writers, hers on feminism.
    My daughter found the blog and I clicked on comments.. I miss them both. I am 85 now, retired as lit prof and became a Catholic priest, retired again. prof retired father randall

    • #14 by speculativemartha on December 22, 2016 - 4:10 pm

      Thank so much for your comment, Father Randall! Of all the posts I did, this is the one that triggered the most response (for which I am extremely grateful). Dennis and Mitzi obviously had a lot of great friends. I have not done the blog for a couple years; maybe I’ll take it up again!

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