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.