a remembrance oF Professor Chatfield
In May of 1993, with my graduation approaching, Professor Chatfield received tenure from Trinity. That time in his teaching career was filled with emotion: First, the trepidation while awaiting the decision about tenure; then elation from the news that he had succeeded at last, many years after he first began to teach at the college, in 1977. Fate handed me a gift by aligning my senior year with that critical juncture in my professor friend’s career. Emotions were at a peak for each of us that spring, and a personal sense of possibility fueled a mutual sense of promise about our growing friendship.
Just a year earlier, Trinity had honored Jack Chatfield with the 1992 Arthur H. Hughes Award for Teaching Achievement, a prize given for outstanding teaching by a junior faculty member. Teaching was his great gift. Scholarship, by a preponderance of evidence that I witnessed through the years, was his lifelong struggle. His own keen awareness of the “albatross” of scholarship was at times a source of pain for him. As he awaited the decision about tenure, his list of published academic papers was a reason for concern. Those of us who had sat in his classroom found the notion of the college denying him tenure laughable at best and detestable at worst.
The night that we celebrated Professor Chatfield’s tenure was one of the best times that I had at Trinity. His sense of relief and exhilaration was matched by my joy for his happiness and for future students who would benefit from his knowledge, insights, Chatfieldisms, generosity of spirit, and friendship. There was enough happiness to go around—for the two of us and our friends as we slung back drinks at the bar down the hill from campus, for Professor Chatfield’s colleagues who had supported his case, for the college and its good judgment in securing this exceptional teacher, and for students who would have the good fortune of taking his classes. That night, I was the happy drunken fool on full public display. I stood up on a table in the middle of the bar, shouted out the news of Professor Chatfield’s tenure, and reached for his hand to pull him up onto the table with me. Up he climbed, who knows how many drinks flowing through his historian’s blood. We danced with wild abandon to a song I cannot recall until the bartender told us to get the hell off the table.
Almost a decade later, the time to celebrate came again. In 2002, a couple years into his trouble with the “vexatious malady” – his term for the early neurological problems that would later be diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease – Professor Chatfield received the esteemed Thomas Church Brownell Prize for Teaching Excellence at Trinity’s commencement. The prize “recognizes consistently outstanding teaching by a senior faculty member.” Professor Fulco had contacted me and other alumni about writing letters in support of Professor Chatfield’s nomination for the prize. In my letter to the Dean of the Faculty, I wrote: “When I had a problem with my thesis advisor, it was Professor Chatfield whom I turned to for advice. When I was unsure about a piece I had written for The Tripod, it was Professor Chatfield whose input I sought.” I ended my letter with a sentiment that remains true today: “I know that I am one of dozens, if not hundreds, of Trinity graduates who thinks of this man during the pivotal moments of my life and wonders, ‘What would Professor Chatfield think? What would he do?’ I can think of no greater influence that a kind, intelligent, thoughtful, and generous person can have on his students. I can think of no better definition of Teacher.”
Professor Chatfield’s thoughts about the Brownell Prize were among the most treasured insights that he ever expressed to me about his life as a teacher. In an email on May 11, 2002, he wrote:
“As I am perhaps too fond of saying, ‘a novelist would be required’ to explain the complicated emotions now poking around in my mortal frame. There have been times at recent graduation ceremonies when my heart began to race when the Dean of Faculty approached the podium to announce the recipient of the Brownell prize. The heart’s beat would then be abruptly arrested when the Dean—rehearsing the accomplishments of the still unnamed honoree—uttered a phrase such as ‘the students in his zoology laboratories remember fondly ...’ etc. At this moment, the predictable thoughts would rush in: ‘I am unworthy,’ ‘How could I have entertained such a hope?’ etc. There was one year when the Dean read excerpts from letters written by former students, and I could only say to myself, ‘What I would give for a moment like this!’ Now it seems to be approaching. Egad. My knees may be too weak for walking.”
His humorous confession and insight into his “complicated emotions” then led to an unprecedented expression of what teaching and his students meant to him:
“You can have no idea of how often my mind goes back to you and [other students], so that I see those old Seabury classrooms, see the faces, and hear the voices that always sounded like well-tuned instruments. Forces have conspired to put us all back in touch. Can there be a more fitting moment to say to you that you, with select others, exercised a power – there is no other word – over my teaching life which was akin to a generative force. In other words, you brought into my life – and to others – the things that completed the equation. There may be no exact metaphor: but you and a handful of others going back to the early 1980’s and extending up to the present day acted like a dancer’s partners. The dancers must be together to refine – to define – the art. Each dancer generates, creates, each affecting the others. In the plainest language, your little band became not simply the ‘responsive’ students, not simply the ‘inspirational’ students, but rather the creators of what I sought to become. In the past, after our best moments together, I felt the kind of ecstasy (albeit a quiet variety) that one may feel after choral singing. ‘Joy’ is a pale term to express it. How am I ever to explain what I owe you?”
* * *
The Fates smiled upon me and gave me one last visit with Professor Chatfield.
On Saturday, May 24, 2014, during Memorial Day Weekend, I drove alone along winding, riverside Route 25 to Bradford. A year had passed since our last, distressing visit. I was dreading the sight of my sick friend and the sound of his impaired voice for every selfish reason imaginable. My friend as I had known him was gone already. My thoughts were heavy as I approached the little white house on the edge of town with the sheep in the neighboring pasture. The tightness inside me that had settled in during the drive now pulled tighter. I took the bouquet of flowers and the file folder from the front passenger seat and walked toward the back screen door. His wife greeted me in the kitchen and seemed pleased by the flowers. I had an idea of what her daily life was like at this point. Flowers were the least of what she needed, but they made her smile, and we hugged more tightly that day.
I entered the living room and found Professor Chatfield in his chair at the front window. On the side table were some papers and books. His reading glasses hung crooked off his face. As he stood to greet me, the large lump on his back crossed my field of vision, and his slight frame looked thinner still. His face was as radiant as ever. The elfish sparkle and the life-loving smile looked unchanged. He looked, impossibly, better. He sounded, impossibly, perfect. His voice was strong and steady, and every single word was clear. I commented on his improved speech, as I could not hide my surprise. He and Barbara explained that the chemotherapy more than a year ago had taken a wicked toll on him. The systemic side effects had been horrific but subsided with time. I rejoiced. Again and again, I commented on how improved his speech was. We could talk! Like old times! Professor Chatfield could speak to me as he had since the day when we first met.
And so, we talked. And we talked. And we talked.
For more than two hours, without a break and with the flow of ideas that had formed the basis of our friendship, we sat a few feet apart in the living room of his Vermont house as we enjoyed a riveting and spirited conversation about every topic most urgent to us. One aspect of our conversation was different, though: I did not wonder in silence, and I did not leave any question unspoken.
I asked what he thought—what he really thought—of the PC-worshipping professors on campus whose ideas I had heard him scorn many times. He clarified by way of a story that illustrated the degree to which their devotion to political correctness made them pawns of a mindless idea about speech, the exchange of ideas, and the enforcement of the sexual harassment and racial harassment policies on campus. I did not let him stop there. I insisted that he spell it all out, that he explain to me once and for all how he defined his own political and social views. He launched a fine lecture on liberal individualism, and I hung on every word, as I always did.
Then I asked about an incident years ago, right after I graduated, when a student was accused of racism and nearly tossed out of the college. Professor Chatfield embraced my question with fervor and retold the tale of the white Trinity student who had a conflict on the edge of campus one night outside a fraternity house with a young local man who appeared to be Latino. When the student had exhausted his ability to try to reason with the man and avoid physical violence, he gave in to frustration and probably fear and remarked something to the effect of, “Why don’t you go home and have a burrito?”
Professor Chatfield had no tolerance for racism. His time in the South has shown him in no uncertain terms what real racism looked like and sounded like. A bullet in his arm from the gun of local sheriffs told him how whites saw blacks, still, in the second half of the twentieth century in America. He stayed on despite the bullet to do his part to get blacks registered to vote. If he had no tolerance for racism, then he had even less patience for false accusations of racism. A nineteen-year-old white college student who used racially-charged language during an altercation with a Latino man was, in Jack Chatfield’s view, careless. He had make a mistake due to ignorance. In the heat of the moment, the student had proven himself misguided and perhaps even hateful. He was not, however, in Professor Chatfield’s opinion, a racist. The racial-harassment review board at Trinity saw it differently. My friend’s ire erupted as he recalled the incident from twenty years earlier and his ignorant, misguided colleagues who punished an ignorant, misguided student rather than counsel him and teach him.
Toward the end of our conversation, I handed Professor Chatfield the file folder that contained the opening scenes of my new book. I had gone back to high school to study literary theory, and the book was my story of attending class at Montpelier High for a year, learning different approaches to literary criticism, and refining in words my convictions about the value of reading literature and the Western canon in our modern world. He flipped through the pages as I talked. He smiled with his familiar sparkle of curiosity as he promised to read it. I had no doubt. He had, after all, always read everything that I wrote. Even as the cancer ate at his liver and the Parkinson’s ate at his brain, I handed him pages of my writing. He would not have wanted it any other way.
Professor Chatfield stood from his armchair when it was time for me to leave. This time I knew. I could feel it. I would not see him again. We pretended that there would be a visit in Hartford in the fall. We pretended that there might be another visit in Vermont that summer. He seemed so well that I almost believed it, but then I put my arms around him and did not let go, because the medical facts and the ticking of the cancer clock did not add up to another visit.
* * *
Jack Chatfield’s teaching is a legacy that his death cannot end. As I read the comments posted to his online obituary in The Hartford Courant, I found more evidence of the many lives that he touched. I am representative of many former students whose lives were enhanced and blessed by a friendship with our dear teacher. I cannot fathom the depth of loss for those who befriended him during their time together at Trinity and enjoyed a friendship that spanned more than fifty years.
Ron Spencer, Professor Chatfield’s close friend since their freshman year, was the dean of students when I was at Trinity and my advisor for a fellowship that I applied for. When we reconnected in the days after Professor Chatfield’s death, Dean Spencer wrote: “Jack and I have been friends (and intellectual comrades) since our freshman year at Trinity (1960-61). Over the years I’ve been fortunate to know a number of exceptionally smart, thoughtful, and well-informed people, some of them academics, some not. But none of them has had the impact on me that Jack did. Right down to the last three or four weeks of his life, when the Parkinson’s finally left him completely unable to speak and the cancer went into overdrive, we conversed frequently, by phone and in person, and I always came away with something new and significant to think about as a result. I will miss him and those conversations more than I can say.”
Professor Renny Fulco and I also emailed after Professor Chatfield’s death. We used the same words again and again: intellect, humor, kindness, generosity, gentleness. We knew the same great man, and we loved him with a devotion and a joy that few friendships inspire. We will miss him and our conversations with him more than we can say. In her words, “Jack’s decline over the past several months was acute and quite difficult to watch. But he was courageous in the face of the diseases that ravaged his body and never lost his sense of humor or curiosity. He was a great teacher and an extraordinary person whose moral vision touched and inspired all of us.”
To me, Professor Chatfield was a teacher in the broadest sense. During the semester when I sat in his classroom, I was not a formal student but an informal visitor. I was there to learn not only U.S. history but how to use — really use — the English language and how to think critically, analytically, and creatively. He taught me American history; he taught me how to speak, listen, and think; and throughout our friendship, he taught me about literature, fiction, and how to write better. Through the years and through all our conversations and letters, this great teacher was above all a great friend. As a friend, he taught me the most important lesson of all: how to love. The answer was evident in how he lived and how he treated so many of us. The answer to how to love is with generosity, gentleness, humor, and joy, and by writing letters and engaging in conversations where two minds truly meet. As I re-read his letters, I learned the final lesson that he has taught me: He loved our friendship – our “unusual friendship” – just as he loved me.
How often does any one of us get a true friend? How often is any one of us truly loved?
In the words of this great teacher, this beautiful man, my beloved friend, from the first letter that he ever wrote me, in June of 1993, weeks after my graduation from Trinity:
“Aren’t friendships fine! And how grand—and how rich—to recognize emotions rather than place them under arrest."