Days and Work (Part Three)

one, part two.

by James Como (September 2019)

East River Nocturne, Joseph Peller, 2003


During the spring of 1968, in sight of the completion of my first master’s degree at Queens College, I began writing letters of application to colleges close by. I wrote thirty-eight, received over thirty negative answers (including one from the brand-new York College), and one invitation to visit, from Yeshiva University. I did visit, but the five thousand dollar salary and absurdly long commute were disincentives. Wedding plans were afoot. When I told my father I might enlist, he—this man to whom I was closer and of whom more admiring than any, ever—threatened to break both my legs. “I know you’re a patriot, son, but not this war [he had been a medic in WWII], not this president [LBJ].” I agreed to stay put but told him that, if called, I would serve. Then a call did come—from York College. Would I come in for an interview? Go figure.



Read more in New English Review:
Whisper Louder Please
Piped Music in Public Spaces: Pollution Unchecked


Ahead would be unsettled and unsettling times, but when I moved from SEEK to the Humanities Division I was appointed to committees, invited to team-teach, and spoke up (always calmly, rationally, even deferentially, though never obsequiously) at faculty meetings, and without my knowledge or intent became known as a Young Turk, albeit one you would want in your foxhole. When we moved from the parking lot to rented buildings in Jamaica in 1971, I was (though still very much a work-in-progress) known, even though many misconceptions about me (e.g. where I was born, how I was raised, that I was a champion debater, which I’ve never been) would prove inconvenient.


advisor (who had replaced the original advisor when the latter suffered a massive heart attack) announced that I was the most selfish candidate he had ever known. The defense committee chairman agreed. My knuckles were white, of course, but I held my tongue. There followed the easiest questions imaginable, owing largely to how embarrassed the committee had been by their own colleagues.


When I was summoned back into the room as “Dr. Como” I asked if I could say something. Across the table sat a woman with whom I shared high regard. Very discretely she mouthed “no.” I smiled and said, “for two such distinguished professors to say what they did, under such circumstances, in such a venue, indicates to me some deplorable behavior on my part. I cannot imagine what that was, but for whatever it was I earnestly apologize.” My friend virtually leapt across the table to shake my hand. Later I was able to place a collect call to my wife as “Dr. Como.” My four-year-old daughter would ask, “is daddy a doctor of knowledge now?”


book on C. S. Lewis had already been published (1979), so in that niche I was known as more than an essayist, lecturer and a founding member of the New York C. S. Lewis Society. That reputation would grow.


Now, with some articles on Peru on my resume, I was an academic with a second arrow in his quiver. Later, when I began to publish on rhetoric, there would be a third. In the event, as we were about to return to the States I thought I needed an arena larger than the one I had occupied before the sabbatical. I had no idea I would be invited to chair my department. As I hope I’ve made clear, accepting that invitation was a good decision, remaining at the college as long as I did maybe not so good, or so it would sometimes seem.


Moreover, the intellectual gears were meshing. Considerable nourishment came from the courses I was teaching: Ethics and the Freedom of Speech (a review of First Amendment rulings and the ethical limits that should accompany the freedom: unique in CUNY at the time), American Public Address, Rhetorical Theory and Criticism, Small Group Communication, Forms of Public Address, and every now and then a special seminar, all always in the company of Speech 101 (unusual for a veteran member of the faculty, let alone a chairman) that sated my appetite for the large performance.


The Tongue is Also a Fire, from the NER press.)


Owing to the recommendation of a friend whom I had hired, I became a featured lecturer at the Institute for Christian Studies at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Over the course of some seven years I would deliver several dozen lectures, half on C. S. Lewis and half on . . . well, just about any literary subject I chose. My time at FAP was most satisfying, and I met two important people. One of them (who would prove himself a megastar of the classroom and the lecture hall) I hired to teach at York, the other is a lifelong friend, a globally famous soprano who would sing at my daughter’s wedding—which wedding would not have happened if Allie’s poppa had not been boring. She would discretely leave the room one evening and go down to the homeless shelter. There she met its director, Peter Saghir, a fine and good man who would become her husband. You see? God wastes nothing, not even poppa’s off-night.


I have been hedonistically autodidactic: theology, cosmology, history and biography, physics, language, the history of ideas. Popular writing in these and other fields is an under-rated art. My son has educated me in some aspects of popular culture: music, movies I might not otherwise have seen, the best of the thriller writers: any ground of interest to him Jim will scour, and he forgets virtually nothing. Since my retirement I have written more than I ever had (including short stories, children’s tales, essays and poetry), and for a few years teaching one course per semester (usually Western Civilization, from Genesis to Einstein) was enjoyable: I did my homework happily, encountered an array of students (who learn, for example, that Antigone is in many ways like many another teenage brat), and I visited with those colleagues I’m fondest of.


Not long ago I heard the finest compliment of my professional life. When I retired from full-time teaching I was replaced by three people. When a colleague from Fine Arts retired, he was replaced by one. The Arts coordinator complained about this inequity to the president, who answered (according to the coordinator), “that was Como. No one is Como.” Nice to know. And not so by-the-way, this president, Marcia Keizs, is by far the finest we’ve ever had. She and W. Hubert Keen, a former provost and an authentic gentleman with a spine of steel (he had stood against the madwoman president), are the two finest administrators in the history of the college.


Two colleagues had served at York longer than I, both by a single year. Sam Hux is one of them, Bob Parmet (historian, Yankee fan, and friend) another. But as was the case with all my colleagues at the beginning of my career, so it is with Sam and Bob. Both are some dozen years older than I, which I mention for this reason: by the time they arrived at York they were seasoned, whereas I had to grow up in situ—learn not only the ropes but that there were ropes.


The Lord of the Flies, but often enough seemed so. As I’ve suggested, I might have been better off paying my dues then moving on to a fresh start elsewhere. Now and again I would apply for a deanship, but always half-heartedly—until I made the short list for department chair at Juilliard. Alas, I learned that I was a “beard,” a candidate whose only function is to make the search look legit: all along they had wanted their inside man.


People: most good, but now so many I cannot remember and never will. Then there is the intensity of hours of talks with students (I can still name nearly sixty), sustained after class over semesters, who now abide as “whatever became of ___?” (though some few have remained abiding friends). Events: theatrical performances (including as Polonius, a great man!), colloquia delivered, traditions (Faculty Forum, Provost’s Lecture Series, the Council of Chairs—radical) begun and sustained, visits arranged for distinguished lecturers (Samuel Leibowitz of Scottsboro fame) and historical figures (Pavel Litvinov, grandson of Maxim, he of the Hitler-Stalin pact).


Much lingers on the fringe of memory, pressing, almost out of reach. One event still chills. Late one night, alone in my office, a student confronted me, hands in pockets. He became suggestively menacing. I realized I’d have to apply the old “crazier than thou” move, so I threatened him, not without much imagery. He left. I sat, not without a tremble. Weeks later he threatened a colleague with a knife, only to be disarmed by our former Marine captain head of security, Rick Santiago. He wasn’t expelled—then. Only when he ran stark naked through the secretary pool displaying himself to each secretary was he booted.


Another event amuses. At a meeting of chair people with President Fish presiding, the police entered looking for Como. It seems a student has made a threat against him. Turned out that, though the student had threatened me, the police thought she had threatened the governor Mario Cuomo, and, since he was in the neighborhood with his security detail, the police thought to check, since the student was ours. The last words from the police that I remember were, “let’s get out of here. It’s only a professor.”


“Art is the signature of mankind,” wrote C. K. Chesterton, a line I used when I addressed the curriculum committee and saved Fine Arts as part of the Core Curriculum, thus saving courses and jobs. (What I said then, thirty-plus years ago, remains the mission statement of that discipline on the York website.) Years later, I told the artist who had lied to me about an observation that he would have to teach art history. He was terrified, as I knew he would be, he retired, I was not unhappy.


On the other hand, a second artist, a crony of the first, got a surprise. He was as self-centered as anyone I’ve ever known and made life very . . . difficult . . . for me. Near the end, when I was not chairing, my successor asked if I thought he should cut the maniac some scheduling slack: his wife was deep into dementia. I said yes, I thought he should. To his credit, the beneficiary of this favor did the unthinkable by thanking me for what he thought would be the impossible. What would that cynical atheist have done if he’d known the truth, that Jesus left me no choice?



A great disappointment was in falsely believing that, when I stepped down as chair and as director of the program, and finally retired, that I had left the shop in very competent hands. In fact they were mediocrities. I really should have known, and maybe on some level I did—but I wanted out. Disaster did not ensue: apres moi there was nothing like a deluge, but the store foundered—except for Speech 101, which remains substantially as I had built it.


Feelings? To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, they come and go, mostly they go. Withal, nothing comes close to the satisfaction of walking into the classroom or lecture hall, or sitting at the seminar table, on the first day of class. And nothing can compare with having catalyzed a student’s epiphany, especially after a long struggle. Early on Rendor (that provost) would allow that I was “a megastar of the classroom.” Well, I certainly would not say such a thing about myself, but, sisters and brothers, there’s nothing like confidence, and I had my share, and maybe some of yours, too.


I value freedom much more than I do equality. I continue to disapprove of pronouns in the subjective case used in the objective. (If in my course you wrote or said aloud “between she and I” twice you not only failed but I would have your landlord evict you.) Now what continues to engage me most is how something works. Of course, that engagement has applied, almost compulsively, to words and their deployment, and downright compulsively to conversation, without which I would wither.


After retirement, and after awards from a few college groups, I was invited to give the homecoming address following a commencement. This I accepted with alacrity: many old colleagues who had routinely misjudged me variously would be present. I worked hard on the speech: only eight minutes. Both my wife and my favorite president were present, sitting side-by-side. I hit it out of the park. Those colleagues embraced me, thanked me, congratulated me, and I was touched, but not as gratified as I was when I learned that the president had turned to Alexandra and said, “what a special man.”


Read more in New English Review:
Surviving the Journalism Bug
The Ayatollah of Climate Change: Greta Thunberg
The Scourge of Buzzwords


Then arrives an email from the last secretary I worked with (not as chairman). This sweet, quiet woman tells me that an older student arrived asking about speech. “Speech 101”? she asked. “Oh no,” he responded. “I had that, and with The King.” “The King?” “Yes, The King. Dr. James Como, and everybody who took his class knows it. Without him I wouldn’t be a preacher.” It really cannot get any better than that.


Recently I showed Howard this memoir, after he had read the first two parts. He commented on this and that, some items he recalled and he wondered about those he didn’t. Some of his thoughts were more personal. This is my favorite of those, dispositive, I think:


I have been reflecting on the moral fervor that we share, which is not simply the virtues of honesty and fairness nor simply the ability to understand, I. e., not virtue plus intellect, but the very goodness of thought itself, as invention, assertion, inference, and principle, the concerns of the arts of freedom.


To which I can add only this: That is what, for some fifty years, we have practiced and professed—a benediction, for which I am deeply grateful to Him who bestows all blessings.


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James Como is the author, most recently, of The Tongue is Also a Fire: Essays on Conversation, Rhetoric and the Transmission of Culture . . . and on C. S. Lewis (New English Review Press, 2015). His new book, from the Oxford University Press, is C.S. Lewis: A Very Short Introduction.

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