December 23, 2013

Compass: James Quay ’68 Tells His Story

Compass: Experiences that Launched Lives is a growing collection of stories from alumni about pivotal experiences that shaped their life direction and set the course for who they have become or the success that they have achieved.

James Quay '68

James Quay ’68

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When I was at Lafayette, W. Edward Brown was a bachelor in his mid-’60s, thin, graying, with kind eyes and formidable erudition. Undergraduate rumor credited him with knowledge of 26 foreign languages and a hand in the cracking of the Japanese naval code in World War II. Every year, at the end of the two-semester course in world history, he was asked to give the summary lecture. No one thought it either futile or presumptuous.

My senior year I wrote an honors thesis under his supervision. One day during the turbulent spring of 1968, I came to his office for our weekly meeting and told him that I’d been unable to work on my thesis, that I was sick with anguish about the war in Vietnam and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Instead of a rebuke, Dr. Brown gave me a gift. He talked of the anguish he had felt when a graduate student in the 1920s, as he watched fascism rise in the European countries whose literature he studied and loved.

When a professor is willing to share what’s in his heart as well as what’s in his head, a very special kind of education occurs. I was fortunate to receive that kind of education in the classrooms (and living rooms) of several gifted literature professors—James Lusardi, Edward McDonald, and Sheldon Liebman among them.

I have been fortunate to spend my life working in and advocating for the humanities and I’ve read poetry in both my work and my leisure for decades now, but it was a memorable moment in one of Dr. Brown’s classes that first demonstrated the powerful connections poetry can make in a way that has never left me.

It is a warm fall day in 1966 and I am sitting in a comparative literature survey course taught by Dr. Brown. The course is a two-semester survey of European literature from Homer to Samuel Beckett and on this day, he is reading a poem by the Roman poet Catullus. In the poem, the poet speaks to his dead brother. Dr. Brown reads it first in Latin, then in English translation. It’s a short poem, fewer than a dozen lines, but midway through, his voice begins to moisten and catch. His voice wants to throw itself down on the ground and weep. Two thousand years later, a brother is dead, again, and again a brother grieves. His voice wants to give itself over to grief but we students are here, his brother is here, listening. And so he makes his unsteady way through the poem, until his voice collapses over the last word and falls back inside him.

I have never forgotten the silence that followed, as we students paid silent tribute to the power of human emotion, and the power of poetry to convey it.

James Quay ’68
English Graduate
Executive Director (now retired), California Council for the Humanities, San Francisco, Calif.
M.A., Ph.D., English Literature, University of California-Berkeley

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