Monday, February 15, 2016


I am not sure why Gary Jackson's face popped into my consciousness today as I was driving into Boston.  The last time I saw Gary was in 1983, and I heard-in 99 I believe--that he had passed.  I think of him now and again, but it has been a while.  So I tried to figure out why he surfaced today.

If I had to pick ten unrelated influential people in my life, Gary would be one of them.  I met him by pure coincidence.  I had just moved to Buffalo a few weeks before our encounter and we did not get off to a good start--not due to any behavior on either of our parts.

I'd come to the department where I would be studying because I wanted to meet the chair and introduce myself.  My 23 year old crazy head did not think that dressing in overalls with my wild curly hair would be inappropriate when first meeting with the chair of the department. It was the early seventies and the hair was not wholly out of whack, but even revolutionaries probably would have put on something that did not smack of a peace march.

Anyway I get to the lobby by the chair's office and ask for Dr. Smith (his actual name).  The person I asked was in fact Dr. Smith (dressed in a suit).  When he asked me who I was and I told him, he greeted me like I was a very important person.  And his secretary chimed in.  "Alan Zaremba--we've been looking all over for you. Come in. Come in."  And then he whisked me into his office.

Rapid fire he told me that there was an assistantship available and he wanted me to take the job. He had been trying to track me down as I was one of the incoming students who was not funded.  Maybe (but I doubt it) he knew this assistantship was a teaching job and I had had teaching experience. More likely, he was trying to find money for those who were not getting support and came across my name.

Whatever the reason, this was terrific news for me since I had no scholarship money coming. And this job was not only going to waive tuition but pay me more than the going rate for teaching assistants.  Dr. Smith got on the phone to call the fellow who had the job.   In no time you could tell the chair was not happy.  Apparently the person who had told him about the job had given it away while Smith was looking for me.  The chair was furious and really let the guy have it before slamming the phone down.

I was more startled by the episode than upset about the loss of the job.  I had not expected anything other than an introduction when I walked in with the overalls.   As it turned out Smith and I became friends and are still such.  But Gary Jackson the man on the other end never forgot Smith for his tirade.

A few days later I received a phone call at home from Gary Jackson. He was wary but told me that another spot had opened up on his staff and he wanted to know if I would come in for an interview.  I was delighted with this second chance and drove to campus in a hurry and in a tie. Gary told me that he had been reluctant to call because of the encounter with Smith, but he was able to put that aside.  I might have gotten the job anyway, but Gary was desperate. Someone had just quit and he needed a person to teach a class that was about to start.  I think I started the next day.

Gary was my boss, and as kind and decent a person you could ever want to meet.  He was extraordinarily dedicated to what we were about.  Our enterprise was improving the speaking skills of undergraduates by tripling or quadrupling their vocabulary.  Initially I thought this--teaching vocabulary-- would be boring work, but it was far from it.  He had a creative way of teaching which indeed did increase vocabulary and speaking skill concurrently.  I taught with him for three years and in the course of working with undergraduates increased my own vocabulary by virtue of having to learn the words I was asking others to learn.

At the end of my second year Gary's spouse died.  For several months you could tell that he was having a very hard time.  They had had season tickets to the professional theatre in Buffalo.  During the third year Gary would invite me and some of the other instructors occasionally to use the extra ticket.  On one, probably the first, occasion I offered to pay for the seat.  He made a face, "Zaremba, do you know how important it is to have this company.  I can't go to these alone."

It is that face that popped into my consciousness today as I was weaving around downtown Boston.  I know when I visited him in New Orleans there was a woman friend with him who was hitting on him very hard, so the void may have been filled somewhat before he passed. But at that moment it was very much there.

Gary gave me an opportunity to work my way through the doctoral program and, because of the nature of what we taught, helped me improve my own writing and speaking skills.  The world would be a better place if there were more people like Gary Jackson living here.

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