November 4, 2012
When I first received the opportunity to speak about Dr. Reist, I recognized immediately that it was something I needed to do, despite the unease I feel when it comes to public speaking. And as Nov. 2 was set in stone, and the date in which I and others would gather to honor the professor inched closer, I set to work trying to craft some coherent remarks to illustrate just why the man touched my life, and the lives of so many others.
Of course, we were all too late. Reist succumbed to illness the day before three of us on this blog arrived on Hillsdale's campus. The tribute to him was postponed to another date, one I'm afraid I won't be able to attend. And while these words will be heard, read by someone else, it seemed appropriate to leave this here, too. I've left it in its roughest form. It was written as a speech, and you'll see that here:
First of all, I want to thank Dr. Somerville for pulling much of this together. I don’t get back to Hillsdale very often, but I couldn’t think of a better reason to return than to say a few words about Dr. Reist, who, in my opinion, has played an integral role on this campus for many, many years. I took Dr. Reist every year I attended classes here, so I learned very early on about this neat, kind, and totally strange man -- someone that I’ve consider to be an invaluable part of my education.
Now, I’m a reporter, which is basically to say that I’m naturally predisposed to be a bad public speaker, unlike Dr. Reist, who really knew how to work a room. I spend most of my days talking one on one with all sorts of people, then retreat to a desk in a messy newsroom, where, from behind a computer screen, I write stories about other people’s lives. It’s a day-in-day-out solo effort (for the most part) and I rarely speak to crowds, and honestly, that’s probably for the best. But in thinking about what I’d say here, and how I’d say it, I did consider trying my hand at Reist’s own style. But I think everyone knows it just can’t be replicated -- so very much unlike Dr. Reist, I’m going start at the beginning.
Full disclosure: I’m a Dr. Reist fanboy. Have been for years. My best friends and I started a group blog named in his honor (The Sad Bear, an expression of his) a year or so before we graduated, and have used it to stay in touch over the years. It’s there where we’ve archived some of Reist’s most quotable gems: the weird, the alarming, and the downright gut-busting things he’d say off the cuff in classes.
Originally, he was my academic adviser, and thus, the first professor I actually met when I arrived here from Louisville, Kentucky. I’m not sure how they do it anymore, but when I first got here, you had dinner with your academic adviser and small group of your freshman peers a day or so before classes. The idea was that you’d break bread, talk a little about yourself, and get your first introduction to what you could expect from the Liberal Arts. Capital “L,” capital “A”.
And, like most college freshmen, I didn’t really know what to expect, but still had this general romantic idea of what higher education would be like. I mean, I’d seen the library, sat in on a class or two during my visit, yadda yadda yadda.
Let’s just say this: It is impossible to meet a man like Dr. Reist for the first time and not be totally disarmed, sort of amused, and utterly befuddled. Within minutes of sitting down at his kitchen table for pizza, I’m pretty sure he’d dropped a curse word, possibly told us that, “There is a God and she is black,” and brought up the Roche scandal. I remember the prudes all shifted in their seats, something for which I’m sure he took much delight. And then he interviewed us, with rapid-pace abandon, leaving us completely stunned with his turn-of-phrase commentary and songs. When we left, the sun had already set. It was dark outside, and I couldn’t make eye contact with any of my peers as we walked back to our cars. The silence reeked of just how bewildered we all were. I think we all had the same question: Who was this jokester and what the hell just happened?
And more importantly for me, what was going to happen at 8 o’clock on my first day of classes. I was, after all, slated to take Reist’s hour-long, freshman English course first thing in the morning...multiple days a week.
It’s fair to say that, as freshmen, we weren’t prepared for what we got. Anyone who’s taken a class with Reist knows his teaching style is untraditional. To us, it seemed like an hour-long sort of schizzo, semi-Socratic runaway train of jokes and warped metaphors. A kind of comedy caravan that included deep questions about God scorning Job, Oedipus and his mother, and mentions of some strange work called “Soul on Ice,” by Elder Cleavage. It was wild stuff -- but fitting, especially for students who would go on to count themselves as non-traditional students
Of course, it never took much to ignite discussion. I remember when we were studying Oedipus, and one of the athletes in the room raised his hand during our third day of discussion.
“So, like, why is his last name Rex?”
Reist howled, though not unkindly, and we were off on a meandering course that surely led to an answer for that intrepid student, but also Heisman trophy trivia, a stream of compliments about his wife (who I can attest is a wonderful woman), and jokes about the college. Dr. Reist delighted in proffering his opinion about college matters, and admitted (sometimes with a giddy air of pride in his voice) to being a “pain in the ass” for administrators.
“Listen, Larry,” he said once of Dr. Arnn, “Winston Churchill did not die for your sins.”
And he often critiqued the obvious. I remember the time he reminded us of the college’s unspoken rule that there be six eagle statues for each student on campus. Which really isn’t that hard to believe given the state of the Heritage Room in the library.
Of course, as my time at Hillsdale progressed, I dedicated most of my life to The Collegian, which always had the unquestioned support of Dr. Reist. He actually had a small stable of satirical names for the paper. I’d pass him while walking across campus, and he’d always stop to ask me a question about the latest edition of “The Hellsdale Collision” or “The Hillsdale Concussion.” I remember that whenever he did voice a criticism, he always balanced it by talking about why he felt a student press was essential to the college campus. I cherish the several closed-door talks I had with him, when I had questions about the especially sensitive article ideas that inevitably cross an editor’s desk at the paper. He’d sit with his arms crossed (exposing his infamous weather guards), and listen with pastoral interest before helping you work through the matter at hand.
There is something very real, and very earthy about Reist and his presence here. Like I said before, coming to Hillsdale is a commitment to the Liberal Arts, and it’s easy to get swept up in the high-minded principles espoused by the professors here (Reist included). It’s not like you abandoned those when you walked into Reist’s classes, but he brought you back to Earth. He was always a reminder for me that I live outside those texts, and the liberal arts bubble. He, and his jokes and his songs and his whistling, helped keep me from taking myself too seriously.
One of my most vivid memories of Reist actually took place when I was in a crazed sort of haze. It was in my junior year during an evening class on Kurt Vonnegut (one of my favorite courses here, and one that, frankly, I think should be taught more often). Reist had an ironclad attendance policy: you miss a class, you drop a grade. So, one night, even though I was a feverish incubus of the bubonic plague, I kept to the syllabus and decided to attend.
Anyways, it was a bad idea, and an hour-and-a-half later, I was staggering home in a snowstorm alongside my good friend Tony Gonzalez, who, encouraged me along with conversation. I’m pretty sure I was slightly delirious, and probably responded in unintelligible grunts. When we got to our apartment, which was behind Simpson, I immediately got in the shower and sat there for about a half-hour under lukewarm water. I could barely concentrate, and I remember just hearing Reist’s one-liners playing over and over in my head.
“Get a job, Larry. Go suck an egg. Go hug a nut.”
“Hey whoa man, yeah man, hey whoa!”
I’m pretty sure the synapses in my brain had reached a critical failure point, causing them to explode left and right, cementing Reist into my conscience, for good or for bad.
Maybe he wanted to entertain, possibly. But there was something to his story-style teaching that stuck. There was an implicit sense of trust that, on the other side of the course, you’d have picked up something, some invaluable lesson. Maybe it’d be rooted in the text, but it would always apply to life. To the bigger picture. And that stuck with me.
A couple of years ago, for The Sad Bear blog, my friends and I asked Dr. Reist if he’d record a video of himself offering us some life advice, the idea was that we'd save it on YouTube. It’s weird to think that one of my favorite possessions lives on the internet, but I’ve gone back to that video multiple times, and each time I swear I walk away with something new to think about. It’s also odd because, in a way, the video was our attempt to bottle and preserve Dr. Reist -- something that seems impossible based on experiences in the classroom.
There is one Reist line that I’ll never forget. It’s come in handy as I’ve graduated and moved into the “real world,” where you don’t have seasonal breaks, and where you experience the ups and downs that you just can’t learn in college. I forget which class it was where he said it, but sometimes when sitting at my desk on a down day, wondering what the hell I’m doing with myself -- it pops into my head:
“Life’s a bitch, but some days it has puppies.”
It’s true. And today, being able to come here and say these things, it’s one of those days. One of those puppy days. And I couldn’t be more honored to talk about this man, a self-professed, “neat, funny little guy” who touched many, many lives while he was here and shaped this campus for the better. Thank you.
Additional eulogies and links can be found at The Original Sad Bear: Dr. John S. Reist.