Almost twenty-five years ago in August 1989, I sat in a cramped basement office on the campus of Emory & Henry College meeting with my assigned faculty advisor to select courses for my first semester. Honestly, I expected the meeting to be a mere formality because I had already met with the beloved registrar Al Mitchell earlier in the summer to choose classes. Since I would be playing football and basketball and because I needed to maintain a high grade point average to keep my academic scholarship, Mr. Mitchell and I had put together an academic schedule that would help me ease into my college experience.
But in that small office on the day before registration, the man who claimed some of his students called him Dr. Death had other ideas. As he held my high school transcript in one hand and the course schedule I had arranged with Mr. Mitchell in the other, he asked, “Jonas, are you afraid of college?” He went on to tell me that I owed it to myself and to the academic community around me to embark upon a more challenging first semester, and therefore, he unceremoniously ripped up my proposed schedule, and we started over. I can’t say that my first impression of him was overwhelmingly positive.
As it turned out, however, he did me a great service. The course schedule that he helped me to assemble included “The History of Ancient & Medieval Philosophy” with Dr. Ed Damer. Left to my own preferences, I probably would not have chosen that one, but by the end of the semester, I discovered that I was a lover of wisdom–literally a philosopher–and because of my experience in that class, I went on to major in philosophy.
My first semester also included Psychology 101 with Dr. Steve Hopp, who changed my life by changing my view of learning and education. I’ve always been blessed with a pretty good memory, and I had discovered that memorization can be very helpful in test preparation. In psychology lab one afternoon, I was committing course material to memory when Dr. Hopp said these transformative words, “Don’t just memorize; conceptualize.” I’ve been trying ever since to conceptualize, to learn in context, to see the bigger pictures, the nuances, and the intricacies. Anyone can memorize. Not everyone can really learn. I might have missed that lesson if I had kept my “ease into college” schedule.
One of the beauties of a small college is that it is less institution than community. So, after we completely remodeled my schedule as advisor and advisee, I began to get to know Dr. Terry Griffin in our new relationship as professor and student. He was my instructor for the first semester of freshman Western Tradition, and I very quickly realized that he was unlike any teacher I had encountered. He often smoked cigarettes (even in class!), always with the plastic filter attachment. His sense of humor was dry, and I had the distinct impression that he enjoyed coming across as having a sense of impropriety bordering on irreverence.
Our faculty emphasized the importance of gender inclusivity and required us to write “he or she” or “s/he” or “his or her” in cases in which gender was unspecified. One day in class Dr. Griffin suggested that we had not taken gender inclusivity far enough because in our effort to include both masculine and feminine, we had completely ignored neuter. So, he told us that it would be perfectly appropriate in his class to use a combination pronoun made up of the “s” from the feminine she, the “h” from the masculine he, and the neuter pronoun “it.” Of course, the spelling of his newly fabricated, completely inclusive pronoun was “shit.” I can still hear Dr. Griffin saying, “What?! We don’t want neutered people to feel left out!” My appreciation and admiration for him grew throughout that first semester because he was so uninhibited. In so many ways, he was what I could not be.
Mainly because I had enjoyed his Western Tradition class so much, I decided to fulfill my foreign language requirement in his German classes. He did not disappoint. His wry sense of humor, his exaggerated pronunciation and enunciation of those guttural German sounds, and so many other uniquely Griffinesque touches made his classes equally educational and entertaining.
One day in class he furrowed his brow as he looked at me and said, “Jonas,” (because he never called me anything but Jonas), “did I teach another Jonas here a few years ago?” When I told him that my dad had taken German with him a generation earlier, he frowned and nodded. In our next class session, he very brusquely said, “Jonas, there’s only one explanation–you’re adopted.” I made As in Dr. Griffin’s class. Apparently, my dad didn’t.
The unwritten rules of social convention never seemed to faze him. If he thought it, he felt perfectly free to say it. As we studied German grammar in comparison and contrast to English grammar, he expressed his frustration that so many rules of grammar seem so arbitrary. He asked, “Who decided that sentences can’t end with prepositions?” Apparently, this was a long held and deeply held frustration because he told us about the argument he had with one of his elementary school teachers who had penalized him for ending sentences with prepositions. In protest, he claimed to have set the world record by ending a sentence in his next composition with five consecutive prepositions. In his story, a little boy asked his mother at bedtime, “Why did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?” There they are. Five prepositions.
As we discussed the German language within the context of German culture, he said, “Some Germans can be so arrogant.” He went on to tell us about an experience he had one summer at a foreign language conference when he shared a meal with several professors, including one from a German university–perhaps Heidelberg? Apparently, this native of Germany made some disparaging remarks about the United States, suggesting that our society was less refined and sophisticated than German culture. By his own account, Dr. Griffin stood, looked straight at the professor from Germany, and said, “We kicked your asses in back in 1918, we did it again in ’45, and by God we can still do it today!”
Vintage Griffin–simultaneously educating and entertaining, so opinionated yet so apparently unconcerned with others’ opinions of him. Whenever I talk about my Emory & Henry years, I almost always sprinkle in a Griffin story or two. In fact, during the Holston Annual Conference back in June, I spent a couple of hours with a few other E&H alumni as we tried to outdo each other’s Griffin stories. We laughed until we cried . . .
Yesterday, I just cried.
Murder is always tragic. Domestic violence and abuse are always tragic, wherever they occur. Yesterday’s news seemed particularly tragic to me because it was so close to home. It was heartbreaking enough that the tragedy unfolded in nearby Glade Spring. It took my breath away to read that shooting and murder broke out in the home of Dr. Terry Griffin early yesterday morning.
It seems that Dr. Griffin’s son-in-law broke into the home and shot Dr. Griffin, his wife, his daughter, and grandson. Apparently, the shooter then took his own life. So, I understand that Dr. Griffin is recovering from his physical wounds in a hospital room. I don’t know how he will recover from the emotional and spiritual wounds of having his home invaded and of losing his wife, daughter, and grandson.
A couple of decades ago on the Emory & Henry campus, I saw Dr. Griffin as a mischievous iconoclast. With his gruff exterior and his intellectual bravado, I certainly respected him, and I very well may have envied him, but back then I couldn’t imagine a circumstance in which I would feel pity for him.
Today, I just want to hug him. God bless you Dr. Griffin. Gott segne dich.