Those who have read my previous post about being a Catholic faculty member at Hamilton College, a secular institution despite its Christian foundations, may remember me writing that my practice of Catholicism briefly raised the possibility of my staying on at Hamilton even though it was understood at my hiring that I had no chance of tenure there. This possibility seemed to have been created by some Hamilton students who valued me, some for my teaching and some for the kinship they felt with me by reason of my Sunday appearances at Mass in the Hamilton College Chapel.
Hamilton has a tradition of listening respectfully to student opinions doubtless because of its longstanding mission of encouraging students to think and act on their developing convictions. When a group of them heard I was slated to leave Hamilton fairly soon, they must have told Winton Tolles, the revered and longtime dean of the faculty, that they thought I should stay, a request he must have turned over to the English Department. So the department had one of its senior members, a friend of mine known for his sound judgment, invite me to a round of golf (I was then and remain now a terrible golfer) and as we walked and talked he asked me about the book I was planning to write on the Romantic poet and philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge–more specifically, how far it had advanced. I replied truthfully that, even though I had visited the library of Coleridge manuscripts at the University of Toronto and hoped the book would benefit somewhat from the material in my completed dissertation, my research was still in its initial stages. I added that achieving my purpose in the book, which was to pin down how Coleridge’s understanding of Christianity had changed throughout his career, was a formidable undertaking.
Dean Tolles was apparently unconvinced that my painstaking progress on the Coleridge book kept me from hopping on Hamilton’s tenure track because he phoned me to ask directly whether I wanted to stay on at Hamilton or not. I had by this time spent a miserable Christmas holiday at the Modern Language Association Convention in New York City, where I was unable to find even an interview. I did soon find one at Bryn Mawr College, which the obviously unenthusiastic interviewer seemed compelled to schedule, and another at the new and experimental Livingston College of Rutgers University where my multiple interviewers insisted that I sit on a pillow rather than a chair. When this interview was blessedly over, the department member who had invited me and who agreed with my somewhat rigorously academic point of view, was kind enough to tell me candidly: “you could never be happy here, Ron.” And neither, I suspected, was he.
Meantime my Department chair at Hamilton was careful to tell me that I was welcome to stay there for as long as it took me to find another job. But I was lucky enough to have been offered a position at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and was inclined to accept it for several reasons. I had met my wife Mary in Philadelphia during a one year teaching stint at Saint Joseph’s, where the English department for the most part remembered and valued me. Mary wanted to leave nursing for teaching and, if we stayed at Hamilton, that would have meant back and forth on the New York State Thruway in the middle of winter for education courses at Syracuse University. But most of all, since Mary was from Philadelphia where her parents still lived, if we moved to Philadelphia our two daughters would grow up close to their grandparents. Besides, I didn’t want to be known for years to come at Hamilton as a faculty member who had won favorable treatment because of his religion. So I accepted the job at Saint Joseph’s.
One of the students who had advocated for me at Hamilton made it a point to visit my home in Philadelphia early in the fall semester after I had left there just to make sure, as he said, that I was alright! Another, whose marriage to a Kirkland College student in Hamilton’s celebrated “Root Glen” Mary and I attended, and who has since become a highly regarded playwright, briefly took a light administrative job at Saint Joseph’s after his graduation, which he left almost immediately without ever looking me up. I remain unclear about why he did that.
It would be foolish to say that I have never regretted my decision to leave Hamilton. Hamilton is where I discovered why I wanted to teach college English: because it meant I could encourage still impressionable minds to think independently and share their thoughts with me and each other through their writing and speaking. To this day I believe in this ideal. Educating for a vocation is important, but a liberal education lasts longer.
A few important contacts I had with Hamilton after I left the school, which I shall mention in my next post, allowed me to own the choice of an alternate career path that I have described here.