During the five years that I spent at Western Carolina University (1954-58 and 1965), I had the good fortune to attend classes under some extremely gifted but eccentric instructors. There were two Rhodes scholars that passed through the university like a summer cyclone, leaving a modest amount of wreckage in their wake.
One of them would sometimes appear on campus at midnight wearing a Scottish kilt. He sang Robert Burns songs and did a raucous little dance down the sidewalk between Hoey auditorium and Stillwell (some witnesses claimed that he did not wear underwear). Another, sporting a magnificent beard and speaking in a deep baritone, told us raunchy stories and taught us to write our names in Greek.
Since this was a “beardless era” at the university, he was told to shave. According to the campus gossip, he told the administration that he had a rare disease and that if he shaved, he would die. Some were skeptical, but they left him alone. There are numerous stories about this venerable scholar who managed to both offend and delight numerous teachers and administrators.
However, the most interesting personality in this motley crew was Dr. George Herring. Unlike his colorful associates, George survived ... or at least, he chose to stay. As a consequence, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of his former students scattered across the United States that remember him with affection and admiration. Certainly, there has never been another like him in my experience.
George’s attire and physical appearance was memorable. He sometimes sported a ragged tweed jacket, but weather permitting, he usually wore colorful (striped) T-shirts, wrinkled pants and sneakers (not tennis shoes) and no socks. He always seemed to be in need of a shave and his hair was always in such disarray I used to imagine that the last thing he did each morning before he came to his first class was to massage his head until his hair was a total mess.
In the classroom, he was filled with a kind of spastic energy, charging aimlessly about the room and talking excitedly. A student may have signed for a course in medieval literature, but George would be delivering a brilliant lecture on astrology or Chinese dictionaries. Somehow, his students never felt cheated because somewhere in all of that constant flood of arcane knowledge, he would learn a great deal about medieval literature.
What rendered his students rapt was George’s feverish excitement. He loved what he was doing, and as he raced back and forth between the students and the blackboard, he laughed, wrote significant quotes on the blackboard, stopping occasionally to rake his disheveled hair into even greater disorder. Sometimes, there would be sudden bursts of anger, directed at some disputable idea or person (Erskine Caldwell, predestination, etc.), but it would vanish as quickly as it had appeared, leaving us, his enthralled audience and George, an amiable elf. This fellow was wonderful!
Over the years, I had heard people talk about George’s “Everyman” lecture which was part of his course on Medieval Drama. The lecture had acquired a kind of “folklore” status at the university and each year, as the day approached for the Everyman Lecture, people who were not enrolled in the class began to call. I had the good fortune to hear this presentation twice and I can attest to the fact that there were attentive listeners standing in the room ... some from other universities.
Due to the fact that I was a theater major, I tended to perceive George as “theatrical.” When we were all in our seats, staring at the door in anticipation, George entered wearing his ragged tweed jacket and carrying a little attache case ... an item that I perceived as a “prop.” George began by telling us that he had attended Northwestern University and that each year, the university staged an outdoor version of the old play, “Everyman.”
As he recalled it, the stage was built at a point where two rivers converged and the banks of the rivers had a sound system, consisting of numerous loudspeakers. The play began as the sun was setting. In the opening scene, a character named Everyman” was in a tavern with a bar maid in his lap drinking and singing. Then, suddenly the summons came. “EVERYMAN!” and that word echoed down those two rivers: “Everyman! Everyman! Everyman ....” Then, Everyman stands, a bit frightened and says, “Who Calls?” The answer, loud and echoing is “Death calls, Everyman.”
At this point, Dr. George Herring goes into full performance mode. He tells us the story of how Everyman begs for time, pleading that he does not want to go to his final judgement alone. Could he have time to seek out companions to go with him? Death agrees, but notes that Everyman must return promptly within an hour. In a series of frantic visits, Everyman goes to his companions who have names like Money, Beauty, Power, Love, Family, Strength, etc.
Regretfully, they all decline, stating that on this last journey they cannot accompany their friend. “You must go alone,” they say. As Everyman prepares to leave, a small frail figure named Good Deeds appears and agrees to accompany Everyman. He apologizes for the fact that he is so weak, noting that Everyman has neglected him all of his life, but finally, the two figures climb a nearby hill where Death waits by an open grave with a ladder. As total darkness comes, gravediggers with lanterns surround the open grave as Everyman descends.
Now, here is the thing. We had all read the play, “Everyman” in the textbook. Although we may have found it a bit grim, I am quite sure that none of us found the experience “riveting.” Ah, but Dr. George Herring’s version left us limp and speechless. As George read the lines, as he pled with his friends to come with him, we were transfixed by his words. As Herring finished his lecture, he picked up his notes, dropped them in the little attache case, stepped to the door and opened it. He then flipped the light switch, leaving us in darkness and closed the door. For a single moment, we sat silent and motionless .... and then the bell rang for the end of the class.
I have often wondered about that final moment. Did Dr. Herring have his lecture timed to interface with the flip of a switch and the closing of a door?
I do remember that no one moved for a while.
George is gone. The halls that he once walked and the classrooms that he once made vibrant with ideas an images are now filled with a different breed of scholars. There are no memorials outside of a few personal tributes by former students over the years.
However, I do believe that golden moment when George Herring closed the door and flipped that light switch is the most fitting tribute a teacher can have. Ave, George.