Sunday, March 21, 2010

In Memoriam: Dr. Zoellner

I was a late bloomer when it came to academics.  I didn't go to college right out of high school, and when I did enter Colorado State University in the spring semester of 1976, I was enrolled in Dr. Robert Zoellner's Intro to Literature class.  It was the first of four semesters I would have with him during my college career.

During that first semester, we read what could be deemed pretty typical fare in college freshman literature classes:  a novel or two, a handful of short stories, some poetry, a play.  Grades were based on a mid-term and a final essay, written in class, in blue books.  I'll never forget Dr. Zoellner's comment scrawled across the last page of my exam:  "Mr. Puzick, You have a fine mind for literature. Your analysis of Rich's "Orion" is by far one of the best in the class (I am at the bottom of the stack), but your discussion of Hamlet, on the other hand, is weak and perfunctory.  You were clearly rushed for time."  I remember going to the dictionary, first, and looking up the word "perfunctory" -- a word not used by many of my high school friends or college dorm peers!  His words stick with me today because they set the tone and expectations for my own study of literature for the next 3.5 years (and beyond -- into my own classroom teaching):  commit to your interpretation, be passionate in your expression of that interpretation, and watch the clock.

At this year's Colorado Language Arts Society's Spring Conference, I learned from Dr. Bill McBride that Dr. Zoellner had died.  I didn't catch the date of his death, but Dr. McBride said that there were no funeral services, no obituary, no notice except for a few phone calls from the office secretary to a handful of his colleagues.  He said Dr. Zoellner's last few years were painful -- hunched over from physical conditions, a painfully slow gait, isolated from others.  I think Dr. Zoellner was a troubled soul -- and it saddens me because of the impact he had on my life.

Dr. Zoellner was either loved or hated by his students.  I doubt any students could have had either a "neutral" or "moderate"opinion of him.  He was old-school in his approach to literature but taught me the power in close reading and explication de texte.  All that mattered to Zoellner was what was on the page, between the covers, in the body of the work.  And he was, no doubt, a chauvinist.  In 1976 and beyond, many of the female students in my classes found him coarse, crude, offensive.  I do not question nor doubt their feelings and perceptions of him.  While he could certainly teach the likes of Rich, he was at his best with Melville (see Zoellner's "The Salt-sea Mastodon"), Hemingway and Robert Penn Warren.  And Faulkner.  The man could teach Faulkner

If my memory is correct, each course I took from Zoellner was at 8:00 a.m. MWF.  He was usually on time, walking in either right at 8:00 or maybe a minute or two late.  If he came in late, as soon as he crossed the threshold, he would offer an apology -- or mutter it might more accurately express his tone.  If he had not put out his cigarette before coming in the building, he disposed of it right when he came in the class.  At times, his eyes were a little bloodshot, weary, but intense.  He stood about 5'8", maybe a little taller, and had short cropped light brown hair.  He was old school. He was blue-collar in his approach to life and to work. He could have just walked out of the Gates Rubber Plant in Denver.  He'd plop his book down on the table, turn to wherever we last left off or wherever he might want to start that day, and begin working his way through the text.  Discussion was minimal -- usually non-existent.  Perhaps a question or two to the class and then back into the text.  Classroom relationships were not his forte.

The other three courses I had with Zoellner were Survey of American Literature (from 1917 - 1945 and then 1945 to the present) and English 505: Major Authors: Faulkner.  We studied something like nine novels that semester.  I was the only senior in the course; the rest were graduate students.  On the Friday before spring break, Dr. Zoellner asked the class what we should read over the break.  Nobody had a response.  "What would you like to devote your time to over the next nine days," he asked again.  Leaning back in my chair, I blurted out "The Hamlet."  Heads turned and eyes glared.  Coming in at about 450 pages, it wasn't a popular choice among my classmates.  "Great choice, Vincent.  The Hamlet it is."

I  had gone to Dr. Zoellner at the beginning of that last semester, the Major Authors' semester, and for some reason felt it necessary to tell him that I had taken his courses four semesters and not once had he called me by name. When he actually said my name in the last semester of my undergraduate career, I felt somehow acknowledged. I suppose I looked to him as a mentor, certainly in his handling and negotiating of challenging texts, and felt somehow I had arrived (even if I had to ask!). 

I had gone to him earlier, too, in the beginning of my senior year, and asked his advice as to whether I should enter the professional semester for secondary education.  He suggested that I graduate and then head out of Colorado.  Head to LA, he said, or Chicago, or New York -- somewhere there were home offices for large corporations.  See what it was like in the business world or the world outside of education.  "Schools will always be around.  See what else your liberal arts degree will bring you."

I took his advice.  Graduated from CSU in May of 1981, travelled west to the Silicon Valley, worked for five years in the private industry, and then recognized my own need to work in the world of education.  I contacted Dr. Zoellner to see if he would write a letter of recommendation for graduate school.  "Certainly, I will," he said, "sure thing, Vincent." 

When I entered CSU in January of 1976, I was a confused 18-year old.  I didn't know my place -- shifting course from factory work to college campuses more than once -- and didn't really have a destination in mind.  Dr. Zoellner helped shape the direction my life was to take.  To think of his last days and years as disconnected, pained, and isolated hurts my own soul.  Thank you, Dr. Zoellner, for the literature you taught but more importantly for the guidance you gave when you least suspected it. 


  1. Oh. I'm sad. My lengthy and sincere comment is gone. Did I offend? I hope not.

  2. Hello,
    No I never saw a comment! I wonder what happened?

    1. Hi Vince! Funny -- I had put your blog in my Google Reader, and was today doing some housekeeping on it. I came back to re-read this really nice tribute to Dr Zoellner because I remembered this blog is where the tribute is. My best friend and I had been talking on the phone about him back in 2010 and a Google search led us here to this post. Who knows what happened to that comment!? I remember being really happy to reflect on the life of Dr Zoellner and the comment I wrote spoke to that. My best friend and I both had him in his 20th Cent Lit class in about 1989 - fall semester, I think it was.

      Anyway, I thought I would come back here to leave another comment to just say "thanks again." I think about Dr Zoellner a lot as I am living in Paris now, and Hemingway's presence is huge here in this city. I keep thinking about the many times I re-read The Sun Also Rises, which I got so much out of in Zoellner's class. That, and Gatsby. His teachings on the novel have stuck with me all these years!

      Hope your 2012 is off to a good start & I'm keeping this post bookmarked, just so I remember where it is!! :)

  3. Thank you for your beautifully written tribute to a true English professor.

    I too think of Dr. Zoellner quite often and remember him very well. I graduated CSU in 1968, so this is almost ancient history. I taught in the public school system for many years, and when I would grade papers with red ink, I can still hear him saying, "Don't bleed all over their papers!" He was a bit on the rough side, once rightfully reprimanded me for sitting right in front of him and not paying strict attention, but he always really had something to say, and was one of a kind. I spent four years in Ft. Collins in a much more innocent and kinder world.

    So sorry to hear his last years were so challenging.

    Orange County, California

  4. Vince (and all): Your fine memorial to Dr. Zoellner has recently become known to a number of us that were his students at CSU in the mid to late 60s. We have since been reminiscing about him. I think it's fair to say that we all feel that he had a huge impact on our lives, not only in the area of becoming decent at the arts of reading and writing.
    If you want, contact me at

  5. Thank you for giving me a forum to finally say out loud how much Dr. Zoellner influenced my professional life. I came to CSU as a grad student in English in the fall of 1969 and took three of his courses: “Novel Between the Wars,” “Hawthorne and Melville” (a summer course, so we skipped Hawthorne, spent one day on Typee, one day on Omoo, then the rest of the semester on Moby Dick!), and his Faulkner seminar.

    I was never comfortable in his classes, not because he was sexist or because I was afraid he would ask a question that I didn’t have an immediate answer for (that was always the case) but because his lectures showed me how much more the author put on the page than I took off it. As a woman, I never found him particularly crude, but, then, I was working too hard to meet his professional expectations to notice anything else.

    Dr. Zoellner taught me to read carefully and to write convincingly, supporting my assertions with plenty of textual evidence. These two skills did more than any others to enable me to be a successful professional, not only as an English teacher but also as a Naval officer and, later, as a business owner.

    When I came back from being stationed overseas, I heard from friends in Fort Colllins that Dr. Zoellner was not doing well. I have regretted for years that I was never able to reach him to thank him for the skills he had given me.

    Lane Brown Heath

  6. I took Zoellner's course "Novel Between the Two Wars" as a senior in 1972, and in a way I think he saved me. By that time I was on my way to becoming a full-blown "academic" in my approach to literature: interpretation, theory, etc. I very clearly remember our first reading assignment for A Sun Also Rises: just the first chapter, five pages. In class the next day, instead of something "deep," it was all "Why this? Why does Barnes tell us that? What's the suggestion here? What's the implication?" He yanked me out of the clouds and back down onto the page--the sentences, the words.

    He wanted us to talk, but we wouldn't--too intimidated by his intellect. I myself just wanted to hear what HE had to say. Once he threw us out of class ("Get the hell out of here!") because no one would say anything in answer to his efforts to get us to open our mouths.

    He smoked throughout class, balancing an inch-long ash on
    top of his cigarette until tipping it in the trash.

    He liked "Space Odyssey 2001" (the opening sequence) and hated "The Godfather" ("That guy getting shot in the eye? Pornographic!"

    I had some other great professors at CSU (Paul Bates, John Boni, Professor Heiser) but Zoellner re-taught me how to read.

    --Michael O'Rourke, author of Paul Bunyan Lives! and Other Tales from the Natural World.