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.