Open Mic Night at Ohio University’s Baker Center: 17 September 2021

Riley James
Bernhard Debatin
Bruce Dalzell
David Bruce

David Bruce’s Stories (More or Less)

One of the goals I had for each of the students in each of my classes was for them to lead lives of wit and intelligence. Many of my students achieved that goal. Of course, Ohio University professors and staff are also witty and intelligent, as seen by the following stories. 

When Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet first came out, Shakespeare scholar Samuel Crowl saw it at his local cineplex, where the number of teenyboppers who had come to see Leonardo DiCaprio play Romeo surprised him. When Mr. DiCaprio’s Romeo and Claire Danes’ Juliet first met, a young DiCaprio fan sitting behind Professor Crowl whispered, “Don’t touch him, you bitch.” 

When English professor Calvin Thayer talked about Falstaff, the fat rogue living on his wits in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, he would recite a long list of Falstaff’s traits: Falstaff is an alcoholic, very fat, a spendthrift, white-bearded, etc. From when I attended Ohio University graduate school, I remember that when Dr. Thayer, who had a white beard, mentioned Falstaff’s white beard, he looked shocked, glanced up at his students, and protested, “There’s nothing wrong with that, of course.” 

English professor Frank Fieler knew and loved books. Frequently he would make wise acquisitions for OU’s Alden Library. Once, in England, he had almost succeeded in acquiring some important first editions at an auction when a bidder for another university — that was rich because of Texas oil money — spoke up and gave a bid that was twice as large as Dr. Fieler’s. The bidder was showing off his university’s wealth by waiting until the bidding was almost over, then jumping in with a big bid. Dr. Fieler was so angry that he bid the first editions up until the other fellow’s bid was way over the books’ true value, then Dr. Fieler stalked out — to the applause of the other people in the auction house. 

In the free-wheeling days of the 1960s, Edgar Whan and other English professors used to throw Frisbees in Ellis Hall. 

Some students and professors show the haters that they are wrong. Robert DeMott and Dave Smith became friends in the early 1970s. They had a number of things in common that facilitated their friendship: They were or would become editors, scholars, teachers, and writers, plus both had been told as undergraduates by professors that they were “not smart enough or able enough to amount to much in the ‘real’ world” — predictions that they ignored. Mr. DeMott (actually, Dr. DeMott) became a noted John Steinbeck scholar at Ohio University, and Mr. Smith became a noted poet. By the way, at times, learning excites students. During Spring Quarter of 1970, Dr. DeMott offered a course titled “Writers of the Beat Movement.” The course drew so many students that there was standing room only, with many students spilling out of the classroom and into the hallway. Later in 1970, he taught an Honors course on beat poet Gary Snyder — the class met in a teepee on property owned by an OU art professor. 

Robert Roe served in the tank corps in Africa during World War II. One day, while driving a tank he ran out of gas in the desert; an Arab saw him and tried to speak to him, but neither spoke the other’s language. The Arab shrugged, went to a nearby clump of trees where he had a cache of gasoline, then filled Mr. Roe’s tank with gas. Mr. Roe not only reads Old English, but he also reads Marcel Proust in French. As an undergraduate at a time when professors were more autocratic than they are today, he took a French class but had a hard time in it. He needed the professor’s permission to drop the class, but when he asked the professor for permission, the professor glowered at him. This so unnerved Mr. Roe that he left the professor’s office and learned French.

John Jones specialized in Milton and Swift as an English professor. One day, a freshman student came to Professor Jones’ office and asked him why he should take his course. Professor Jones pointed to one bookshelf, then another. “Milton! Swift! What more do you want?” 

When English professor Barry Roth first came to OU, he was asked to teach a course on mysteries. But instead of teaching mysteries by such people as Agatha Christie and Rex Stout, he taught such “mysteries” as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and William Faulkner’s Sanctuary

Classics professor Steve Hays says that he doesn’t want his students to graduate only to write poetry to themselves in coffeehouses; humanity can be well served by engineers, journalists, nurses, physicians, dentists, and lawyers. Dr. Hays points out that building a better fuel injector is a wonderful way to serve humanity. When he was taking university classes, he would go through the Student Catalogue and circle the names of professors who had graduated from such schools as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton and then try to take classes from those professors. 

OU physiologist Fredrick Hagerman, who worked at NASA, vouches for the authenticity of this anecdote about the first man to walk on the moon: Ohio-born astronaut Neil Armstrong. The first words he spoke on the moon are famous — “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind” — but he said other things on the moon, including, “Good luck, Mr. Gorsky.” At first, people assumed that Mr. Gorsky must be a Russian cosmonaut, but no Russian cosmonaut had that name. For a long time, Mr. Armstrong declined to reveal who Mr. Gorsky was, but after years had passed, he said that the Gorskys had died and so it was OK to reveal the story. It turned out that the Gorskys were next-door neighbors to the Armstrongs when Neil was growing up. One day, during a game, a ball was hit into the Gorskys’ yard, and young Neil went to get it. The ball had landed near an open window, and Neil heard the Gorskys arguing. In particular, he heard Mrs. Gorsky yelling, “Sex? You want sex? I’ll tell you when you’ll get sex! You’ll get sex when the kid next door walks on the moon!”

Bernhard Debatin’s son is in Velvet Green (and in a group called Sun Boats).

Formed in 2018, Velvet Green is a native Athens band made up of drummer Shea Benezra, bassist Mitch Spring, keyboardist Liam McSteen, guitarist duo Harper Reese and Sam Debatin [tall, light-colored hair], and vocalist Cora Fitch. Their musical style is an eclectic blend drawing from the funk and jazz of Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell, while remaining influenced by more current groups like Radiohead, Crumb, and Boy Jorts.

Sam Debatin

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