One of my favorite English professors at the University of Arizona has died. John Mills taught Shakespeare and dramatic literature; it was my great pleasure to participate in three of his courses as an undergraduate. I also took one graduate course in Post-Modern British & English Literature, but that course brought me far less pleasure. That was not the fault of the professor, however.
The first of my classes from Dr. Mills was a Shakespeare class. I found as the weeks went on (a summer class) that I apparently thought often on the same lines as John Mills, in discussing the plays we read. This discovery boosted my confidence in, perhaps, some day being able to make some sense of Shakespeare, which often seemed to be a foreign language. And, indeed, it almost is, as it was written before Modern English had progressed very far. My memory is fuzzy on the details, now, but I believe Elizabethan English was a transitional time from Middle to Modern English. Not to mention that my native language is "American" English, which was a few hundred years in the future, when Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote. But John made the characters almost human--downright stupid, at times, thus adding to their humanity--as we went through the plays.
Next came Modern British & American Drama, where I was introduced to G. Bernard Shaw. Delightful! I still consider him my second favorite among those playwrights whose works I have read or seen; by the way, the very best way to understand and enjoy a play, of course, is to see it onstage, and I have read many more than I've been able to see.
Finally, as an undergraduate, I enjoyed a senior seminar in the development of comedy. And in this class, I learned to be watchful of John's eyes, when he asked a question. If I knew, or thought I knew the answer a professor or instructor wanted, I did not often hesitate to volunteer my answer (for that, you can thank one Rob Modica, who taught my first Humanities course at Pima College, when I returned, trembling inside, to college at the classic age of 40). It seemed, in many classes, both through Pima and at the the UA, that everyone was willing: if I was willing to answer, they were willing to let me. This was especially true in my two refresher courses in math. So in the seminar class, if John wanted to see what anyone else knew, he shot me that very pointed "Keep quiet" look. Once in a while, someone else answered; if no one had spoken up after a decent wait time, John would look at me. Maybe I knew the answer and maybe I didn't; if I didn't, we all learned.
By the time I completed my studies, I had begun to think of John as a friend, but I never said that, because I was still nursing just a little "awe" in those who were called "professors" and held the highest degree in the land. Several years later, however, we did enjoy several e-mail exchanges on the joys of teaching English. He was looking forward to retirement, at that time, and told me the kinds of activities which would keep him occupied.
I last saw John at the end of his final performance of On Golden Pond, at the Live Theater Workshop. I sent one of my cards back, and when he had finished backstage, he came out to see me. It was a nice, brief chat, and I walked away knowing, somehow, that I had seen him for the last time, on this earth. I hope to see him, again, when my life here is over.