A Fond Farewell to Prof. Marten

Prof. Harry Marten retired in Spring 2012 after teaching for thirty-six years at Union.  His colleagues and students wish him the best of health and happiness!

Below is a transcript of Prof. Jordan Smith’s speech at Prof. Marten’s retirement party:

Those of you who enjoy fiction are, I’m sure, familiar with the character to whom a good many things happen, but who is unaware of or mistaken about which ones will really turn out to matter.  A story like this could be written about a young man named Harry growing up in the Bronx, but in this case my protagonist is a good deal more like myself in March of 1981 answering the phone in a run-down railroad flat in Iowa City, about to be offered a job at Union College.  There are many things that this guy thinks are important—the job for one, the bad cold that along with the good news will have him heading in the evening for Dave’s Foxhead, the writer’s dive in Iowa City and a shot of Irish whiskey to clear his head, the news on the TV above the bar about the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.  But what he doesn’t know is really important is the person on the other end of that telephone call.

That’s Harry Marten, of course.  I think that everyone here is aware of Harry’s reputation as a remarkable teacher, one whose combination of affection, knowledge, and well-tempered irony has shown our skeptical students the answer to the perennial question about literature:  What’s in it for me?  And those of you who are lucky enough to have read any of Harry’s varied writings—from critical studies to book reviews to his greatly moving and enjoyable collection of memoirs, But That Didn’t Happen to You, don’t need me to tell you what he can do with words.  I’d like to speak about something else.  I’d like to speak about his generosity and kindness.

I was looking around the room at Harry’s retirement party, and it occurred to me that all of us there from the department owed, if not like me our presence at Union, then our longevity in the profession and much of our sense of pleasure and accomplishment in being here to Harry’s good and patient advice; his willingness to read anything we wrote—from articles to poems to fiction—and offer suggestions and encouragement; his guidance through the seven circles of reviews, personalities, and politics; his ability to call foolishness by its true name and still to get us to laugh about it.

And it would be foolish not to laugh in pleasure at Harry’s liberation from all the hoo-ha we put ourselves through to make a college that works, just as we look back in gratitude at how much of that he took on himself, and how well.