Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The greatest teacher I ever saw

My decision to pursue a college degree in the late 1980s drew a variety of responses from those I talked to. At the post office, the main reaction was derision. “My cousin Wilbur graduated from college, and he’s working at Burger King” was a typical response. In the blue-collar work world, people who pursue college degrees are viewed as not knowing their position and station in life. “You’ll fail, like you’ve failed at everything else,” one boss said.

The front page of the student newspaper reporting the death of Watson B. Duncan III.

The front page of the student newspaper reporting the death of Watson B. Duncan III.

I was determined to prove her wrong – and did.

One thing I used to tell people was that the smartest people in the county believed I was pretty smart, and the dumbest people in the county – postal management – believed I was not smart. “I’m betting that the smart people are right,” I said. And I was right.

In the realm of education, there are teachers who get up there and teach for the love of it. Sure, the doorway to administration and the really big money and recognition always beckons, but they prefer to stay in the trenches, never forgetting that it’s those who are closest to the students who truly are “educators.”

One of the great mentors of my life, Dorothy Martin, took a very different view from the postal bosses. She said it was a great idea, and added one piece of very good advice.

“I’m going to give you one name: Watson B. Duncan,” she said. “Take his class.”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“You’ll find out,” she said.

Those provosts, deans, assistant vice presidents and others who populate the organization charts at colleges are just filler. The real work is done by those who get up in front of a group of undergraduates and deliver the goods.

The second page of the story.

The second page of the story.

Watson B. Duncan III did that, and more.

What kind of man?
What kind of man spends decades teaching undergraduates at an obscure junior college, rising to become a department head but still teaching classes of about 200 students from the stage in a theater named for him?

A great one.

What kind of man believed that everyone could benefit from understanding the literature of “that scepter’d isle”?

A great one.

What kind of man would bring a bust of William Shakespeare to the class on the Bard’s birthday, and then lovingly pat it every time Shakespeare’s name was mentioned?

A great one.

The first Duncan sighting

One day, after I started classes at Palm Beach Community College (then just changed from Palm Beach Junior College, and now Palm Beach State College), I was in the Watson B. Duncan III Theater for something, and suddenly a man with a smile on his face walked through the lobby, holding papers and greeting us in a friendly tone. He walked toward a door, opened it and went into his office. The person with me said, “Do you know who that was?”

“No,” I replied.

The third page of the story.

The third page of the story.

“That’s Watson B. Duncan.”

I was intrigued.

He must have been in his early 70s then, but he had the look of a younger man, maybe in his early 60s.

I learned soon after, he’s not “Dr. Duncan” (he didn’t have a doctorate) and he never stood on titles like professor. Students called him “Mr. Duncan.”

He personified Palm Beach Community College, I learned, far more than its president, who had once been a student in his classes and had gotten Cs.

I wanted to experience Watson B. Duncan in all his glory – and I know that in my bucket list under “completed” are two notes: “Take English Literature to 1660 under Watson B. Duncan III” and “Take English Literature after 1660 under Watson B. Duncan III.” I feel privileged in ways that cannot be imagined to say that I was able to take and get A grades in both classes.

The greatest privilege was to experience the wonders of English literature through this man. I mean, in how many other classes does the final class period end in a standing ovation? The students at PBCC loved Watson B. Duncan, and taking his classes was considered the capstone of your college career.

Registration day triumph
It wasn’t easy to get in.

Today, you register for classes online, but back then – in the late 1980s — you had to line up early in the morning at the cafeteria, and if you didn’t have a lot of credits, you didn’t get to register until later in the process.

My story on the donation of his book to the library.

My story on the donation of his book to the library.

On my second attempt, I went there with my class list for the upcoming semester and hoped like mad that I’d get accepted. The registration office employee tapped in the information, then said, “You’re in luck. You got everything you wanted, and Duncan’s class.”

There it was: English Literature to 1660, and next to it: Duncan.

I was ready to explode, I was so happy.

At the campus bookstore, I saw the book I needed to buy: “The Literature of England.” I paid $37.50 for it. I still have that book, more than 23 years later. The thought of selling it back would be like selling my experiences of Duncan. No way, it’s staying with me.

The story was that Duncan used his copy to teach so much, he had to get spare copies because he kept filling the margins with notes. Today, in his honor, the book is encased in glass in the library at what is now Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, Fla. My copy has moved with me, and the other day I leafed through it, remembering the lessons Duncan taught.

I remember that first class day. Students had gathered outside the theater early, and I made sure I got a seat close to the stage. The place filled up, and finally Watson B. Duncan walked out from behind the curtain to applause, and began to teach.

It was like that every day, and it was a joy that I want to cry about not seeing again. Literature came alive and he’d sometimes share experiences he had. Occasionally, I couldn’t restrain myself.

For example, one time he said, “Next, we’ll be talking about THE GREATEST WRITER IN THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE –”

“Stephen King!” I called out.

He looked down at me with mock horror – and maybe a little real anger – and said, “WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE!”

After class, I went up to him and apologized. He accepted it, noting that his beloved wife, Honey, enjoyed King’s novels, though he couldn’t understand why.

My story on the memorial service.

My story on the memorial service.

When we had tests, we couldn’t take them in the theater, so he’d direct us to report to a classroom, where we’d have tables to lean on. By this time, I know he had assistants who graded the tests, but he’d still write personal notes. One, to me, read: “I am enjoying your writing in the Beachcomber.” (The student newspaper at PBCC).

When the papers were graded, Duncan would hand them out but make sure to note that he was calling the names in alphabetical order, and not by grade.

“If I were to call you up by the grade you expected,” he’d say, “you’d all rush up here and I’d be crushed to death, and what would follow would be mass disillusionment.” At our grades, he was saying.

One time, I was talking to him and we got on the subject of him ever leaving teaching. He said he never wanted to stop teaching. “My fantasy is to go while I’m teaching,” he said, “but I know it will be a bit of a shock to the students.”

Another time, he described a dinner party he was at, where he recounted the speech of a very well-dressed society woman said to him: “Oh, Mr. Duncan. I think you should know that I’m a direct descendant of William Shakespeare.”

Duncan said he replied: “Why, the media must be called immediately. This is amazing news!”

The lady asked why.

“Ma’am, as far as anyone knows, William Shakespeare had no direct descendants.”


“But he did have several illegitimate children,” Duncan said he called to the woman, who got away from him. The students loved that story.

Another story he told was of the time that an engineering student informed Duncan that he did not need to study literature, as it was of no use. Duncan retorted to the engineering student that he had checked the course catalogs of all the great engineering colleges in the U.S. and not one did not require literature. Everyone, he said, needed culture.

Be nice to animals

The actual textbook I used in Duncan's classes. I've kept it all these years.

The actual textbook I used in Duncan’s classes. I’ve kept it all these years.

While teaching the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Duncan recounted the time he was on a committee that was evaluating teachers in South Carolina.

One was teaching her class about Coleridge’s story, and she said, to Duncan’s horror: “This is be kind to animals week, and it’s appropriate that we should be teaching ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ because the meaning of the story is Don’t shoot a bird’”

Duncan said he was horrified at this interpretation, and declared, “The meaning of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ isn’t ‘Don’t shoot a bird,’ I said. So I shot her a ‘bird’.”

The place erupted in laughter at the thought of our beloved Watson B. Duncan “shooting a ‘bird’” at anyone, but if there was anyone who deserved a “bird,” it was that hapless teacher.

Worrisome rumors, and then sadness
I was in one of the last groups of students who got to experience Watson B. Duncan in all his glory. I finished the second class with an A, and moved on to other classes. I was busy with my despised job and the fun I was having working on the student newspaper, the Beachcomber.

But there were disquieting stories. A young lady who was taking Duncan’s course said he was absent more and more, and one day he taught the class from a wheelchair, she noted.

I still remember the morning I arrived at the Beachcomber’s offices (I was the paper’s News Editor) and got the terrible phone call from the university’s public relations department: “Watson B. Duncan died last night.”

Yes, textbooks were expensive back then. I would have gotten about $20 back, I think, had I sold it back to the bookstore.

Yes, textbooks were expensive back then. I would have gotten about $20 back, I think, had I sold it back to the bookstore.

We set to work on a commemorative issue of the paper and gathered information for the main story, while local media converged on the college to cover this event. I remember that I was interviewed by a Palm Beach Post reporter, and others shared their fond memories of the beloved and great man.

People walked around campus stunned, and even those who had never taken Duncan’s classes felt the loss keenly.

The stories were told of the great man, how he’d advised a young fellow who came into his class, how the young man had been recovering from a football injury at the University of Florida, and Duncan had encouraged him to try out for a play.

That man was Burt Reynolds, and the story was that Reynolds had been shooting a movie and the crew had found out about Watson B. Duncan’s death, but kept it from him until shooting was over because they knew he’d be so upset.

A few days later, the memorial service for Duncan was held in the main theater. I looked and saw Duncan, lying in state, and felt like something was gone from Palm Beach Community College. The buildings were there, and nothing else had changed, but it was like a bright, bright light of love and knowledge had been extinguished.

Life went on, as it should. I moved on to Florida Atlantic University and eventually went from the college newspaper business to the real news business.

I’ve never forgotten Watson B. Duncan III or those great lessons he taught. But if there’s one quote that illustrates his greatness, it’s the one below.

[lines 287-310 of the General Prologue to
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer]

A Clerk from Oxford was there also,
Who’d studied philosophy, long ago.
As lean was his horse as is a rake,
And he too was not fat, that I take,
But he looked emaciated, moreover, abstemiously.
Very worn off was his overcoat; for he
Had got him yet no churchly benefice,
Nor he was worldly to accept secular office.
For he would rather have at his bed’s head
Some twenty books, all bound in black or red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophy
Than rich robes, fiddle, or gay psaltery.
Yet, and for all he was philosopher in base,
He had but little gold within his suitcase;
But all that he might borrow from a friend
On books and learning he would swiftly spend,
And then he’d pray diligently for the souls
Of those who gave him resources to attend schools.
He took utmost care and heed for his study.
Not one word spoke he more than was necessary;
And that was said with due formality and dignity
And short and lively, and full of high morality.
Filled with moral virtue was his speech;
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.


April 2, 2013 - Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] the rest of the blog post by Vincent […]

    Pingback by Share Your Memories of Watson B. Duncan | Palm Beach State College Archives | April 19, 2013 | Reply

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