Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Community college killer can’t kill the spirit

When I moved to Florida in 1986 on a transfer within the U.S. Postal Service, I was focused mainly on work and advancing myself within the organization.

As a high school graduate and a veteran, I mistakenly thought that I was ready for the challenges ahead and was eager and ready to work within the defective system to make it better. Little did I know that for many postal managers then – and today – the goal was to prevent change and improvement.

It was almost like coming to a military base for the first time, and hearing of all the places “in town” that are off-limits to the troops. When I was in the service, there were places that sold drug paraphernalia (carburetors, roach clips, KISS posters (It was the late 1970s, remember), etc.) where you could get into a lot of trouble if someone in the higher ranks saw you.

At the post office in West Palm Beach in 1986, there was one place that was considered to not even exist. Back then, it was called Palm Beach Junior College. Employees considering taking courses were warned to stay away from that place. The very idea that you – a career employee – might be considering training for a job outside the Postal Service was anathema. To many postal managers, the workers at the General Mail Facility were “stuck” and could never function in another workplace.

It was important to consider the source, though many of us were so indoctrinated into the postal mindset that we failed to do so. Most top postal managers have high school diplomas or GEDs, and you can even find a few who didn’t finish elementary school.

To them, the notion of college was so far beyond what they had attained, they believed that attendance at college could turn a submissive worker with no options into someone who might leave and tell the world about what went on in the postal facility.

And believe me, there was a lot to tell. I remember watching fellow workers ripping damaged and destroyed mail out of machinery, and throwing it on the floor, where it was run over by equipment and sometimes obliterated.

At the “nixie” table, employees on light duty sat and either tried to piece the mail back together, or simply rifled the envelopes for cash. I will admit that the latter eventually were caught by the postal inspectors, who usually were trying to set up drug busts using unreliable informants and were themselves often very corrupt.

The place of hope
Despite all the warnings and threats from the post office, one day I decided that I needed a future. I passed the renamed Palm Beach Community College on the way to the postal facility every day and fantasized about taking a class or two. I actually did take classes in postal management through the college, but when those failed to get me advanced, I realized I had to go all-in.

One day, I drove onto the campus, found a parking space, went into the right building and said, “I want to go to college here.”

I often think about where I am today in life, and realize that thanks to those words I am so much more than I could have ever been, even if I had advanced in the Postal Service, because I took the big chance.

I was handed a sheaf of forms and informed that I had to take the American College Test, to be given in a couple of months, and then I could try to get in.

It was a lot of work, but I was determined and I plowed through the paperwork. I told a few people at work about my efforts, and most of the responses were negative. One woman told me her first day at the college had been her last because someone mentioned evolution. Others told me that the people there were wasting their time: there were no jobs to be had “out there” outside the Postal Service.

I felt sorry for those people who had let themselves be led by the nose into such a negative view of life.

A day of horror
For this reason, I was horrified to hear about the mass shooting at the community college in Oregon. The person who did this attacked so many people and for no good reason. They were building their future, starting at the bottom at a level of college that is often mocked and derided, but can lead to so much more for those who work through it and take advantage of the help that’s offered.

Community college kept me sane during the worst years of my Postal Service torment and reminded me that there was a world of opportunity out there that didn’t involve mentally defective and corrupt bosses, moronic top managers and a babbling ding-dong of a postmaster general.

I would come from the college and into the disaster that was the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility, with mail hidden in every nook and cranny and machines tearing through paper and supervisors wielding mindless authority, and then leave and return to college, where sanity ruled.

I met some of the most amazing people at Palm Beach Community College, who made the low-life trash at the post office like Shirley Cordle, Terry Cahill, Gary Miller and so many other postal sleazes look like wastes of humanity.

You’ve heard of Burt Reynolds, right? Well, I knew the man who first encouraged him to appear in a play. Watson B. Duncan III was one of the greatest men you never heard of. He could have been the president of not just a college but a college system, but he preferred to teach English literature to giant classes of eager undergrads in a theater that was named for him.

I’ve written about Duncan before, so I’ll just say that I was privileged to know him and take his classes. I’ll never forget what he wrote on one of my test papers: “I am enjoying your writing in the Beachcomber.”

He told me that he loved teaching so much, he hoped to “go” to his reward while in front of a class. His passing was a terrible tragedy and the life seemed to leave Palm Beach Community College after he was gone. Watson B. Duncan was everything to me that the post office wasn’t: educated, gentle, compassionate, respectful, rewarding.

And he taught at a community college.

I eventually moved on to the university after graduating from Palm Beach Community College (now called Palm Beach State College) and sometimes would see the campus at State College of Florida (formerly Manatee Community College) and wish I could just go back as an un-degreed undergrad and do it all over.

Hang out with the students before class, talk under the trees about our instructors and maybe even take in a sports event or two.

Back in my day, we’d argue and debate, and sometimes there were creepy people who needed to be removed, but the idea that someone would come on campus and shoot others was beyond our belief.

That happened at the post office, people said back then, not at a college.

Well, things have changed, and disturbed people have realized that college students make great targets.

I want these shootings to stop. I want community college to be what it was for me, a place of learning and education and enlightenment and new opportunities.

Postal managers would ridicule me and tell me the college was filling my brain with nonsense and absurd ideas that I mattered and was a worthwhile person.

At the college, the instructors were telling me that I was someone who could go far if I applied myself. Sadly, I remember by name those who disdained me at the post office and have forgotten the names of many of the wonderful people who encouraged me to chase my dreams. Here’s one: Ernest Parbhoo, the journalism teacher at PBCC and student newspaper adviser, who not only encouraged me but also had me come into his journalism classes at PBCC later on to talk about my career. Thanks for everything, Ernie.

I ache for those who lost family members in those shootings. I ache for those who were injured, and the hero Army veteran who took multiple bullets to protect his classmates.

The next time I’m in the Palm Beach County area, I will make a special trip to Palm Beach State College, and I’ll drive past and murmur two words to that place that gave me so much: Thank You.

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October 6, 2015 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.”

“Oh.”

“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

Talking down to the community college

As someone who came to the college experience later than normal, in my late 20s instead of my late teens, I was always of the view that learning was learning, whether you got it in the Ivy League or at a lesser institution.

Circumstances — such as an insistence that I make my own decisions after graduating from high school — led me to join the Marine Corps at the ripe young age of 17 in 1978, and then my efforts to make my way in the world after my four years of service led me to the Postal Service. It wasn’t until around 1988 and I was beginning to tire of the sameness of life in the Postal Service that I realized that to take my life and career to the next level, I needed to go to college.

And Palm Beach Community College was there. Close to my house, on my way to my job at the post office, and willing to let me drink at their fountain of knowledge. I worked nights at the post office, and was able to take day classes almost like a real and traditional-age college student. Thanks to good pay and benefits at the post office, I was able to pay for the whole thing out of pocket without taking out student loans.

Honestly, I could have gone to Florida Atlantic University first, but I was a little uncertain about whether I could handle college work and wanted to stick a toe in the water, so to speak. I eventually did go to FAU after I graduated from PBCC, but that’s another blog post.

Because I had to attend PBCC part time, it took me three years to finish the two-year course, and in that time I became more than just someone with a bunch of credits, but a more educated and cultured man. I still had a lot to learn, but I was on my way.

So when I read things about community colleges that tend to dismiss them as inferior places of learning, I get kind of defensive. It hurts more when someone acts as if attending a community college is a sign of failure that will have to be explained in a job interview.

When a community college tries to rise above and be a major player, it seems like there is an attitude that the leaders of the place should recognize their inferiority and remember their place in the educational pecking order.

That hurts. I learned so much from the instructors at Palm Beach Community College, and received encouragement to do more than just attend college. At PBCC, I worked on the newspaper, took courses whose lessons remain with me to this day, and have a cup running over of memories. Maybe I never pledged an “Animal House”-like fraternity or engaged in hi-jinks, but that was because I was paying the freight on my education and needed to focus on that. I was active on the newspaper and in the PTK chapter as much as I could.

Indeed the same folks who run down community colleges also tend to run down adult students such as I was, and throw words around like “career student.” I changed in a lot of ways during my time in both community college and at the university, and sometimes that upset people at the post office. Suddenly, I was studying on my breaks or doing homework. After work, I’d go home instead of going to a local bar to whine about management. Often, I had to get up the next morning for class after working late. Believe me, it wasn’t the easiest path, but it was one I willingly took.

Community colleges labor in obscurity and their successes are not immediately apparent, but those who have a negative view of them are wrong. The people attending them are intent on success and determined to get ahead in this world. Sure, that’s a threat to some people, but the students just want a better life, and are willing to invest their time, money and effort into it.

For that reason alone, community colleges should be cheered, not dismissed, and their staffs should be honored, not belittled.

Indeed, one of the greatest teachers of English literature worked his magic for decades at Palm Beach Community College, Watson B. Duncan III. You may have heard of him. Once, he encouraged a smart-ass student in the back of the class to try out for a play. You may have heard of that student: Burt Reynolds. See the Wikipedia entry for the full story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watson_B._Duncan.

Duncan could have taught anywhere, but he seemed happy at PBCC, where more than a hundred eager students would crowd into the Duncan Theater at PBCC to hear him explain the wonders of English literature. I still remember the names of those classes: “English Literature to 1660” and “English Literature After 1660.” The textbook you had to buy, “The Literature of England,” sits in a bookcase in my house. I should open it more often.

Back before Web-based signups for class, you had to line up and give your proposed or dreamed-of schedule to a clerk, who would check to see if there was room. Those hoping to attend Duncan’s class would line up early, and I know I punched the air when I got into Duncan’s class. His reputation preceded him, and he taught people, their children and even their grandchildren.

Like everyone, I loved his lectures, and loved to kid him. One time, I was sitting in class and he was declaiming on the wonders of the man he called “The greatest writer in the history of the English language: William Shakespeare!” Well, this time, I decided to have some fun, so when he said “… language,” I burst out, “Stephen King!”

He looked mad. I apologized after class, and he accepted it with good humor, noting that his wife, Honey Duncan, read King’s books, but he couldn’t see why they were so popular.

Duncan was a great man, and his passing in 1991, before I graduated, was mourned at PBCC. This long diversion into Duncan was just to show that there’s quality in community colleges, and it’s the people who make it so.

So next time someone says, “Ah, it’s just community college,” reply this way: “It’s way, way better than you think.”

September 20, 2008 Posted by | Education | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments