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Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015

'Christmas in a small town'

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Folks fortunate enough to have taken in the Community Choir's recent performance of the Wes Morton-directed "Christmas Wonderland in Nevada" might've been puzzled, for a brief second, in the second act, by the note appended to Don Besig's sweetly sentimental "Christmas in a Small Town."

It was a brief dedication, "Dedicated to our friend, Chuck Nash," and, gosh, how I did appreciate that. The story is this: For years, during weekly Community Choir rehearsals, I sat beside a former Chicago engineer (you know, the kind who pilots a slide rule and graph paper, not a railroad locomotive) named Ladd Srch (father of Theresa, if you remember her drum accompaniment of the choir in the '80s).

Ladd was older, tall, retired, thin as a soda straw, and quick to flash a smile. He'd moved, with his wife Virginia (Mickie) and family to nearby Collins, from which he drove, faithfully, to each weekly rehearsal at 7 p.m., for the Community Choir in town here. His voice was an extraordinarily low one. Outside of the Met, I don't think I'd ever heard a lower human note. And he had a sly sense of humor. I guess that last is what attracted me to him. We sat together for as long as he was a choir member. Ladd could pick up anyone's spirits after a hard day's work. He could make hard work fun.

Since neither Ladd nor I was a trained musician, we both took a particular shine to Don Besig's easy-to-sing "Christmas in a Small Town," maybe because the song painted such an attractively teary and Norman Rockwellian picture of life in a warm and friendly town a lot like the Nevada to which we'd moved from the iron-hard and unfriendly places we'd once called home -- Ladd from Chicago, I from New York City. Pretty soon, whenever one of us saw the other, whether it was in the high school hall, the Nevada town square, a local grocery store, or China One restaurant, he'd break into song, sounding like a menacing Norwegian troll: "Christmas in a small town . . !"

And so, every time I hear the maybe treacly but authentically sweet and heart-felt lyrics of that song, I think not of my home town (if you can even call NYC, population 10 million, a "town"), but Nevada, population c. 8,000, Missouri. By now, I've spent much more of my life here in this "small town" than in that great city New York. This is finally "home." God bless it.

Yes, at age 69, I'm no longer fleet of foot, sharp of sight, or ravenous of opportunities to overtake, then consume, my adversaries in whatever profession I chose. And, to my way of thinking, urban living requires all three of these capabilities... to the max. No, I treasure the opportunity Nevada and Cottey College have given me to practice the teaching for which I was born.

About a year and a half ago, Kathy Martinson, a former student of mine from about 32 years ago, wrote me a note announcing her up-coming retirement from a successful career teaching high school English somewhere in Illinois. She asked my forgiveness for not writing since her graduation, but she'd read my eulogy for Dr. Inez Byer in a recent Cottey Viewpoint, and she wanted to express to me her appreciation for the personal attention I'd shown her in English Composition 101-102 and in American Literature, all textbooks for which she keeps in a special bookcase, and reads her favorite stories and poems occasionally.

It was important to me that I infect my students with my own love of writing and my own reverence for the writing of Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and other writers of the '20s, '30s, and '40s. Sitting at our dining room table, I spent hours upon hours grading and commenting profusely on student essays, tests, and research essays. My students wondered if I ever slept, ate, or went out with my wife to a movie. A divorced friend moved to a house up Spring Street, from which she looked out at our glittering house lights across the street, at all hours of the early morning.

"Chuck," she asked, "don't you ever sleep?" The answer to this query was, "Well, I believe all teachers will respond to their students' effort to rise to their expectations. And the more genuine effort they show, the later I'll spend trying to help them."

How curious the reasons we end up where we are, doing what we do! When I lived in Larchmont, N.Y., I had a next door neighbor-friend, Mike Bellamy (descendant of the author, Edward Bellamy, of the 19th-century bestseller "Looking Backward") about 10 years younger than I was. I don't remember the incident to which he refers, but we spoke by phone a few months ago.

"Yes," he began, "when I was about 15 years old, you gave me a dog-eared, bright red paperback Scribner edition of Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," and it's that novel that inspired me to major in English, get a Ph.D. in English, then go on to teach college English. Honest, that's how come I'm teaching at Saint Thomas, in Saint Paul, Minn. Thanks a bunch, Chuck Buddy."

And so, when I think about all the things that have made my life happy, I think, first, of my forgiving and hard-working wife Ginny, our adventurous, world-traveling daughter Jessica, and other living creatures, like our truck full of cats. But among these blessings I've got to add the whole "Nevada experience." By which I mean: the old Nevada Optimist Club; the Nevada Methodist Church chancel choir (with directors Forster Day, then the fabulous Wes Morton, whom I obviously revere as my number-one music man).

In addition, there were the fellow Cottey faculty members, like Don Lamore, Harry Chew, Sinan Ozkal, and, of course, Marjorie Goss.

Like most other people, I suppose, my life has been divided into two different parts: First, my rather extended preparation for life, including schooling from kindergarten through Ph.D.; my often conflict-laden experience with parents and siblings; my early, generally positive experience in the world of salary-driven work in New York; my gradual focusing of interest on writing in its different manifestations; and, second, taking a wife, and moving half way across the country to teach English at Cottey.

When I first moved to Nevada, I was struck by the almost total disconnect between the town of Nevada and Cottey personnel. Trying to create a personally satisfying "connect," I joined the Optimist Club, enjoyed it, and eventually was voted president. Likewise, my professional colleague Forster Day invited me to join the Nevada Methodist Church choir, which I did -- for a period of some 25 years, until I could no longer manage the stairs from basement to chancel. These, in retrospect, were the best years of my life -- so far.

A person who trains to be a teacher -- especially a college teacher -- spends innumerable hours by himself, in silence, alone, grading papers, preparing the next day's classes, writing scholarly papers for the sake of his own tenure, or for his own professional development. Somehow, early on, I had the good sense to foresee the threat of this isolation, and to reach out for help from the town of Nevada. And the town of Nevada had the grace to offer membership, in the form, for instance, of a two-term seat on the library board of directors. Early on, the selfless activities of Franklin Norman in all forms defined for me "good citizen" better than any civics textbook might have done.

In retrospect, the move to, and life's work in, the "small town" of Nevada, was a stroke of "dumb luck." But whatever it was, I've been very happy here -- and plan to keep on being happy here for as long as I'm upright.

Thanks, Nevada!