Alumna recalls striking gold when entering a Bucknell classroom 60 years ago
Jackie Grill Rollfinke '61
I am an extremely lucky Bucknell alumna. On my very first day of classes in September 1957 I encountered my English instructor, Karl Patten. I knew I had struck gold. During the next four years, when people would ask me what my major was, I would reply, "I am majoring in Patten." I signed up for practically every course he taught, and he was my faculty adviser. I cannot believe my good fortune to have been able to stay in touch with my favorite professor for the next 60 years!
Karl W. Patten Jr., professor emeritus of English, died April 16, at 90. For 41 years he had taught at Bucknell — and did he ever! Karl Patten was a master teacher whose classes were full of dazzling insights. His enthusiasm for his profession and his subject matter were disarming. Instead of trudging into a classroom full of lethargic students on a dreary Monday morning, he bounded in, beaming with eagerness to get started; we would not have been surprised if he had tossed handfuls of confetti at us. Each class was a vibrant celebration of literature: the words, the poetry, the form, the content. I have used what he taught me every day of my life.
Excitement about literature (especially poetry) and writing was not the whole story. Karl Patten also was a role model for his students, living a life devoted to humane values. President John Bravman has said that Professor Patten contributed to "the betterment of the world community … by living an intentionally frugal life." This became apparent to me during my first semester at Bucknell. Professor Patten and his wife, Isabelle, invited a group of first-year students to a delightful gathering at their home. It was there that I observed what I would term "a nonacquisitive lifestyle," an approach very different from the mercenary striving found in the New York City suburbs where I'd grown up. Once I was taking a walk through the streets of Lewisburg on a fall evening and caught a glimpse of Karl Patten as he tossed a football to his two little boys, Kit and Tom. They looked so happy. "I want this life," I thought, and I have tried hard to achieve it. It is significant that he never promoted his own deeply held positions by means of proselytizing; he simply inspired by example.
Before the June 10 campus service for Professor Patten, I went for a nostalgic walk along Market Street and discovered a small secondhand bookshop with a sign that read "Karl Patten Memorial Book Sale." I entered the store, expecting to find them selling the collections of poetry Professor Patten had written and published. To my amazement, the volumes being sold were in fact my teacher's own copies of great literary works, a personal library being offered for sale by his family, with the proceeds going to charity. In the margins of the books were his notes, written in the familiar hand that had conveyed his on-target criticisms of my compositions decades ago. As I pored through the collection, a small green paperback caught my eye: Dubliners by James Joyce. I had to have it.
Of all the Patten courses I took, my favorite was Creative Writing, in which I was enrolled during my junior year. My favorite class sessions in that course were the ones on the stories in Dubliners, especially the beautifully written "The Dead," as a touching, sad masterpiece that centers around a New Year's Eve dinner-dance.
In the years since, the story had lingered in my mind as a work dealing with the persistence of significant relationships beyond the grave. But when I opened the worn paperback in the bookshop and saw Professor Patten's notes, I realized that, as always, he had said it better: The story, he stated, is about "the presence of the dead among the living." That is exactly what I experienced, holding that totally unexpected gift from my beloved teacher in my hands.
And so it is fitting to give the talented instructor of writing the last word. There is a passage in "The Dead" in which protagonist Gabriel Conroy delivers his annual New Year's Eve speech. With great solemnity he remarks on "thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, of absent faces that we miss here tonight." He bemoans the "skeptical" and "thought-tormented age" in which he lives, an era lacking "those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day." Nevertheless, Gabriel continues, we "still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die."
In the margin Professor Karl Patten had noted his critique: "Too much rhetoric."
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