An enlightened era in academia ended Thursday, Dec. 9, with the passing of John R. Taylor, professor emeritus of English at Bethany College.
Dr. Taylor, 87, was a legend at Bethany as an alumnus, educator, ardent supporter and, at times, critic of the institution he loved.
He arrived at Bethany as an undergraduate from "deepest, darkest Akron," as he called his hometown. After earning a master's degree from Princeton University, he returned to Bethany to teach and he pursued additional graduate studies at other prestigious institutions.
Outliving his mentors and contemporaries, he educated and influenced countless numbers of students over the decades. The revered faculty member continued to teach until 2009, which was 17 years after his official "retirement" from the college. His British literature and Shakespeare courses were legendary. He also taught Latin on the side.
A Renaissance man in his interests, Dr. Taylor also acted in several Bethany College Theatre productions, including a memorable turn as Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest." He listened to classical music and opera, played the harpsichord and sang with the church choir and in many presentations of "The Messiah" at the college.
He was the host of a classical music program that aired on Sunday afternoons on the college radio station, WVBC-FM. Before its end, the program was the longest continually-running show in the station's history.
For many years, he also wrote and published his own newspaper, The Daily Blat. It was intended for faculty and staff, but many students borrowed copies from the faculty's open cubbyholes and devoured every word. For my work-study program, I served as office assistant to Dr. David J. Judy, and my duty of collecting the mail afforded me the opportunity to peruse The Daily Blat.
The one-page newsletter (front and back) was a delight to read; it was replete with typographical errors (as Dr. Taylor was a notoriously poor typist) and filled with Dr. Taylor's freely-given opinions and witty observations. In The Daily Blat, he shared campus news and announcements of upcoming college events, enlivened by his ruminations on the wisdom, or folly, of said plans.
The paper included his brief reviews of theatrical productions on campus. He also offered a running commentary on the state of the college. Always seeking to educate, he would note the feast days of saints and dates pertaining to other notable figures.
One time, Dr. Taylor reported that a group of students would be taking a bus to West Liberty to tour a women's history museum. The next day, he had to publish a correction, and the explanation was hysterically funny, as he opined, rather indignantly, that he should not be faulted for the mistake of being unaware that the women's history museum was a traveling entity housed in an old school bus.
An Angophile, he took students to Oxford, England, for a semester, returning with a new group periodically for many years. During those fall semesters abroad, he conducted daytime classes in empty pubs and encouraged his students to travel throughout Great Britain in their spare time. In later years, he led alumni tours of England, showing the travelers the important sites and the places he loved.
Dr. Taylor was an imposing figure who frightened many a freshman. But students who looked beyond the curmudgeon-like behavior found him to be a witty man, erudite, astute and gracious in his formality. Behind the gruff exterior beat a kind heart. His generosity of spirit and his concern for others was genuine.
One semester, a couple of us who were taking one of his British literature courses also were enrolled in a course on English poet and artist William Blake; the Blake class met immediately after his class. Upon seeing Blake books on our desks in the front row of his classroom, Dr. Taylor would shake his head vigorously and mutter vehemently, "Ewww, arrrgh, Blake." We took to placing the Blake volumes on top of our stacks of books just to get him to react.
At one time, he professed to detest dogs and small children. In later years, he seemed to soften a bit in his regard for dogs. I don't know if he ever entirely changed his opinion of small children, but he did consent to serve as godfather for at least one former student's child.
Dr. Taylor grew up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but later reclaimed his Anglican roots. (His grandmother had been an Episcopalian.) He was a member of Lawrencefield Parish Church in Wheeling, serving faithfully as lector and liturgical assistant for the 8 a.m. Sunday service of Holy Eucharist. After worshiping at the Episcopal church, he would hurry back to Bethany where, for many years, he taught an adult Sunday school class at Bethany Memorial Church and attended the Disciples church's worship service. We talked of the similarities in our backgrounds, as I, too, had reclaimed my roots from my Anglican grandfather.
I had the privilege of participating in Dr. Taylor's final alumni tour of England in 1998. We stayed in his beloved Oxford and traveled by train to visit various cities and historical sites. I will always remember the emotion he showed when he took us to a place he regarded as one of the holiest spots on earth, the bombed-out ruins of Coventry Cathedral.
A few days later, Dr. Taylor took our group to Cambridge (which he despised, being a loyal Oxford man). His intention was to get us there, but leave us to explore the city on our own so he could beat a hasty retreat from that "wretched" place. However, a few of us managed somehow to persuade him to accompany us to the American Cemetery located high above the city of Cambridge. We had to take a bus to get there, but once we arrived, all of us, including Dr. Taylor, were deeply moved by our experience of seeing the memorial chapel and the hallowed ground where American troops from World War II battlefields in Europe were buried.
One Sunday, in England, Dr. Taylor and I attended Mattins, Holy Eucharist and Evensong at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. At breakfast the next morning in the Lincoln College dining hall, a member of our group asked where I had been the previous day. Before I could reply, Dr. Taylor responded, "Miss Comins was in church all day, and she was very well behaved." I knew I had arrived as a grown-up!
Dr. Taylor's influence will continue, as some of his former students now teach at Bethany and at other institutions. His wisdom still inspires those of us who are engaged in other professions. He will remain an unforgettable part of our lives.
May light perpetual shine upon John R. Taylor, who has now taken his place among the saints of God.
Linda Comins can be reached via e-mail at: Comins@news-register.net