Thursday, March 15, 2012

Farewell to Bill

Professor Bill French, one of the English Department’s best friends for over six decades left us on February 18, 2012. Bill’s department homepage can still be read here, and on it, he recalled his history with WVU and the English Department.

“I came to Morgantown in the fall of 1950 and entered WVU, from which I graduated as an English major in 1954. After graduation, I worked in a variety of jobs and spent two years in the US Army. In 1959 I started in an MA program at the University of Pittsburgh, which I completed in 1960 with a thesis on the poetry of Matthew Arnold. I went on at Pitt for a PhD and completed that degree in 1967, writing a dissertation on Shakespearean (and non-Shakespearean English Renaissance) tragedy that centered on King Lear, a play I still love, teach often, bend all my intellectual and emotional resources to, and believe yields useful and inspiring insights into the human condition. . . . I returned happily to WVU, my alma mater, in 1964 and became Professor of English in 1986, teaching a wide variety of courses and publishing a number of scholarly essays in learned journals as well as articles in popular magazines.”

What Bill doesn’t say about himself as a teacher whom our students not only admired but loved is indicated by a former student of mine and Bill’s who is now a professor herself at the University of the Pacific and who wrote to me recently: “He was such a wonderful professor —and I'll never forget the night he went with a group of students to Sunnyside. We hauled him from bar to bar . . . what a trouper! He'll be sorely missed by many people.” When I wrote above that Bill was a “friend” to the Department, I was thinking of the way he made everyone around him comfortable and glad to be in his company. That’s why students in graduate classes, like this one, wanted him to come along with them away from the classroom where they could buy him a beer and show their appreciation for his support of their own studies. I suspect that he never taught a class that he didn’t have his students to his home to work over some scenes in a play, to watch a film of Othello or King Lear or just to celebrate the end (or even the beginning or the middle) of the semester. He and his wife Marty are among the most gracious people I know.

He was indeed a trouper! Bill loved the theatre, not just to see and talk about a play, but to act in one, to think about its production and its design, too. His courses allowed him to deliver that St. Crispin’s Day Speech to his students who unwittingly played “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers [and sisters]" to his Henry. And not just Henry, but Caesar and Orlando and even Lady Macbeth and then Stanley and Blanche in his American drama courses.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bill was a stalwart member of the local Town and Country Players. In the 1980s, I was privileged to repeat his role as Eliot in Private Lives, and had the very great advantage of his coaching me followed by a very generous review of my part in the production afterwards. I loved playing poker with him, which I did often, but better than that was talking with him about how to make a line work or what's at the heart of a scene.

He began to work with Maryat Lee, who was one of the originators of street theatre during the 1950s in Harlem, but then moved to Hinton, West Virginia, and brought experimental theatre with her where it thrived for a time. Bill spent untold hours writing the chapter Lee played in American drama, and of course became a friend in a way that scholars do not always befriend their subjects. I'll never forget meeting Maryat Lee at Bill's house and being told by her how she despised "theatrical people," and then watching her perform a scene from one of her own plays as theatrically as anything I've ever seen. It was, quite simply, an astoundingly dramatic moment. But it wasn't unusual for such things to happen at Bill's home. And as I remember, many members of the Department were there, as often they were, that evening. Indeed, it was at Bill's home that I met John Gardner, the author of Grendel with whom I shared my Beowulf class the next day. During those years, if the Department had an unofficial home where more often than not we met each other socially, it was at 212 South High Street.

I last spoke to Bill on the phone when he and Marty were headed for the cruise which ended so sadly. I was in rehearsals for Lysistrata and Bill was talking excitedly about that play and theatre groups I should audition for. I heard about his death just before a Saturday night’s performance of the play.

In that last discussion with Bill, I asked him about an actor named Adam Pribila whom I'd recently met and whom he may have seen in a company of Shenandoah performers he had greatly admired. "A very good actor," said Bill. Adam, too, remembered Bill who stayed after performances to talk with the actors, and upon learning of Bill’s death, he dedicated his performances in a recent production of Much Ado About Nothing to him in the program. Very few of us have loved what we taught so much as Bill did and it was always apparent to others who love it as well. That's another reason he was indeed a trouper.

His son, Edward, wrote movingly in his father’s careful and succinct style about Bill’s passing: “After decades of a wonderful and fulfilling life, my father, William Wirt French passed away on Saturday morning. He died at sea, after a wonderful evening. It was quick and painless, and he avoided his greatest fear of a prolonged withering away of his health and his mind. He was an educator, a lover of art, a great father who was involved in his community, among many other things.”

All of us who knew you miss you, Bill.

Bill’s full and official obituary is available here.

1 comment:

  1. Theres one more sense in which Bill was a trouper. The transformations in the discipline that his career spanned were truly dizzying, and, I understand, not always very civil in Stansbury Hall, but even at the end of his career there was nothing of the museum about Bill. I took his last graduate seminar, and I remember his gamely expounding prevailing contemporary readings that I know he was dubious of. Nor will I forget how in that class some of my number who had glibly dismissed Bill as old-school reacted with shock at the undiluted glee he took in Marlowe's Barabas. Before long, we were all laughing with him.