Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois

Illinois Department of English Blog


Welcome to the Department of English blog.

My name is Vicki Mahaffey and I took over as
head of the department on July 1, 2016. I'll be using this site to post updates and information of interest to our faculty, students, and alumni,
along with reflections about our discipline(s) in particular and the humanities in general. As anyone who has ever worked or studied here knows, the Department of English is a vibrant place. If you have something you'd like to see posted here, or if you want to contact me about the content of this blog, drop me an email at

Monday, February 13, 2012

An alum's recollections

I have been the happy recipient this past few months of several lovely and moving letters from alums reflecting upon how their time at Illinois shaped their subsequent lives for the better. Some of these have concerned faculty members I know or have known, and some (like the one below) come from well before my time. But I find all of them enormously moving, both because they remind me of how fortunate I am to represent a program that has done so much good for so long and also because they offer the most vivid possible proof of the importance that teachers can have in people's lives.

As teachers, we know that we are trying to do more each semester than just convey facts and information--we are all, I think, trying to do our best to show students what it means to be an engaged intellectual, to give them the tools to understand the world in a richer way, and to foster the kind of critical curiosity that is (I believe) a necessary part of life well-lived. When I hear from alums who want to praise the faculty who helped with these things, part of me responds because I too had teachers who were instrumental in fostering these things and part of me responds because I hope to have had such a positive influence on some students too, when all is said and done. This is powerful stuff.

I thought I might share some of these with you from time to time, always with the permission of whomever has sent them in to me. So here goes...


Mr. Perry:

I am responding to your invitation to "hear more about (my) experiences in the department."

First, I am now, incredibly, 79 years of age, and fully engaged in a second life. After 30 years with the University of Southern California, from which I retired early at age 59 in 1992, I stumbled into this miracle, which now has had me help 40 good souls by recording and then writing their autobiography for their children, grandchildren, colleagues, and friends. It is a joyful activity, one client passing me on to another for the past 20 years. I hope it never ends.

If my good fortune did not begin with Esther Jorgensen, my freshman English teacher at Farragut High School in Chicago, then it must have begun with J.N. Hook or Leah Trelease at the U of I. All three of these great teachers provided the inspiration that motivates me to this day.

Mr. Hook somehow became my adviser when I arrived in Champaign-Urbana, as we called it then, as a callow upper sophomore in the fall of 1951. He was a man of infinite kindness and, I believe, was the head of the National Council of Teachers of English. We met with some frequency in his Lincoln Hall office to discuss literature, teaching, and life in general. He smoked his pipe and I listened to his soft comment. He critiqued my "teaching" in his class on methods and practices and was the first to comment on my facility for thinking on my feet. Until he took note of that, I had no awareness of it, but it has since stood me in good stead through two long careers. J.N. Hook was a great, kind, gentle man. I have never forgotten him.

Leah Trelease. I took two semesters of her class on the American short story. She had been dean of women, I understand, and had decided to return to the classroom. Glasses perched on the top of her head, she queried us all relentlessly, urging us to dig and find meaning in what the author was trying to say. One memorable Monday morning, she called on six successive students, and none had read the story. I recall vividly the tears that swelled up in her eyes as she told us to "Get out!" and come back when we were prepared. She cared.

She also invited another student, Don Seigel, and me to her home one summer day. She was the wife of Sidney B. Trelease, university realtor, and she lived very well. In her garden she served two Chicago street boys lobster canapes and white wine. Neither of us had heard the word canape before. Nor do I believe I had ever had any wine before that was not Manischewitz. That afternoon she talked to us as if we were her colleagues, as if literature were all of life. How clearly I remember that day after 60 years! I have tried to honor Mrs. Trelease's memory with a modest gift each year since I left the campus in 1955.

Several years ago I returned to Illinois and my wife and I drove to the campus. I was pleased to discover that a dorm had been named in memory or honor of Leah Trelease. That afternoon I asked half a dozen students who were entering or leaving the dorm if they knew whom it had been named for. None of them had any idea who she was.

Thanks for asking.

Gordon Cohn


If you are an alum and you are reading this, I'd love to hear from you too!

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