Toward the end of my rocky path to a Ph. D. in English, my major professor started behaving strangely. For example, more than once he had me research and include what seemed to me superfluous segments in my dissertation and then in a week or two he questioned why they were there. I confess I was somewhat relieved but truly concerned when another scholar on my committee informed me my major professor had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. That was in 1973 and it was the first time I had heard of the disease. My major professor was a phenomenal scholar and a brilliant teacher and he had become a valued and trusted friend. It was sad for me and for him that he was required to “hand off” the directorship of my project to a young professor I hardly knew.
I finished the dissertation forthwith and the five-person committee approved it and set up my defense, that dreaded two-hour session at which scholars from various fields of English and American literature question everything about your book. The new guy informed me of a tradition I certainly knew by that time, that of assigning an “outside professor” from another department to sit in on and participate in the session. That outside professor called me not many days hence and said, “Mr. Ford, this is Dr. Blank from the Blank department. I have been assigned to attend your dissertation defense. I have read your book and these are the questions that came to mind.” I grabbed a tablet and pencil, I said, “Oh, great. Go ahead.” The man had some really deep and profound questions for me, three of them. They were somewhat odd as well, such as the one about how a certain section of my dissertation reflected the work of Einstein. Imagine—asking about the theory of relativity as it relates to Faulkner’s uses of time in fiction.
Anyway, I appreciated the care with which he had read, marked and inwardly digested my work and I used the remaining weeks before the defense to prepare answers for those three erudite questions. When the great day arrived, I put on my good suit, slicked my hair down and walked into the seminar room with all the confidence I could muster—not much. There sat my erstwhile major professor, who gave me a warm though wan smile. I could see that it was torture for him to let go and I wanted him back as my leader, regardless of the difficulties that would entail. But, things moved rapidly. The newly assigned professor said, “Mr. Ford, since we have invited Dr. Blank from the Blank Department, courtesy dictates that we should allow him to examine you at the outset.”
I talked a good 20 minutes in response to his first question and a similar length of time in response to the other two. Apparently, that set a positive tone for the others. It was supposed to go on for two hours but we finished much sooner. The first person to shake my hand was the original leader. I told him I owed a lot to his leadership and with a twinkle, he replied, “And to Dr. Blank.”