Friday, April 28, 2006

O Captain My Captain

This is something I wrote a year and a half ago, in loving memory of my teacher, mentor and friend. I didn't hear of his passing until months after it happened, and I found out later that there had been a memorial service on September 29, the first anniversary of my father's passing. It seems appropriate to share this today, his 70th birthday.

As a sophomore at the University of Hartford, I found myself "undeclared", searching for something worthwhile and desperately trying to avoid some required course or another. I sat in on an American poetry class and thought, “This is for me. I can do this." I approached the professor at the end of class and asked him to sign a form allowing me to join the class. This professor warned that his was not a typical poetry class. “I’m afraid I’m a bit eccentric,” he cautioned. “That’s what I’m counting on,” I replied. I'd never spoken to a professor that way, especially one I was asking to sign me in to his already full class. But something about this professor and this class clicked. Three weeks into the semester he said, “I suppose it’s time I gave you an assignment. How about you give me a couple of pages on what you think of the class? Write about something you’ve read that you liked or didn’t like, what you think of your classmates, what you think of me…bring them to the next class and I’ll look at them.” I liked that he respected us enough as writers to ask for permission before reading aloud something one of us had written. “Just put a check in the upper right corner to let me know you’re ok with me reading this to the class.” I liked that he took the time to write thoughtful feedback on every paper submitted. These were not mere corrections in the margins, these were detailed notes typed out and stapled to each paper. By the end of the semester, I knew that I wanted to pursue a degree in English and Clayton Hudnall was the advisor I wanted to help me achieve that goal. “Are you sure you want to do this? You know you can’t make money writing poetry.” True enough. But I think he was happy I’d committed to studying something I loved.

We began writing to each other in the summer of 1992. What followed was a twelve year exchange of letters, cards and occasionally email, though he always said email was “disposable and not nearly special enough for a pal like yourself.” His letters came when I needed them, always with humor and affection. He was my link to academic life long after I received my degree and continued to advise me as I made my way in the world. We exchanged war stories about work, poems in progress for constructive criticism, and silly cartoons just for laughs. He wrote lovingly about his children and grandchildren, relishing their happiness. He sent postcards from his many vacations, reminders that he hadn’t forgotten me. He took to calling me “my guy,” and though I never understood why, I never questioned it. I figured it was his version of “kiddo”. Every letter ended with a list of books he had read or films he had seen and a request for what was on my list of must read and see. He mentioned being so pleased with a particular birthday or Christmas card that it was now in a frame (often in his bathroom!). He posed questions he was asking his current crop of students. He encouraged me to write, to read important books, to enjoy my youth and my life. Over the years, “best regards” became “fondly” and eventually, “love”.

What Clayton added to my life is immeasurable. He took me under his wing, shared the stories of his life with me, offered me his friendship and asked only “write when you can.” Well, my guy, this is where I all but run out of words. You changed my life and for that I am so grateful.


Anonymous said...

Beautifully put. A major in English was definitely the right choice for you.

- M

Tk said...

So now it makes sense why you write, when every time I assay something of any length it's just rambling.

alain marty said...

im a very closed friend of clayton,and im glad to see ,that student remembered him so well.we all miss him so deeply

Mr. Benchly said...

I don't know who you are but it seems as though we have a common priceless bond: Professor Hudnall. Here's the tribute I wrote:

Anonymous said...

today 3/24/2009. i m reading your nice note regarding Clayton hudnall.My name is alain Marty and clayton has been my friend for many years.And since he past away i cant stop thinking of him.I'm myself living in new york,and clay and i have been travled in france,Which i'm from.
im also dying from lung cancer and have few months to leave.
Did any one from Hardford university has blog in memery of clayton?????
My email adresse is
i would love to exchange memories about our mutual friend.
hope to read from you soon
alain marty