If you are a regular observer of this space, you are no doubt familiar with the story I am about to share. I have told it several times over the years. With your indulgence, I would like to tell it again. It is about seeking out a college professor to thank him for turning my life around.
Dr. Raymond A. Cook is his name. Today, he lives in Valdosta, a professor emeritus of English at Valdosta State University and former president of Young Harris College.
When our paths crossed that fateful spring quarter many years ago, he was an English professor at Georgia State. I was a sophomore on academic probation and in danger of flunking out of school. My high school friends had already quit school and had gotten jobs that did not look as menial then as they really were. It seemed just a matter of time until I would join them.
And then, I ended up in an English literature class taught by Dr. Cook. Two things happened in that class that changed my life.
First was the way he taught. Dr. Cook would begin reading Shakespeare or Chaucer or whoever from the textbook and without missing a beat, close the book, lean back and focus on some distant point in space as he continued to recite. I found myself mesmerized as I listened to him. His obvious passion for the written word connected with me. It got me interested in his class and in school and in doing better work.
One day, Dr. Cook asked someone to analyze “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. Much-inspired by now, I volunteered and proceeded to proclaim it one of the world’s great poems. Big mistake. (Trust me on this one; “Trees” is a poorly constructed poem as I was to find out.) Even these many years later, I can remember the scowl on the face of this kind and gentle man.
When I had finished, he proceeded to dress me down in front of the class for not having taken the time to properly study the poem and for not knowing what I was talking about.
“Mr. Yarbrough,” he said sternly, “From now on, you think before you speak!”
Lesson learned and never forgotten. I not only passed his class — no easy job — but I went on to graduate from the University of Georgia and then to a rewarding career where I retired as vice president of BellSouth Corporation and then as a managing director of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games.
Looking back, I shudder to think of the meetings of which I was a part where I was prepared to dazzle those assembled with my wisdom and knowledge on the topic at hand. Then Dr. Cook’s admonition would come to mind: Think before you speak. Keeping my mouth shut and sparing the crowd an observation equivalent to babbling about the symmetry of iambic pentameters within “Trees” probably saved my job more than once.
It took me 40 years to find Dr. Cook and to thank him for inspiring me to stay in college and for teaching me to think first and speak later. He didn’t remember me, but he was delighted that I would take the time and make the effort to look him up and tell him of his impact on my life. After all, isn’t that what teaching is all about?
I don’t know who was the greatest beneficiary of our first meeting, him for having inspired me to finish college or me for letting him know the influence he had on my life.
Out of that initial contact almost 20 years ago has come a treasured friendship. I try to visit Dr. Cook whenever I am in Valdosta, and we correspond regularly via email and telephone. And, yes, after all these years, he is still very much my professor. He wrote me recently to tell me how much he enjoyed a particular column I had written and to point out that I had used the word “prone” where I probably had intended to say “supine.” Dang.
So why am I telling this story again? Last week, Dr. Cook celebrated his 98th birthday, and I could think of no better gift to give him than to thank him publicly for what he has meant to me.
I guess I should give a shout-out to Kilmer as well. Were it not for “Trees,” we might not be having this conversation.