an anecdote: One morning, during the winter of 1987, as I sat in an English class
at Texas Tech University (it was the ‘Works of John Milton’. Oh, man.) a very
tall, very athletic, very late young man entered the room and sat, with a loud
thud, in one of the chairs along the back row of the classroom. He propped his
feet up onto a chair in front of him. Because he had both interrupted the lecture
and the flow of the class, all eyes for a moment, were trained on him. Several
of us recognized him as one of the stars of the university’s basketball team.
Several of us recognized him because he and the team had just finished competing
in the SWC tournament (How many of us remember the Southwest Conference?). Only
a couple of nights before, the team had been on television losing a very close
game to a much better, much more famous team. Many in the class-strangely, mostly
boys-looked on this young man with tenderness. He returned their stares with an
expression that could only indicate his familiarity with being gazed upon. “I
gotta’ excuse for bein’ late,” he declared in a stentorian voice. He seemed sure
that this would be sufficient effort for explanation. (I was wondering why, after
almost eight weeks into the semester, he was bothering to show up at all.) I remember
that he had no paper, no backpack, no textbook; his arms, long, jointed tools,
were displayed on his desk as the only evidence of his intent to participate in
the class. |
The professor, Thomas A. Langford, was a man to never miss
an opening if presented with one. Dr. Langford was also an instructor who was
not about to allow anyone to dictate the course or progression of his classroom.
He never moved from his position at the podium during the entirety of the grand
entrance, not once did he ahem or grunt or give any indication of discomfiture.
“That’s fine,” he began. “Do you have an excuse for the game the other night?”
The slap of the player’s shoes hitting the floor after being stung with such a
zinger was the perfect, accompanying soundtrack. Waiting a moment to confirm that
there was no excuse, Dr. Langford proceeded with his class and this student sat,
silent and stunned for the entirety. When class was finished, the student hurried
out of the room and when class resumed a day and a half later, he was not there.
In fact, his memory was the only aspect of him that ever did return to class for
the remainder of the semester. He had allowed us all only that one, brief glimpse
of his beatificateness. I, for one, was glad for the episode because, I had, up
that point, suspected that Dr. Langford was extraordinary and now I had both strong
proof and witnesses.
Regrettably, Thomas A. Langford passed away this
past May 2, 2008. The Lubbock Avalanche Journal reported that he was 77 years
old. When I found out about his death, a few months ago, I was just short of devastated.
Dr. Langford had been, for me, one of those persons whose existence made my own
a little more bearable. His presence in the room was a comforting one. His speech
was straight and honest; his manner, affable and easy.
I arrived at Lubbock,
Texas in the winter of 1987. The land was frigid, icy and brittle; the whole
environment was a withered, decaying gray. Academically, I was as dry as the air
and had I not been enrolled, by chance, in an English class with Dr. Langford,
I’m sure that my college career would have died on the vine. He not only assuaged
my fears about my courses, with the requisite term papers and researched, essay
exams, but also helped bring the material into focus. He assisted me with writing
English papers, with understanding ‘Historical Geology’, with exposing ‘Business
Algebra’ (still makes me shudder), with the correct format for writing medical
journal entries. Further, Dr. Langford showed me the importance of a sense of
humor during difficult times, how to shoulder responsibilities when others are
depending on you, where to find courage when it seems lost. He was, in short,
exactly the type of instructor you hope to have for your own classes and the sort
of individual you pray your children discover during their own college years.
There is no doubt but that my memory’s eye views Texas Tech so fondly because
it sees Thomas Langford as the central figure in that exposure.
had a correspondence with Dr. Langford a few years ago-or I thought it was only
a few years. When I went to my e-mail account to read the date of our last exchange
of notes, it was May of 2000. Time had, again, gotten away from me. I was always
about to write him again. When I read about his passing, I had to content
myself with the knowledge that at least I had reached out to him relatively recently.
I had written to him a decade after graduating from Tech and that span of time
seemed, somehow, appropriate. We had spoken of current jobs and projects. He had
retired in 1996 (sort of-the University, recognizing a good thing when they have
one, kept him on as Dean of the doctoral program) and had a friend publishing
a book about the Biblical book of Exodus (Langford was a devout Christian
and would undoubtedly list his charitable work with the Church above any academic
accomplishments.) which he had had a small hand in writing. I was teaching school
in Austin and while he was proud of
the chosen field, he was a little bewildered by the subject-Latin. I told him
that most people are confounded by the notion of it at first and he reiterated
that he thought the whole thing was fantastic.
After I read his
old e-mail, I went to the bookshelf and took down a book entitled, ‘Poetry and
Criticism of Matthew Arnold’. It was one of initially two desk copies that Dr.
Langford had had on his desk one day when I went in to talk with him. (I was always,
whether I was taking a course with him or not, going in to have a talk.) As chance
would have it, our class was studying Arnold that semester. When I mentioned that
I was unfamiliar with Arnold, Dr. Langford handed one of the two copies to me
saying that I should take it home, read it, get familiar. I was embarrassed about
the gift. I thought that maybe I had said something that insinuated that I wanted
him to give me one of the copies. I said I didn’t mean that. He said he
understood and I should take it anyway. I tried to pass it off with a joke. I
said that my mother would never allow me to have such a gift. She may, in fact,
even think that I had stolen the book. Playing along with the joke he took the
text away from me and wrote, on the inside cover: For Byron Arnold Scholar
and Enthusiast Thomas A Langford. “There.” he said, handing the book back,
“You shouldn’t have any trouble with your mother now.” I have the book here. It
is, without question, one of my greatest treasures.
ave atque vale, Dr.