by John Orlock
Prelude: February, 2018. Late afternoon. The door to my Clark Hall office is open. From the classroom across the hall, I hear the jovial, energetic voice of Professor William Siebenschuh as he holds forth on Canterbury Tales before his undergraduate English class, introducing them to the wit of Chaucer and the wiles of the Wife of Bath. And as he presents Chaucer’s tale, Bill’s account holds the immediacy of an on-line blog about some Hollywood celebrity. At times his teaching style shifts from the relaxed delivery of a skilled standup comic, to the hesitating line of inquiry of Detective Colombo, to the authoritative, patient discourse of a 1950s English professor. For nearly forty years, Bill’s warm, engaging classroom presence has introduced several generations of students to Emma Bovary, Julien Sorel, Robinson Crusoe, and many others: an introduction, also, to the rewards of close reading and connecting with the complex characters of literature.
April 2, 2018. Afternoon. 221 Guilford House. I’m with Bill in his office: an informal interview for an article re his up-coming retirement from CWRU. Sitting in his office is like being in the middle of a three-dimensional collage of personal history: bonsai plants, vines snaking their way along the edges of floor-to-ceiling book shelves stacked with academic tomes; a photo of him playing washboard in an Irish pub band; occasional fish tanks; a plaster death mask of Keats, on which is perched a jaunty red fez; a photo of Bill holding a thirty-pound king salmon. A Stratford Shakespeare Festival poster hangs just above one for The Sopranos. Other shelves behind his desk display several memorable bottles of scotch (empty), a memorable bottle of scotch (half-full), photos of his father, his family, Thomas Hardy. On the front edge of his desk is a life-size plastic rat, its nose clamped by a binder clasp. A whimsical eclectic array of memorabilia, collected with minimal curation across four decades at this university.
Bill leans back relaxed behind his desk, feet propped up on the edge of a pulled-out drawer. In a tattersall button-down shirt and khaki slacks – his usual teaching attire – he conveys the image of an Orvis gentleman at leisure. I ask him about his early years at Case. He tells me he arrived in Cleveland in August 1978 — from Fordham University, where he’d been an assistant professor of English – to assume responsibilities in our Department of English as the new director of composition. “It was a much different university then,” Bill recalls: A contentious merger – the “confederation” – between the two previously autonomous institutions of the Case School of Engineering and Western Reserve College to form Case Western Reserve University had left “scars that were visible and fresh: faculty allegiances still ran deep and feelings were raw… There were tensions between the sciences and the humanities. And these conditions remained for quite a while, more or less until the formation of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1992.”
Another thing he remembers was that in the early 1980s, the freshman class numbered under 600 students, the great percentage of which were from Ohio, versus the national and international demographic of the current student body. But a constant across the years was the high quality of undergraduate and graduate students who attended CWRU: “The good ones (the students) were smart, enthusiastic, and fun.”
In 1985, Bill was appointed Vice Dean for Western Reserve College. Shortly after, he became chair of English, a position he was to hold twice, serving a total of eleven years. During this period, through vicissitudes of faculty dynamics, he was appointed acting chair – simultaneously – for two departments: Art History and Modern Languages & Literatures, a level of departmental oversight arguably unique in University history.
Once stepping down from the Department chair in 2009, he remained in the background as a mentor generous with his time. Mary Grimm – who succeeded Bill as chair:
“Bill talked me into being chair of the department (not quite sure how that happened), but more important, didn’t abandon me when I took it on. He was always there, for a phone call, for an emergency visit in his office, always had good advice about how to go about something, or who in the university to go to for help.”
Although Bill’s academic research centered on Thomas Hardy, Samuel Johnson, and James Boswell, in 2000, his sabbatical leave took him to remote areas of Tibet, where – in collaboration with Case anthropologist Mel Goldstein – he gathered material for three co-authored books dealing with the political, educational, and social change in modern Tibet. Each of these monographs has been published in multiple languages.
Another biographical work, one of which he’s especially proud – Always on My Own: My Life on the Street, co-authored with the subject, James E. “Diz” Long – recounts the memoirs of a professional bodyguard in Cleveland, during the ’60s & ’70s, whose list of clients included such celebrities as Frank Sinatra and Lana Turner.
Four years ago, Bill was named the Oviatt Professor of English, a distinguished professorship whose list of recipients extends back to 1837.
But paralleling his accomplishments as a scholar, administrator, and biographer, was always his love of teaching, and the palpable pleasure he took in guiding discussions of challenging works of literature that dealt with human drama and conflict.
Student quotes reflect Bill’s gift of instilling within his classes – on both the graduate and undergraduate level – confidence to connect on a personal level with great authors – Tolstoy, Flaubert, Swift, Chaucer, Shaw, Stern, and Shakespeare.
“He makes it interesting. After his lectures and stories, the books that we at first had a hard time with began to make sense.”
“Most of the authors we read I’d never heard of… And when we started a new assignment, I always looked forward to Professor Siebenschuh asking us questions about the novels and writers.”
“He stood up there, leaned against the desk and talked to us about Anna Karenina. It didn’t even feel like he was teaching us. He’d just talk to us. About the people in the stories… these characters… And then we’d talk about them. It was neat, really neat.”
“It was because of Professor Siebenschuh’s classes that I became an English major.”
April 30, 2018. 3:05 PM. 210 Clark Hall. The final class of Bill’s forty year’s teaching at CWRU draws to an end. Unknown to him, outside the classroom door a crowd of about 50 people mill about: colleagues, friends, current and former students. They fill the hall and half way down the staircase with the murmur of sotto voce conversations. They’ve come for a surprise “clap out” farewell. After a few minutes, Professor Kim Emmons, organizer of this tribute, enters the classroom, her arms overflowing with a bright bouquet of spring flowers. A few moments later Bill walks into the hallway carrying the bouquet, and the clapping begins. He’s taken by surprise, and the applause continues as he makes his way through the crowded hallway. On and on we applaud. And he moves through the ovation of gratitude – tinged with a certain melancholy sadness – acknowledging the career of an outstanding professor.
He’s at the stairs, and starts down, past a row of students lining the bannister. He reaches the landing, turns. The applause stops in anticipation of what he has to say. “Wow”, he says. And, like a centerfielder who’s just hit a game-winning home run, and pauses before disappearing into the dugout, Bill doffs his Cleveland baseball cap in farewell. “Wow…” Then continues down the last flight of stairs, and out the door. It’s over. And some wonder aloud if this is the twilight of a low-tech era, in which professors such as Bill Siebenschuh thrived: used heart, intellect, and humor to guide students through complexities of the human spirit, as found in an English literature survey course.
Coda: December 28, 2018. 3:30 PM – Bill reflects six months later.
“I was ready to retire when I did and have no regrets. The hardest thing to adjust to has been fully understanding that I’m done. The rhythms of the academic year – first day of classes, teaching schedule, office hours, regular holidays and vacations, final exams, final grades, summers off and then do it all over again in the fall – get into your head after forty-seven years. They don’t go away just because you turn in your keys and parking pass and get your final paycheck. When a big freight train, a hundred cars of coal, gets up to speed, it has so much forward momentum that it takes several miles to bring it to a full stop. Some kind of psychological analogue of that is what I think I’m talking about. It’s going to take me a while.”