Dear friends and colleagues,
I am sadly blessed with recalling some of what the late Roger Salomon meant to the English Department during his time as a faculty member and afterwards from his enduring influence. Not all of you reading this will have known him or known him well, although current faculty and graduate alumni will always remember and cherish the holiday parties that he and his wife Betty hosted at their wonderful house on Coventry Road. Far more than that, for much of the second half of the twentieth century Roger personified the department’s ideals of graciousness, generosity, and integrity.
Let me begin with briefly recounting his academic biography, then offering my own eulogy to the man who more than any other was my mentor, and finishing with the recollections of the colleagues and students whose lives he touched. At the end I have included an alphabetical list of those who provided reminiscences and remembrances. Please note the length of this list: I would have liked to include everyone’s thoughts but if so I would be typing until 2021. Also, because some of the remembrances are from private correspondence with Betty, I have kept all of them anonymous, although in most cases the identity is obvious enough from context.
Born in 1928 and growing up on the East Coast, Roger graduated from Harvard in 1950, the year he and Betty married, then went west for graduate school, receiving his PhD from Berkeley in 1957. A childhood anecdote for which I claim no reliability says that, like the fictional Eloise, during the 1930s he and his mother lived at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
After five years in the English department at Yale, he came to the then Western Reserve University, just before it merged with Case Institute of Technology, and in the next years played a major role in curricular and organizational issues arising from the new Case Western Reserve University. He later continued to take important leadership roles, especially as chair of the English Department in the 1970s and as the director of the department’s graduate programs until his retirement.
Salomon’s scholarly achievements began with work on Mark Twain, culminating in Twain and the Image of History (Yale UP, 1961). At Case he worked chiefly in Anglo-American novels and poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, publishing in addition to scholarly articles two further books: Desperate Storytelling: Post-Romantic Elaborations of the Mock-Heroic Mode (Georgia, 1987) and Mazes of the Serpent: An Anatomy of Horror Narrative (Cornell, 2002). He taught courses in all of these areas, often with a specific focus on James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. He retired from the university and the Oviatt Professorship in 1999 but continued to advise colleagues and graduate students for many years thereafter.
Salomon died in October 2020 at the age of 92. In addition to his teaching and scholarship, he is especially remembered as a sterling mentor to graduate students and younger faculty and also as the professor who likely directed more doctoral dissertations than anyone in the department’s history. He is remembered as well, along with his wife Betty, as the social, intellectual, and moral heart of the English Department for more than a quarter of a century.
To me Roger was prime mentor and role model especially in advising graduate students, in teaching. and in leading the legendary herd of cats that is any academic department. We also overlapped considerably in our teaching and scholarly interests.
Thanks to Roger’s earlier patience and care leading the department when it came my time to serve we required far less obstreperous herding than most. Roger strongly disliked attending academic conferences, except when needed for hiring purposes, so had little perspective on our reputation nationally as a model of civility. Except for my telling him so and him perhaps disbelieving, he did not know that other English Departments were amazed to hear that at Case we generally got along amicably and respected one another.
Most new faculty, notably Lou Giannetti who delivered a wonderful, eloquent speech at the funeral, remember how Roger and Betty reached out to all new hires even before they arrived and without necessarily yet having met them. Not me, as Roger was on sabbatical when I belatedly showed up as a late June appointment. But when the Salomons returned the next year they made up for lost time, and this culminated in their inviting us to stay with them in London a few years later, first time overseas for the kinda starstruck Marilyn and me.
Later when I came to serve my first term as chair of the department, replacing him in the role, he provided invaluable advice and guidance as associate chair and director of graduate studies. Also direct help. He had chaired the department at a time of financial exigency, when there was hardly money for essentials, like composition instructors, much less amenities like paper or duplicating facilities. We certainly did not have visits or talks from outside speakers and except for department meetings, which did not include undergrad majors, we also had no regular get togethers.
So Roger invented the long-lasting Sherry Hour, with readings from whatever poet or writer would cost little or nothing, and he supplied the sherry. This sometimes got us in trouble with Student Affairs, as under-age undergrads were welcome, but we always managed to outwit Boss Hogg.
He and I served on dozens of doctoral orals and dissertation defenses, where he was often the Good Cop but we always came to agree, and we continue—I can ghostly speak for him here, I hope—to be proud of every student’s accomplishments. There were many.
Not that the man did not have his idiosyncrasies. While the department was still in the unreconstructed Clark Hall his office was on a barely heated third floor walkup that required lung and leg power of any petitioners. And if he felt some impatience with your petition you might notice him clicking rapidly on a ballpoint pen or rearranging the vase of Walden water on his desk. When we moved to Guilford, a disruption of which he disapproved, he insisted on the noisiest, least convenient office in the building, right next to the elevator. The Walden water remained in place, and the ballpoint was at hand.
Via Facebook, email, tributes on the funeral parlor website, and cards and letters, more than fifty messages about his impact have arrived. Some are brief, some are more personal than others, but they are striking in their unanimity. To everyone with whom he came in contact, Roger was the epitome of the gentleman. He is remembered universally for his moral and intellectual integrity, his generous spirit and sly wit, and his ability to encourage the best work in others.
A selection of tributes and remembrances:
From a long-time colleague: When I think about Roger Salomon, I always think of the word “gentleman.” It’s not a word I see used much as a high compliment anymore or a word of praise taken terribly seriously, but I mean it seriously and I mean it as the highest compliment. When I came to Case in 1978 it was as Director of Composition. Roger was the chair and so I worked fairly closely with him from the beginning. He was unfailingly kind, patient with me as I learned the ropes, and tolerant of my enthusiasms. Watching him work was an education. He cared about people and about detail. I remember sitting with him till after six o’clock in an office in Clark Hall, yellow legal pads full of numbers and pencils worn to stubs, trying to find and correct an error in the budget for grad TAs. Nobody went home till we found it. In difficult situations he was extremely tactful but no pushover. He saw problems early and clearly, and he could make tough decisions because he knew what was important and what wasn’t. Former graduate student Mary Annable once told me, “Roger knows when to do something and when to let things alone.” I couldn’t put it better myself. Scholar, teacher, chair, Roger piloted the ship of the department through some rough seas; his Joyce course was famous; and he was a beloved grad director for years. He told me once that being grad director was what he enjoyed most. He said, “It was all I ever really wanted to be.” But he was much more. He was a presence in the department, a force for decency, civility, and professionalism. The Salomons’ famous hospitality and Roger’s high seriousness and high standards kept us together and pointed in the right direction in some fractious times. It’s hard to find people like that at any time. Even harder to lose them.
From a former student: As a graduate student in the nineties, I was lucky to attend, for several years, the Salomon holiday party. And though my description of it may sound like nostalgia, I assure you that it is not: the food, warm and mirage-like, covered the entire dining room table, a fire roared in the chimney, and whatever you might be drinking never seemed to run out. It was a Fezziwigian affair. For us, the attic people of Guilford who lived mostly with their books in chilly apartments, going to that warm house, often in the snow, was a welcome escape from grades and planning for comps. Betty would greet you at the door with a great welcome and take your coat and you would be inside, for a few hours, away from the onslaught. It was competitive in those days, and though some of it was no doubt in our own minds, there were few respites from the work. The party was one of the good ones.
In the middle of it all was Roger. One thing you need to know is that no one — at least in my time — called him Professor Salomon. It was just Roger. It was a name that has always been a perfect fit: Salomon, Moore, Federer; all part of the same blend of charm and sophistication. The name of a professional, but with that spark that is impossible to quantify. If you’re reading this, you probably knew the man. I need say no more.
One year at the party, a rumor started that Roger and Betty owned an original Picasso. I don’t remember who said it (really), only that it was an outlandish statement that we immediately and wholeheartedly believed to be true. Some of us looked, that night, I admit. But no Picasso.
Sometime later, I wrote a poem about it. I don’t know why. I anonymously sent it to the Case Reserve Review and they published it in a bright green pamphlet and put it out by the radiators. I thought no one would read it. When I showed up to some kind of Friday department meeting, everyone was talking about it. I was glad I had not signed it. I had taken one class with Roger and had been only half-into it, earning a “B” in the process (he was terrific; I just didn’t like Virginia Woolf, except for The Waves). I should also admit at this point that the poem was a little risque. So when Roger finally walked into that meeting, wearing that perfect yellow sweater over the white oxford, everyone cheered about the poem. Roger, with that twinkle of his, gave his involuntary smile, the one that tugged at the corner. He then said, in that bass voice of his: “Well, I quite liked it.”
From another long-time colleague and also former student: Not all were so quick with “Roger”: He was Professor Salomon to me – even when I became a colleague – even years after I had finished my degree, but somehow, as we worked together – he as Chair or Graduate Director and I as Director of Composition – I finally managed to say “Roger” to his face. And what a collegial experience it was to work with him, not just for me and my faculty colleagues, but, in my student days, to all of us graduate students, as he “chaired” and “directed” us. While we were still in the un-renovated, un-air-conditioned, roach infested but beloved department “home” – Clark Hall, we had to trudge up those long flights of stairs to get to his office on the top floor, but the conversation was always worth it. Then there were those spontaneous meetings on that grand, but only stair case, as grad students, faculty, undergrads, department assistants all used them to get to wherever we had to go, and important conferences took place there as well. There was actually an advantage to the absence of an elevator. Yes, to all of us he was the Professor – more recently Oviatt Professor, but at the same time, always friendly, always gracious, always ready to talk over a paper, a course plan, a financial crunch. He treated our every paper or seminar comment with the greatest respect, even as he offered his critiques and sent us back to the drawing board – a gentleman and a scholar indeed.
In department meetings Roger’s voice, low and calm, could cut through dissent with an opinion that was thoughtful and wise, and therefore respected. In those days, grad students were all invited to sit in on the meetings and voice our opinions and questions, which became part of our introduction to the workings of the department and its priorities as well as to the profession. One meeting that stands out for me concerned choice of a faculty candidate. The debate centered on how closely each finalist met the criteria on the search’s “checklist.” A couple of candidates seemed to fit exactly. Which one to choose? Then Roger spoke up, and in his quiet, wise way pointed out that in focusing too closely on the checklist, we were passing up the one candidate who looked brilliant – the best, most creative mind. Roger took us out of our narrow box, and fortunately, his opinion prevailed.
In a wholly different kind of meeting, those of us most involved with choosing graduate T/A applicants were agonizing over those few remaining slots, good candidates still remaining in the to-be-chosen group – but with not enough slots for them all. So, as those meetings go, we were weighing the pros and cons of each one. And then Roger, who had interviewed them all at length, in person, introduced a whole new term – his words: “the desire factor.” What a concept to throw in with GRE’s and transcripts and recommendations.
Such thinking was Roger’s hallmark: he was a tough prof – A’s were not easily come by. Yes, he was demanding – whether of quantity or standards of excellence – standards surely influenced by his own education: a BA from Harvard, a PhD from Berkeley; yet at the same time always giving of his time and incisive intelligence to make us the best scholars and writers we could be. In conferences, in exams, in dissertation advising, he cut to the chase. He organized and made us organize. I came to him with a beautiful outline for a paper on To the Lighthouse. He perused it thoughtfully, drew a circle around item IIB and said – there, that’s your paper. Well, gulp – oh – but it was good advice from which I benefited not only for a paper, but for my teaching and subsequent writing. “Sharper focus” kept resonating in our heads. Then too, you never walked out of his office without suggestions of books – even with the books. We were encouraged, told: That’s fine – but you could do it better. And we did.
Roger deserves much of the credit for my return to Robert Frost. Directing composition with one course off a year, and before the days of a research leave, teaching, writing a text book for ESL composition (a bird in hand looking better than two in the bush), the knowledge that returning to Frost would involve broadening my scope, and including contemporary theorizing, I had just let it go. That is until Roger, who had served on my dissertation committee, brought me up short with one sentence: “It would be criminal not to publish that dissertation.” “Criminal” – who could ignore that
But why should I just go on about the Roger I know? I thought it might be nice to include little snippets of what other former graduate students had to say. I contacted those I was still in touch with from the Roger Era, but they felt moved to write more, their own “Roger stories.”
“Mostly I remember his thoughtful longhand comments and his seemingly endless patience in teaching me to ‘cut, cut, cut—focus, focus, focus!’ I quote him to my students all the time. . . . He convinced me that my project was meaningful and that I should stick with it.”
“All of my ‘major events’ as a graduate student have Roger solidly in the picture. . . . He was truly a guidepost for me, and I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. . . . He taught me much about how to balance the rigors of graduate school and growing up responsibly with having a whole lot of fun.”
“As he has done for so many others, Roger inspired my confidence with his quiet ways, his sparkling eyes, his quick perception, and his sincere advice.”
“Beyond embodying the life of the mind, he is living testament to the idea that the very purpose of the humanities is to humanize.”
From a colleague and former student: My memories of Roger Salomon are in three different categories of before, during and after my doctoral studies with him. When I met with him before I began the doctoral program back in 1982, I will never forget how he apologized for being a bit intrusive in asking whether my then husband was in support of my return to graduate school to earn a PhD. He shared that it had been his experience in advising graduate students over the years that if there’s anything that will make some people turn to God it’s a dissertation and divorce! Years later, after my dissertation, divorce, and call to ministry, I remember him chuckling at my sharing how prophetic that question and observation was! Once I began doctoral studies, Roger’s American Realism course is where I first read the work of writer Sarah Orne Jewett. His positive response to my paper on her led me to continue making connections between her writing and that of Toni Morrison. Though the cross-cultural connection was unique at the time, Roger, who I asked to serve on my committee, and Gary Stonum, my dissertation director/advisor and mentor, encouraged me to pursue it. For that reason, I include Roger in the acknowledgements for my first book on Toni Morrison. His encouragement and intermittent mentoring made a huge difference. Finally, after I returned home to Cleveland to become the university’s inaugural Vice President for Inclusion, Diversity, I occasionally visited Roger and Betty at their home, when I moved to the apartment building that was two doors from their home. Sitting in the living room of the famous house where so many English Department gatherings had taken place was beyond comforting. Roger always seemed to regard me like a returning relative and the feeling was mutual. When I took a homemade carrot cake to him and Betty to celebrate their move to their condo around the corner from my home, I loved the familiar feeling of returning to spend time with beloved friends as an important requirement for spiritual health. The joy from the relaxed, easy sharing of stories, ideas and observations about life with Roger and Betty will remain with me always. He was a brilliant mentor and a stellar human being in all the ways that truly matter!
From someone who joined the department in mid-career: Roger Salomon exemplified the idea of mentorship. His generosity of spirit and awareness of what people need to thrive was extraordinary, and I am so grateful to have known him. No matter at what point one finds a mentor, that person’s influence continues through a lifetime, even when personal contacts become more tenuous.
When I arrived at CWRU as a fledgling dean in 1989, Roger was among the first to take me under his wing, as it were, to welcome me to the university and teach me useful parts of its “political” history—as well as modelling exemplary collegial behavior. Including me in their wonderful holiday parties, Roger and Betty introduced me to students and faculty in a way that was both welcoming and generous, that would not have happened otherwise.
When I discovered that Roger and Betty shared my love of early music, and my desire to help the early music faculty, I was made aware of their practice of putting their thoughts into action. The padded cushions that came to Harkness Chapel in 1990 or ’91 were their gift—and made an enormous difference to the audiences, both in comfort and in acoustical pleasure. Over the years they made other significant gifts to the Early Music Program.
Roger had many students who later distinguished themselves as academics, and he was always glad to see them and support them. Their devotion to him was very evident. I expect the word “gentleman” to appear in many of the tributes that will appear now. It’s not an empty word in a time when his like is very hard to find. He was an intellectual in the best sense; he led in the formation of the unusually humane ethos of the English Department, keeping it open and nurturing to junior faculty as they found their places in the department and the university. Whenever I had a dilemma about faculty or policy, as dean and later as department chair, Roger was my “go to” sounding board. He never let me down.
From a co-worker: I learned more from when I served as department assistant [than as a graduate student]. The challenges included difficult personnel decisions, tense budget negotiations, complex scheduling issues, and so forth. Roger remained calm and focused. He treated everyone with respect and had a remarkable gift for finding good solutions.
From a younger colleague: Roger often punctuated his conversation with a (sometimes wry) “if you know what I mean” or “do you see what I’m saying” – and I always thought of those moments as quintessentially Roger. The little phrases invited you, the listener, into the conversation as a collaborator, a contributor, sometimes, a conspirator. It is a hallmark of his generosity that he never needed to hold the floor just to hear himself talk, but that he genuinely wanted to connect with everyone he encountered.
Allan Benn, Shelley Bloomfield, Amanda Booher, Eric Broder, Barbara Burgess-Van Aken, Ann Carter, Kent Cartwright, Bill Claspy, Kim Emmons Claspy, Georgia Cowart, Dennis Dooley, Leigh Fabens, Suzanne Ferguson, Chris Flint, Lynn and Jeff Ford, T. Kenny Fountain, Mark Franciola, Evelyn Gajowski, Donna Gessell, Lou Giannetti, Mary Grimm, Charlie Haddad, Bonnie Jacobson, James Jaros, Amy Kesegich, Carla Kungl, Marie Lathers, Nancy Lerner, Kathy Manos, Terri Mester, Nancy Miller, Marilyn Sanders Mobley, Susan Mohorcic, Ken Moody-Arndt, Todd and Cindy Oakley, Judy Oster, Len and Joanne Podis, Nick Ranson, Brad Ricca, Sharon Scinicariello, Kelly Searsmith, Bonnie Shaker, Carrie Shanafelt, Bill Siebenschuh, Jane Smith, Jerry Smith, Kathy Soltis, Rob and Diana Spadoni, Jennifer Swartz-Levine, Cyrus Taylor, Thrity Umrigar, Carolyn Van Dyke, Mardy Van Nortwick, Athena Vrettos, Joy Ward, Jen Waters, Martha Woodmansee, Mary Wrubel, Susan Zull