Dr. Bill C. DeWeese
1944 – 2023
I’m thinking about Bill tonight. Bill De Weese, the Division Chair in the Humanities department when I was first hired at the college in 1989. Later he would return to faculty status as a Reading instructor, and we remained close friends. Bill was the second person I ever met on campus. Eleanor, the administrative assistant, was the first, sitting behind her desk in the tiny Humanities Office (which in recent years became Letty’s office, oddly enough).
I’ve told some of this before, but some I haven’t.
My car broke down in the parking lot of the college in August of ’89 when I was returning from Chesapeake to our apartment at the oceanfront. I was in a bad mood because a job I had been promised to teach journalism to high school students was given to someone else. Then the car.
So I walked into the first building and went into the first office and asked to use the phone (Youth: there was no device available to contact anyone else without going into a building or a booth). I was on hold with AAA when Bill came out of his even smaller office and said to Eleanor, “We still need someone to teach Humanities on Wednesday nights.”
“I can do that.”
“Who are you?”
“This young man asked to use the phone. His car broke down.”
“I have a master’s degree in arts and humanities from Penn State.”
“When you’re off the phone would you come see me?”
I went home with one class, three credit hours. That night the phone rang (Youth: This is before caller’s phone numbers popped up to warn you), and it was Bill. “Baaaubb?” Understand, Bill was from Kentucky and talked very slow with a beautiful southern drawl. For thirty-something years, he started every conversation with me that way—“Baauubbb? Can you teach a few more classes starting next week?”
“How about six?”
And so it was for three years as an adjunct—back before restrictions on credit hours, when I was teaching six classes every semester, including college composition, developmental English, American Lit, British Lit, all of it. Scroll back up and read my degrees. Yes, Arts and Humanities. This is critical later.
I remember one class in which I taught Hamlet. I had absolutely no training in Shakespeare, or any literature for that matter, but I really loved that play, especially the Kevin Kline stage version I had just seen, so I taught it in Intro to Literature. The day the reading was due, I asked who read it and everyone admitted they hadn’t. I stood up, told everyone they were absent, and left.
Someone complained to Bill and he called me into his office the next day.
“Baaauuubbbb? I have done that too. And I appreciate why you did it, but perhaps you can just give a quiz.”
The following class I told my students that I was aware someone complained but I didn’t know who, and I wanted them to know the Dean took it seriously and talked to me. Then I asked again who had read Hamlet. No one. I stood up, told them there were all absent, and after so many they would fail the class, and I left. I went to Bill’s office, closed the door, told him what just happened, and I said, “Bill, first of all, how I handle things in the classroom is my business and I don’t appreciate you telling me how to do things. Second, these are adults and should be treated as such and not lead to believe every time they have a complaint you will jump for them.”
Bill was quiet a minute, then smiled, then said, “Baauuubbb. I think everyone today has learned an essential lesson.” He shook his index finger slowly, then said, “Don’t fuck with Kunzinger.” He laughed hard. For thirty years when we passed in the hallway, or when he’d catch my eye from across a division meeting, he’d just shake has finger and we’d both laugh.
God, what a rare, to the bone, decent human being.
Bill died last week.
When I was hired full time, on the day the hiring committee met to make the final choices, I was home. He called and said, “Baaauubb, you’re not qualified for this job! Three years you’ve been here but you’re not qualified. You don’t have an English degree and this position is for English majors.” I told him I took English at PSU as required for the dual degree, but he insisted all the records show all HUM classes.
The following all took place in one hour:
I called the Humanities department at PSU and explained to the Dean of Graduate Studies, Louise Hoffmann, what was going on. She faxed a letter to the committee explaining that all degrees at that time in the Humanities Department at Penn State were listed as HUM, even those with focuses and majors in English.
It satisfied the committee and Bill called back one hour later to tell me I was hired full-time.
The thing is, and I told Bill this sometime later that year, I really wasn’t qualified. I had a scattering of lit courses, and absolutely no college comp courses—my specialty at the college—and I told him that I was basically teaching journalism courses as college comp, since my undergraduate degree was in journalism. Plus I was good in front of a crowd—had been for a decade—and that helped. The upside, Bill pointed out, is that Letty and I were the only two in the department who actually had Humanities degrees and could corner those classes if we wanted. It worked for me.
Still, Bill laughed hard and said, “Well maybe that’s why you’re one of the best comp teachers here!” Then added, “You know, the college will pay for your terminal degree. Why don’t you get one just in case.” So I did, with all the writing and lit courses necessary to move on, albeit fifteen years after starting there.
During those decades, Bill came to my place for Christmas Eve dinner and drinks with his partner, George, several years in a row, was at my son’s baptism and my father’s funeral.
One morning, early, I was walking across campus and saw Bill for the first time in a month and said something. He told me George had been killed by a drunk driver. The drunk hit George’s car forcing him into an oncoming semi. He was killed instantly. He stood there and cried and we went and sat on a bench for hours, talking, sitting quietly. I learned a lot about not talking from Bill.
Three times I read for the community at Bill’s retirement residence in Virginia Beach. The second time just him and I had dinner first, and while we were eating, a woman at the next table died and fell on the floor. I tried not to stare, I really did, and then paramedics came and enclosed the area with walls and the woman she was eating with finished her soup at another table.
Bill said, “I hate when people stare whenever this happens.”
“How often does this happen?!” I did not know the proper etiquette for eating while someone is dead next to you. “I am sorry I stared; I was just shocked. I want to help but the medics were here instantly.”
“Do you want a drink before you read?”
A few weeks after my dad died, I was scheduled to read again about the Camino de Santiago to a group of about sixty residents of Westminster Canterbury. Bill called: “Baauub? Why don’t you bring your mother? I am sure it would do her a world of good to get out. Wally (a former colleague) will be there and we’ll all have dinner first.”
It was a beautiful night, and everyone treated Mom like they’d known her forever. A few weeks earlier at my father’s funeral, he took me to a side room and asked how I was doing, and Mom, and Michael. He said if I wanted to cancel the reading, he would understand, and I said I was still looking forward to it.
“I told Josephine about your daddy. We both cried for you. You two were so close. I remember meeting him in your office once. What a lovely man,” he said.
Oh, Josephine: The first time I read, Bill insisted I arrive early because he wanted me to meet the new love of his life, Josephine. Several times before that night he reminded me and told me he told Josephine all about me and she really is looking forward to meeting me.
I was not sure if Josephine was a really close friend that Bill spent all of his time with or if he had moved to the heterosexual world so late in life, so I didn’t know what to expect.
He met me in the lobby, and we went to his apartment, and Josephine came running out of the bathroom.
A Yorkie. Adorable to be sure, but simply not what I was expecting, though I don’t know why, since Bill spoke of everyone in his life with such love. It was never “My mother,” but “Mother” and never “My father,” but “Daddy,” as if Bill and I had been brothers since birth.
He made me feel that way, to be sure.
RIP Brother Bill.