One of my college professors passed away this week. Dr. Harris Parker was a professor of religion at my alma mater, but I took a freshman orientation course from him, a course I was so convinced would be a complete waste of time. But because of Dr. Parker, it was the opposite.
I applied for college during a blizzard, so I applied to schools where there would be a very small chance of snow, if even a chance at all. I ended up at Columbia College of South Carolina, a women’s college of, at the time, less than 1000 students. I was for three years, I think, the only Yankee. I didn’t say “Ma’am” (though boy howdy I do now), I talked too fast, I was too loud, and I didn’t know diddly crap about the South, its culture, or what that cultural divide meant. I was different. Not always in a good way, either. I was convinced I’d transfer elsewhere in a year. I didn’t think there was any way I’d be happy there. I was wrong there, too.
Freshman orientation was a semester-long course that yielded a 1 hour credit – you can see why I thought it would be a waste of time. But I was encouraged to register for it, so I did, and ended up with Dr. Parker was the instructor. I don’t remember all that much about the syllabus, except how he spoke to us, and that, more importantly, he listened.
I do remember the first day of class. He had a very slow and lyrical way of speaking, and a Southern accent of a type I’d never heard before. Now, Pittsburgh has its own accent – we have a whole dialect, mostly referring to food. And if you ask me, I’ll demonstrate the Pixburgese.
I’d never heard a Southern accent quite like Dr. Parker’s. I’ll be honest: I had trouble understanding at first, not because it was uninteligible. He was actually very clear and articulate. But he spoke very slowly, deliberately, and with a verbal demonstration of the thought that went into his words. Me? I talk fast, faster still if I can move my jaw that quick. But Dr. Parker was my verbal opposite. And in his orientation class, it was like having a quiet conversation with a small group. We could have been on a porch or in a park instead of in those weird chairs with the one-arm desk area for writing (if you’re right-handed). His class more than any other was my crash-course in how to slow down, and appreciate where you are right now.
He had us take the Myers-Briggs personality test – which yielded that I was a very solid way-off-the-edge-of-the-scale introvert. Like, “Stick me in a cave, please” introvert. I remember the class laughing at the idea that I was an introvert. But Dr. Parker nodded thoughtfully and said, “I think that’s right.” He’d not only noticed who I was in an hour a week, but he noticed how I was.
We spend a lot of time here talking about the prevalence of the alpha hero, the loud and brash warrior male who is tamed partially by the magic hoo-hoo of his lady fair. In real life, men like Dr. Parker represent a different kind of hero: the quiet gentleman of intellect and grace. Compassion is itself a form of tangible strength. And while the quiet gentlemen heroes are not as prominent in our discussions of hero archetype, they are themselves powerful. The thoughtful, intellectual hero who is a source of abiding and dedicated strength is a pleasure to read about. Heroes like Christy in Patricia Gaffney’s To Love and to Cherish, or Colin in Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mister Bridgerton, who may not stamp around and pound their chests but whose dedication is equally dominant and powerful.
Last night I did an interview about chivalry, and how it, much like romance, has not vanished from our culture. Dr. Parker would have been an excellent example of its presence. He was, in every sense, a gentle man and a gentleman. He had an unfailingly powerful intellect, limitless compassion, and a quiet sense of humor. The lessons I learned from Dr. Parker are many, but indelibly one simple truth remains: you may never know how far, or for how long, your existence may touch another person. Dr. Parker never taught me a liberal arts course, but he taught me about some very, very fine and crucial arts. Think before you speak. Always, always listen. And sometimes, strength is being quiet. (I’m still working on that last one).
Who are the quiet, gracious, intelligent men who have shaped your life? And why is it so difficult to portray them in fiction, either visual or literary? What hero do you think of in romance when you think of that type of gentleman hero?