The Quiet Man of Strength

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?

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  1. 1
    Tina Burns says:

    Brought me to tears Sarah.  I didn’t have that in college, but I did in high school. My sophomore and junior English teacher. Very similar, quite, slowly soft spoken.  Really taught me to look beyond the surface and not just in literature, but in life.  Hmm, he’s a FB friend now, I’m gonna go thank him. Thank you Sarah.

  2. 2

    Thank you for this lovely post. It’s easy to forget there are quiet heroes like this (male and female, actually). I appreciate the reminder.

  3. 3
    Nadia says:

    I was lucky enough to have two managers like that when I was younger.  Men who genuinely wanted their employees to learn, grow, and succeed.  For a girl in her twenties who all two often forgot tact in the face of honesty and let her temper lead her when age and sex was held against her, their mentoring made a hell of a difference. 

    A quiet, intellectual, gracious hero?  The first guy I thought of is Ford from NR’s Tribute.  Slightly geeky, up in his own head, momma raised him right, and rock solid for the heroine.

  4. 4
    Betsy says:

    A wonderful piece, Sarash—thanks for writing.  (Women’s colleges ftw, by the way!)
    I’m currently working on a YA fantasy novel featuring a very quiet, thoughtful, gentlemanly hero.  My tastes in real-life men definitely run that way, too, and I agree that they get fer too little representation in romance.

  5. 5
    joanneL says:

    Those wonderful people that touch our lives forever and yet, so often, we never tell them. I hope there is a ‘revelation’ of sorts for all of them, a place or time when they realize that they made a difference in the world of at least one other human being.

    I love the alphas, I love the beta heroes too, but there is that combination—a sort of wistful longing for the combination of all things good that keeps the TBR pile growing. It’s one of the many reasons, too, that I think romance books and their readers can’t be intellectualized. There is that search for qualities that are magical or mystical or something other.

    And I don’t know what any of that means but hugs to you Sarah on recognizing and appreciating the gentleman hero.

  6. 6
    Ros says:

    That’s Colonel Brandon, isn’t it?  Quiet, gracious, intelligent, chivalrous, seeing the real woman behind all the chatter.  Not really my type, but I can see why others appreciate men like that.

  7. 7
    Serena says:

    Thank you for this great post. Made my think of my uncle, who dies almost an year ago, because he was exactly like you described.

  8. 8

    Aw, Sarah, that really choked me up. Beautifully said.

    It’s difficult to show a quiet man like that because so much of what he does is quiet and unobtrusive and doesn’t demand attention. Where (oversimplified) story=character in conflict, a quiet man doesn’t demonstrate his conflict overtly, which can give the impression that he isn’t having one—that he just is, and there’s nothing wrong here, move along. While that makes for an amazing man, it’s harder to show on the page unless the story is slow enough moving that his gentle ways, gentlemanly behavior, kindnesses, chivalry, strength, aren’t ignored for the action needed to move the scene along.

    Colonel Brandon’s an excellent example, mentioned above.

  9. 9

    My grandfather was such a man. Quiet, thoughtful and wise, he taught me many things before he died when I was ten.  We spent a lot of time on long walks or in his workshop building things.  He was my homework buddy and my playmate. The most valuable lesson he taught me, I think, was to judge a person by his or her actions.  I miss him all the time even after 24 years. 

    My favorite hero of quiet strength—at least the first one that comes to mind who is not my grandfather—is John Wayne’s character in the Quiet Man.  Not a book but one of the most romantic movies for me.  It may be a little dated now but it will always be one of my favorites.  It impressed on me at an early age just how sexy and amazing the strong quiet hero can be.

    @SB Sarah, my sincere condolences for your loss of this dear teacher.  What a gift that he could touch your life so deeply.  The essay was really a beautiful tribute.

  10. 10
    scribblingirl says:

    Sarah, that was a wonderful tribute to that rare gentleman that gets overlooked at times in favor of the more aggressive hero. I only know three men like that in my life, my grandpa, my dad and my favorite teacher Mr. Banks from high school. I remember Mr. Banks vividly as he was the type of man that you gravitated to for his conversations, his wit, his intelligence and most of all, his patience. I could only hope that many students have that kind of teacher in the schools today..
    Sarah, thank you again for your lovely post…

  11. 11
    Scrin says:

    Reminds me of a college professor I had the other year. I’ll shake his hand the next time I see him…

  12. 12
    MB says:

    Quiet gentlemen (faithful, caring, intelligent, protective, respect-worthy, family-loving) are my favorites!

    Colonel Brandon was always my favorite Austen hero. 

    A lot more flamboyant but would slightly fit into this category might be Jamie Fraser.  Suzanne Brockmann’s Stan Wolchonek (sp?), and some of Georgette Heyer’s heroes (The Toll Gate, The Quiet Gentleman, Lady of Quality, A Civil Contract, etc.)

  13. 13

    A lovely post, Sarah.  I’m sorry for your lost. 

    I’ve been blessed to have a couple of men of quiet strength in my life.  I even married one, and I thank God for him every day.

  14. 14

    Condolences, Sarah. What a lovely portrait of a great man.

  15. 15
    Elyssa Papa says:

    Oh, Sarah, I’m so sorry for your loss. This post was deeply moving and touching. Thank you for sharing your memories of Dr. Parker.

    My 11th grade English teacher was a quiet, gentle man, whose love of literature always came out in his teaching. He was the type you wanted to impress, and his image is ingrained in my mind. I have clear memories of going to his office—-a closet, really—-and him eating his lunch, of him taking time to speak to a very shy and nervous teenager. But he was a complicated man that had lots of inner demons, and had emphysema. He’s since passed on.

    And then my college professor for my senior thesis. I loved him. He had this grandfatherly air about him, and he was so smart and open minded and funny. And I remember when he invited our small class over to his house for dinner, and the kindness he displayed to each of us.

    Quiet, gentle, steady men are awesome. I think one commentor already mentioned Col. Brandon, but I would also put the hero—-I’m forgetting his name—-from Persuasion in that same group. And also, Ethan from Nora Roberts’ Quinn brothers—-he fits this description to a tee.

  16. 16
    Lori W says:

    What a lovely remembrance. You should share that with his family. I clicked on the link to his obituary and was surprised to see that his picture fit the picture in my head perfectly.

  17. 17
    Zoe Archer says:

    My sympathies for your loss.  He sounds like a wonderful man.

    This is by far my favorite type of hero.  Romance often operates in such hyperbolic parameters, where the hero is the biggest, baddest most alpha alpha with an insatiable sex drive, that other genuses get lost amidst the howling and tooth-gnashing.  I do like my heroes to be heroic, but heroism can take many forms, and it’s often the gentler kind of heroism that doesn’t seek attention that is almost the purer form. 

    Austen does seem to excel at the quiet, steadfast hero, such as Col. Brandon and Capt. Wentworth.  No surprise that these heroes also happened to be in the military, where they can prove their worth through deeds and not words or wealth.

    As for examples from real life, it may be cliched to say so, but I would say that my husband personifies these traits.  He is unfailingly generous with his time and goes out of his way to make sure that the people he cares about are taken care of.  He is on a never-ending quest to ensure that I am kept warm, so periodically he presents me with a new technical jacket or scarf or pair of socks.  Maybe a gift of socks wouldn’t land him in a romance novel as a hero, but to me, that is heroism.

  18. 18
    Betsy says:

    By the way, I think “Hart Parker” is an excellent name for a romance hero.  :)  Once again, a lovely article and remembrance.

  19. 19
    Stephanie says:

    Other than the Southerner thing, that describes my husband. And he isn’t even thirty yet. I’m absolutely a fan. (And I got to marry him!)

    Also, as others have mentioned, such a moving tribute, and I’m sorry for your loss.

  20. 20
    JamiSings says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever met a man like that IRL. My dad’s quiet, but not in the way you describe. He’s just quiet because mom always does all the talking. And he’s usually never sympathetic.

    Nor do I recall any from romance novels. Or any novels I’ve read, either. Unless you count Harry Potter.

    But I do extend my sympathy about your professor. Obviously he made quite an impact.

  21. 21
    Kalen Hughes says:

    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 was a “Yankee by default” at Hollins College in VA (also a small women’s college). Too strange . . .

    You had Dr. Parker, I had Prof Pappas (or Nick as we all called him). I honestly believe that I pretty much my ability to think and reason and hash out an argument to Nick. Whether he was explaining ancient philosophy, expounding on the wonders of Spinoza, or listening to me babble as I tried to articulate the idea for my thesis (A study of the Absurd Hero in existential literature), he was a gem.

    To this day I find myself having mental conversations with him.

  22. 22
    PK says:

    Thanks for sharing your memories of Dr. Parker.  I agree that the quiet men of strength don’t get nearly as much press as they deserve.

    My grandfather use to always tell me to choose my words carefully because words are a great source of power. Words can soothe or wound, he said, so make sure that you use that ability wisely.  He also taught me that saying you’re sorry is much more impactful if it’s something that you’re not always in need of saying.  No lashing out for my grandpa—he believed in saying what you meant and counting to ten if you were tempted to say something you didn’t.

  23. 23
    Cybermom says:

    Weirdness:  about an hour ago, for some reason, I decided to look up the Columbia College website to see if your honors project was still there and I saw that Dr. Parker had died.  I wondered if you knew him and now I see that he was a meaningful person in your college experience.  My condolences on the loss

  24. 24
    Booklight says:

    As an true Southern belle (still have my beauty pagent crown, majorette baton, and my shotgun from my growing up years), I am well aquainted with soft-spoken Southern gentlemen. We call them Ashleys. Unfortunately, I spent much of my teens and 20s looking only at Rhetts. It was only after I met the man who would be my husband that I fell head over heels for someone who doesn’t say much, lets me get up on my soapbox as much as I want, sees way more than I want him too sometimes, and has a strength of character and presence that humbles me way more than I’m sometimes willing to admit. He is a military officer who frequently lets actions speak way more than words, but I still get wake up every morning to a “good morning, beautiful.” He recently had to go out of town for a week. He got up and got ready before me. Then, while I was getting ready to take him to the airport, he went around the house and did all these little jobs that would make my week easier – testing and cleaning the pool, sorting the recycling and setting it out to make it easy to take to the road, etc. Not because I asked. Just because.

    Thank you, Sarah, for honoring your professor. I’m going to give my quiet gentleman an extra hug today.

    *Who am I kidding? An extra hug just today? After all, Rhetts may steal the spotlight…but…well….Ashleys….its always the quiet ones.*

  25. 25
    SonomaLass says:

    My dad.  First, last and always.  He was a college professor also, and this is how his students talk about him.  He’s still with us, although probably not for much longer, and I’m sure I’m going to hear exactly this kind of eulogy from a lot of people whose lives he touched.

    I know without a doubt that his example shaped my taste in men, both fictional and real.  I figured out sometime during my college years that if a guy I was attracted to didn’t get along with Dad, I should dump him. It was never going to work.

    Like my partner. Quiet strength, an excellent listener, very much an introvert (we don’t match, we complement).  His gentle, steady love for me is the balancing force in my often crazy life.  He gets along great with Dad, too, and will be the one to get me through losing him when the time comes.

    As for romance, off the top of my head: Romancing Mister Bridgerton, The Duke and I, and To Sir Philip, With Love are the JQ books that don’t have such alpha heroes.  I like them best among her books.  Quinn Jennings in Victoria Dahl’s Start Me Up is another wonderful hero, not in the alpha mode.  I read a lot of science fiction, too, and often those heroes are more about brains than brawn, and their attitude is more sensitive.

    Sarah Frantz did a Twitter poll yesterday:  Han Solo or Luke Skywalker?  Han won, “han”ds down, but those of us in the Luke contingent were pretty vocal. A gentle man can be quite sexy—anyone who thinks that an intellectual, scholarly, quiet and compassionate man isn’t going to be a fantastic lover (in bed and out) is missing something.  Something BIG. (TMI??)

  26. 26
    Kwana says:

    A wonderful tribute. Made me think of my late grandfather and his quiet strenght that I loved so much. Thank you.

  27. 27
    MarieC says:

    Sarah, what a beautiful testimonial!

    With regards to your questions about ‘true’ gentlemen in fiction, I think it’s difficult to convey that inner strength and insightfulness.  As a reader, I would love to see a great story with a ‘Colonel Brandon’-like hero, but have all too often seen ‘The Doormat’.

  28. 28
    Fedora says:

    Thank you for such a beautifully articulated tribute!

  29. 29
  30. 30
    Betsy says:

    Atticus Finch.

    Amen to that!

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