Pay­ing trib­ute to a spe­cial pro­fes­sor who made a dif­fer­ence

Walker County Messenger - - Front Page - Dick Yar­brough Philoso­pher & pun­dit

If you are a reg­u­lar ob­server of this space, you are no doubt fa­mil­iar with the story I am about to share. I have told it sev­eral times over the years. With your in­dul­gence, I would like to tell it again. It is about seek­ing out a col­lege pro­fes­sor to thank him for turn­ing my life around.

Dr. Ray­mond A. Cook is his name. To­day, he lives in Val­dosta, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of English at Val­dosta State Uni­ver­sity and for­mer pres­i­dent of Young Har­ris Col­lege.

When our paths crossed that fate­ful spring quar­ter many years ago, he was an English pro­fes­sor at Ge­or­gia State. I was a sopho­more on aca­demic pro­ba­tion and in dan­ger of flunk­ing out of school. My high school friends had al­ready quit school and had got­ten jobs that did not look as me­nial then as they re­ally were. It seemed just a mat­ter of time un­til I would join them. And then, I ended up in an English Lit­er­a­ture class taught by Dr. Cook.

Two things hap­pened in that class that changed my life. First was the way he taught. Dr. Cook would be­gin read­ing Shake­speare or Chaucer or who­ever from the text­book and with­out miss­ing a beat, close the book lean back and fo­cus on some dis­tant point in space as he con­tin­ued to re­cite. I found my­self mes­mer­ized as I lis­tened to him. His ob­vi­ous pas­sion for the writ­ten word con­nected with me. It got me in­ter­ested in his class and in school and in do­ing bet­ter work.

One day, Dr. Cook asked some­one to an­a­lyze “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. Much-in­spired by now, I vol­un­teered and pro­ceeded to pro­claim it one of the world’s great po­ems. Big mis­take. (Trust me on this one — “Trees” is a poorly con­structed poem as I was to find out.) Even these many years later, I can re­mem­ber the scowl on the face of this kind and gen­tle man. When I had fin­ished, he pro­ceeded to dress me down in front of the class for not hav­ing taken the time to prop­erly study the poem and for not know­ing what I was talk­ing about. “Mr. Yar­brough,” he said sternly, “From now on, you think be­fore you speak!”

Les­son learned and never for­got­ten. I not only passed his class — no easy job — but I went on to grad­u­ate from the Uni­ver­sity of Ge­or­gia and then to a re­ward­ing ca­reer where I re­tired as vice pres­i­dent of Bel­lSouth Cor­po­ra­tion and then as a manag­ing direc­tor of the 1996 Cen­ten­nial Olympic Games. Look­ing back, I shud­der to think of the meet­ings of which I was a part where I was pre­pared to daz­zle those as­sem­bled with my wis­dom and knowl­edge on the topic at hand. Then Dr. Cook’s ad­mo­ni­tion would come to mind — Think be­fore you speak. Keep­ing my mouth shut and spar­ing the crowd an ob­ser­va­tion equiv­a­lent to bab­bling about the sym­me­try of iambic pen­tame­ters within “Trees” prob­a­bly saved my job more than once.

It took me 40 years to find Dr. Ray­mond Cook and to thank him for in­spir­ing me to stay in col­lege and for teach­ing me to think first and speak later. He didn’t re­mem­ber me, but he was de­lighted that I would take the time and make the ef­fort to look him up and tell him of his im­pact on my life. Af­ter all, isn’t that what teach­ing is all about?

I don’t know who was the great­est ben­e­fi­ciary of our first meet­ing, him for hav­ing in­spired me to fin­ish col­lege or me for let­ting him know the in­flu­ence he had on my life.

Out of that ini­tial con­tact al­most 20 years ago has come a trea­sured friend­ship. I try to visit Dr. Cook when­ever I am in Val­dosta and we cor­re­spond reg­u­larly via email and tele­phone. And, yes, af­ter all these years, he is still very much my pro­fes­sor. He wrote me re­cently to tell me how much he en­joyed a par­tic­u­lar col­umn I had writ­ten and to point out that I had used the word “prone” where I prob­a­bly had in­tended to say “supine.” Dang.

So, why am I telling this story again? Last week, Dr. Ray­mond A. Cook cel­e­brated his 98th birth­day and I could think of no bet­ter gift to give him than to thank him pub­licly for what he has meant to me. I guess I should give a shout-out to Joyce Kilmer as well. Were it not for “Trees,” we might not be hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion.

You can reach Dick Yar­brough at yarb2400@bel­lsouth.net; at P.O. Box 725373, At­lanta, Ge­or­gia 31139; on­line at dick­yarbrough.com or on Face­book at www.face­book. com/dick­yarb.

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