In the fall of 1980 Dean Bob Spaeth introduced me to Jon Hassler. Jon was happy to be back at Saint John's. Bob, though, was thrilled.
I can't remember Jon without also remembering Bob (and Betty) Spaeth, without the "Friday forums" that Bob held in his office (with all of us sipping a bit of something while drinking in the pleasures of friendship with Bob and Jon, Dave Bennetts, Lee Hanley, Joe Friedrich, Thom Woodward, whatever St. John's Regents or other friends who happened to be in town: Bob Shafer, Tom Egerman, Gene McCarthy, Roger Nierengarten, Jerry Eller, John Brandl, Al Eisele. These men - all Johnnies except Dave and me, and now too many of them gone from us - told and retold stories of the old Saint John's, of monks Frs. Ernest Kinzer, Emeric Lawrence, Martin Schirber, of near-monks Steve Humphrey, Joe Heinninger.
Jon added his own stories and was a happy listener to others. He took special pleasure in laughing and often showed the genius of his own very dry and quick wit.
All the members of the club had a keen interest in words, in reading, in books. Jon and Bob had something else - a passion to write. Bob did love taking care of his friends and it would have been easy to think that that was Bob's main reason for welcoming Jon for his Guggenheim year and then making a long-term place for him as faculty member and writer-in-residence. But such a judgment seriously underestimated Bob's vision and Jon's talents.
Yes, Jon was generous about visiting classes. He came to my First Year Symposium after we read his short story "Anniversary." He lugged into the classroom an orange crate full of drafts that turned into a one-page story in Redbook The difference between a mediocre and a publishable story, he taught us, could be found in the thirteen drafts in between.
Yes, Jon continued to write and publish so he brought us visibility and honor. He certainly raised my status with my mother. She didn't read my writing, but asked for and read the signed copies of Jon's books that I carried down to her.
What Jon did best, though, was to inspire us, to inspire me. You might have to be a faculty member of my generation at St. John's to feel the power of his example (a teacher turned writer) and his advice (if you want to be a writer, write). See, we're a teaching institution. Teaching absorbs most of our energies and attention. Those stories that those guys sat around retelling were about remarkable teachers, men who had dedicated their lives to their students.
Jon helped me and others to see ourselves, even dream ourselves into being, teachers who were also writers.
Just having him around helped. He just wrote every day. Jim Powers also wrote every day, by the way, but Jim's example of perhaps writing one sentence on an exceptionally good day, could scare any right-thinking person out of writing. Jon, though, led us into it. His drive, his ambition, and his clarity about his identity as a writer were contagious.
In addition, he wrote about people like us. Sometimes they were painfully like us. In that "Anniversary" story that I assigned to my students, for example, Jon wrote about a man - a teacher - who let his life pass him by and published it in 1978, just as Jon made his leap into writing.
"We will go out to dinner," I announce, "After I finish my school work . . . .
"I settle into my deep leather chair and open my briefcase. It is full of quizzes, exams, themes, term papers, and office mail . . . .
"Cranking the window, I see a flock of geese flying south - the wrong direction for June. . . .
"If I leave my mark in this world, it will be red . . . ."
Jon declared that his life was not going to pass him by. And it didn't.
He inspired me - and many others - not to let ours pass us by either.
For this I am deeply grateful and Saint John's became a better place.