In an essay remembering the churches of his childhood, Jon Hassler tells the story of his visits to his friend Jackie, dying of rheumatic fever at about age 12. Jon was 10. His mother goaded him to perform this virtuous act, but Jon surprised himself "visiting more and more of my own accord, for I was finding more and more about Jackie to be fond of. He was going through the same shrinking stages we witness now and then in a public figure who will allow himself to waste away on television, Pope John Paul or Humphrey, but I'm not talking about the physical transformation as much as a change from within. His illness seemed to relax him, taking away his tendency to be ironic and leaving in its stead the sort of transparency through which I could see quite plainly the sweetness that permeates the soul of a saint."
Jon was too modest and wry a man to have claimed any saintliness for himself, but I think he was able to give that gift of sweetness to his friends and most of all to his readers in his many books. Jon and I were once riding to a reading together. He still read, though in a reduced voice at reduced speed, but book signings had become ordeals for him. The subject of falling down came up in conversation. "I've fallen 423 times," said Jon. I don't remember the exact number, but it was forbidding. "Good God, how do you know? Do you count?" I asked. "I keep a notebook and I describe all of them. They are all different - both in detail and kind. I write them down immediately." "But why?" I asked, perplexed. "Remember, I'm a novelist. A character might fall down in a story, and I need the right details." Indeed, characters do fall down in Jon's stories (The New Woman) and the details are exact. They have in them the weight of experience, a hook grappled from the imagination into the real world.
Jon was a lifelong schoolteacher, proceeding straight from high school to college and graduate school and back to high school, then back to college, almost 60 years in which the world began each year at Labor Day, taking a summer breather after Memorial Day. He began writing at 37, Walt Whitman's age when he too began "hoping not to cease til death." And Jon didn't, of course. How many thousands of study halls, department meetings, class lists, syllabuses, grade sheets. How many thousands of faces sliding past each other, blurred, merging, how many hands waving in air, how many long silences. Can this be the material of literature, the stuff that illuminates the human spirit? There is a long tradition of "academic" novels, usually satiric, often sarcastic, vengeance wreaked by disgruntled writers who find themselves stuck in their version of mental "podunk" trapped by the unfortunate necessity of a paycheck. But this is not the world of Jon's novels from Staggerford onward. Schools are filled with the dullness of a teacher's life, often the tedium, but they are only the stage on which human beings reveal themselves: their weaknesses, banalities, pecularities - but also their courage, humanity and humor. The school becomes a whole world, even a universe, where stories can unfold themselves. Agatha McGee, after all, is a life-long schoolteacher who can't even stop instructing her fellows in the old age apartments. She is Jon's greatest character, his masterpiece making a human being alive on paper. Imagine - a tiny, bird-like old maid schoolteacher, fiercely pious and correct, a believer in right though, correct behavior, and formal grammar. Yet she is the passionate magnet, the lodestar, around which Jon's characters both revolve and evolve. She is, at least in part, Jon himself. She meets D. H. Lawrence's test of a true character; she quivers with life; despite her celibacy, she steps off the page to sleep with you, to enter your consciousness for good. She is a stroke of genius; I assume Jon was proud of having made her. She is both funny (sometimes unwittingly) and sometimes touching - the Ur schoolteacher.
Having myself just finished 60 years in school, 42 of them teaching, mostly (like Miles Pruitt) weighed down by 114 unread and overdue papers, I salute Jon as the literary laureate, the patron saint of schoolteachers. I found Jon and Gretchen a few years ago at a booksellers' convention, signing their co-edited anthology of school teacher stories. "Amazing stuff here," said Jon - grist for a dozen Hassler novels.
We gather here today because we miss this brave and lovely man, who gave us all such gifts with his wit, his kindness, his genius. Minnesota literature misses him, too; his departure leaves a large hole that will not soon be filled. Novelists who deliver to readers the gift of themselves, and describe to a community the spiritual cement that holds it together are not easy to come by.