By Robert Beeland
This June, English professor Dr. John Reishman will retire after forty-seven years of service to the University. Last week, I sat down with Reishman to discuss his life before his arrival at Sewanee and what’s made his time here so memorable.
Reishman grew up in Charleston, West Virginia before leaving home at the age of fourteen to attend Holy Cross minor seminary in Notre Dame, Indiana, thinking he would become a Roman Catholic priest. He explains that his father was a Notre Dame man, so he thought that if he were going to do this, he ought to go to Notre Dame. For four years, he studied theology before continuing his education at the University of Notre Dame with intentions of studying law. However, after a summer job at a law office, Reishman says his interest in law subsided. Regardless, he says, “Notre Dame was wonderful for me… I knew everyone so well that, even though it was a much larger campus than Sewanee, it felt a lot like Sewanee to me,” Reishman said of his undergraduate experience.
After revealing to his family his desire to become an English teacher, Reishman was met with derision. His cousin scoffed at his plan, asking “Do you know what that will mean to your standard of living?” Reishman ignored his cousin’s judgments and continued to study English at the University of Virginia, where he met his wife Claire and began his career as a professor.
Young Reishman initially accepted a position to teach English at Washington and Lee University. At the advice of his father, he applied to teach at ten other schools on a whim. He knew relatively little about Sewanee, saying “I had only been in Tennessee once before, I had never been near [Sewanee].” By the time he had arrived on campus, “I wanted to come [to Sewanee] so bad; I couldn’t believe it… It was everything I wanted.” He and his wife married two days before their arrival at Sewanee.
Reishman’s arrival at Sewanee in 1969 coincided with the University’s first admittance of women as full-time students. He praised the seamless transition the women made onto campus: “I never experienced an all-male Sewanee, and the girls were wonderful English majors. They took over the roles of leadership so quickly, and it seemed to me that they had always been here.”
Reishman related to me stories of the courtship process when he first arrived: “[The women] lived in Benedict Hall, and the men, of course, who far outnumbered them, were so jealous of having a relationship with this or that one, they would go wait at Benedict for the girls to come out, escort them to class, and meet them at the door of the class so that they couldn’t make other contacts!”
While the dating scene at Sewanee has changed since then, Reishman remarked that the essence of the university has remained the same. “The nicest people in the world still come to Sewanee. That quality of the undergraduates is so much the same that when people ask me about differences between then and now, I say there are none… the essential elements were here when I arrived, and we’ve stuck with them.”
Reishman’s teaching style has remained unchanged as well. As a student in his Origins and Developments of the English Novel class, I’m hearing the same lectures that my mother heard from Mr. Reishman in the same class in 1980. Reishman, who says that he largely uses the same notes, says that “my job is to impart knowledge of these subjects… in your essays I learn what you have to say about it.”
When I asked Dr. Reishman if he was looking forward to retirement, he responded with a quick and assured “no.” He will be turning seventy-five in August and relayed his unease: “This has been my life for so long… but I’d like to retire before a feeling that I need to retire occurs.” Reishman is optimistic about his future, though. Quoting his late friend and former Sewanee professor Herb Wentz, he said, “If you’re happy, you’ll continue to be happy, and if you’re not, you won’t be. Retirement won’t make or break you.”
As our conversation drew to a close, I inquired as to what his future plans involved. He replied, “I have a secret hope that somehow I can write fiction… I just hope I can apply the lessons that I’ve tried to impart to my students in pointing out what Emily Brontë can do and somehow figure out how to do it myself. I’ll see.”