In the fall of 49 a fresh-faced, rail-thin 18-year-old from Warsaw, KY, showed up on the doorstep of Transylvania University, ready to show his stuff. He majored in both history and political science, earned the opportunity to spend a term at American University in DC, and was the crafty leadoff hitter for the Pi Kappa Alpha softball team, always a threat to bunt his way on. Dad loved his Transy days thoroughly and made sure his children knew that as they grew up. He kept in touch with many classmates over the years, served on a reunion committee at least once, and was a faithful donor.
My grandfather Harris had attended TU for two years, 1916-18, but family finances kept him from finishing his education there. No doubt his fond memories played a role when it came time for his only child to go to college; I imagine that’s one reason it felt natural to my father to want the same for Amy and me. Just before my senior year of HS started, Dad and I drove down to Transy to talk with the folks in admissions and take a tour. One thing led to another and before too many months passed, I was ready to commit to being a member of their class of 86. My sister, less pliant than I, chose to carve her own path a year later, accepting a basketball scholarship at Union College in southeastern KY.
At the end of my senior year in college, the soon-to-be-graduates voted on a number of gag awards to distribute amongst themselves. I copped two of them: “Most Likely to be Studying on a Friday Night” (false) and “Most Likely to Become a Transy Professor” (perhaps).
There was no open position in the math program at TU when I was on the job market six years later, but one did arise in the spring of 94. I had just moved to a house in Georgetown from an apartment in Lexington in December; nonetheless, I elected to apply, and I was invited for on-campus interview.
It didn’t go very well. I don’t think I went in overconfident, but I was underprepared. I gave superficial answers to questions about why I wanted to join the faculty there; my presentation, on a topic from first-semester calculus, provided plenty of evidence that I still very much a work-in-progress in the classroom. By the end of the day, I knew that I hadn’t earned serious consideration for an offer.
I got over it quickly. That summer I attended a great workshop at Purdue on an innovative approach to an upper-level course I would be teaching in the fall. Its reasonably successful implementation, then and in subsequent years, probably boosted my case for tenure at Georgetown. The following January, I met Martha—perhaps that wouldn’t have happened had I gotten the Transy job.
Dad, on the other hand, took things much harder, holding Transy responsible for the outcome. I attribute much of that to my father’s protective feelings for one of his offspring. But he was also plenty stubborn and a grudge-holder when he wanted to be—over the following year I tried, to little avail, to explain how I just hadn’t merited the offer. He let the matter affect his feelings toward his alma mater. He still went to reunions, but he became much less enthused about staying involved and contributing.
I recognize Dad was an adult possessing full agency for his actions and emotions, but I couldn’t help but feel responsible for his cooled ardor for TU—after all, had I not applied… My father was already plenty bitter about much of the world around him; it seemed like my actions had taken away one of his remaining loves.
Just about exactly twenty years later, Mom and I sat down in her family room to discuss what kind of charitable donation she might make in honor of Dad’s recent passing. I suggested something to benefit Transy students majoring in the same areas he had studied, and Mom agreed. Around the same time, an opportunity arose to buy bricks for the renovation of a plaza on the academic side of campus. I purchased one in honor of Dad, one that reads simply “Ira Richard Harris ’53.” It sits just to the right of the base of a big “T” on the north end of the plaza (there’s a “T” and a “U” at both ends).
I suppose these actions were driven in part by my desire to atone for still-lingering guilt, but: a) in the end, Dad’s Transy years were a special period in his life, and b) I have my own dear memories of the place only because of his encouragement that I go there. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back—I just wanted to have all of that honored in some small way.
Recently I learned of the need to formalize the intentions of the gift made four years ago, and yesterday I went over to Transy to sign the paperwork. Afterward I got a tour of one of their new dorms and also saw the recently-renovated interior of the classroom building adjacent to the plaza. It was an altogether pleasant visit in spite of the cold.
I kept to myself that the next day just happened to be the fifth anniversary of Dad’s death.