Archive for Sunday, March 25, 2001

Teacher’s influence

March 25, 2001


One of the best teachers I ever had died last month. His name was Moyle Q. Rice. He was almost 90. I don't know when he retired, but I do know that in the mid-'40s he was an inspiration in my life and that vast numbers of his former students would join me in praising him.

He taught us at Utah State. He made us think, back in '42 and '43, that we could be great writers. I even thought that maybe I could write for Rice's favorite magazine, the New Yorker, which once speedily rejected a piece I sent in.

Before taking a class from him, I don't think I knew about E.B. White and James Thurber. He read from those two in class.

Moyle Rice taught me in three classes (maybe more). Sophomore and Advanced Composition, Short Story. What pride when he read to the class something I had written! Once he wrote on a paper, "I may risk some of this on our puritanical looking class." It was a slightly racy thing I had written about a wild night some of us had had partying up Ogden Canyon.

My first effort in Sophomore Composition brought a question from him. I had written about life in the printing office where I had worked in Preston, Idaho. My friend, Bryce Roe, son of the man who owned the paper, had taken Rice's class, and Rice thought my writing was a bit like the smart-alecky style both Roe and I affected (we thought we were great wits). I had to prove to Rice that I wrote my own "themes."

He liked some of my writing because I wrote not only about my home country but about his. He was from Clifton, a little burg 10 or 15 miles from Preston. I sometimes wrote about people he knew. He once angered me by saying that no one with talent had ever come out of Preston. I called him when I went back for my class reunion in 1979; he still had doubts about talent from Preston.

Rice, obviously, was in our English department. What a department! Wallace Vickers taught me in College Grammar and the Bible as Literature. King Hendricks taught me in Scientific Vocabulary and Comparative Literature. Rice had never gotten a Ph.D., but he didn't need one. We didn't know about such things when we were in college.

Like me, and Roe, he came from a Mormon town and background. He liked to shock the elders and their wives. He smoked, and he drank coffee, and in class he made cracks about organized religion. The ladies' clubs used to like to have him give talks; he shocked them. His "bad" words are now heard almost everywhere.

We used to go see him at his home. He inspired me to write, and to read. He told us about the writers we should know and the ones we shouldn't. He was unsuccessful in keeping me away from Thomas Wolfe. I never heard him mention John Dos Passos. He liked F. Scott Fitzgerald.

My pal Burns Crookston and I thought we were running the college, and we talked him into letting us run his class one day. I had written a nasty column about a girl named Peggy Bennion, who was queen of the Forestry Club. She came to that class and tried to put me down. Rice loved it when I said, "Miss Bennion, did you come here today just to try to embarrass me?"

Once he read in class a thing I wrote about a mess our fraternity got into with our Friday "assembly," which I believe we put together on Thursday night. We had a naughty routine immediately followed by our house tenor singing "The Lord's Prayer." The dean of men, a sometime English professor and not one of Rice's passions, said our program was "boxcar humor." There was a prissy gal in class who agreed with the dean (she was on the committee, or something), and how she glared at me when Rice read "And then Karma wiped away a tear."

Students wanted to get into Rice's classes. I loved the Short Story class, and there I met up with Robert Benchley and Thurber. Rice remembered us. When I called him we talked about some of the people who had been in school in my time.

When I read the obit a friend sent me I wondered how Moyle Q. Rice had spent his last years. He never did have good eyesight. I guess I got to wondering how some of us, his students, will spend our last years. Oh, yes, his office was a cubbyhole that looked out onto the rear end of a replica of the Greek discus thrower. He laughed about the big marble buttocks of that big, strong fellow.

Calder Pickett is a professor emeritus of journalism at Kansas University. His column appears Sundays in the Journal-World.

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