ArtsLink: Giving Thanks for an Important Friend and Teacher

By Jason Young on November 23, 2012 from A&E Blog via

I have a friend named John O’Connor.
When I first met him I never called him John. He was known as “Doc O.” He was my professor for several of my theatre classes when I was a student at Fairmont State University. He still teaches at FSU, and his primary teaching load is theatre history and theory. He teaches classes such as theatre appreciation, introduction to theatre, theatre history, text analysis, the development of dramatic art, and just for a change of pace, theatrical make-up.
John is also an actor, a very good actor. I have had the pleasure of performing in eight shows with him over the last ten years, with the absolute highlight being the two-person, fast-paced comedy Greater Tuna.
Greater Tunais a comedy about a small town in Texas named Tuna, which is described as Texas’ “third smallest town.” Greater Tuna calls for only two actors and they play all the parts; eleven or twelve different characters each. The actors must change parts at a rather breakneck speed and use inventive vocal and physical work.
After one performance of the show, a friend of mine and colleague of John’s told us that she “absolutely loved the show,” but she wasn’t sure if she was laughing because of the content or because she was just amazed “that this fat guy and this old guy” could handle all that the show demands.
Thus the name for our imaginary vaudeville act was born: Old & Stout!
Our friendship developed during our time performing together, but it was an incident that transpired when I was in the classroom with him that has lead me to this blog.
In the fall semester of 2001, I was a freshman theatre major at FSU in my mandatory first semester course, introduction to theatre. John was my professor, and he was driving me crazy.
Everyone affectionately refers to him as “Doc.” John has a Ph.D. in Theatrical Criticism from the University of Washington, and he is an exceptionally smart dude with a prodigiously verbose and eloquent vocabulary. It seemed like every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday that we met for class he had to fill his lectures with locutions that I was certain only he and Alex Trebek used on a regular basis.
Now, I am a proud graduate of BHS, one of the top academic high schools in the state. I had amazing English teachers like Donna Haddox, Heidi Griffith, and Amy Lohmann. For four years we worked in vocabulary booklets every week. But my generation devised a little system for dealing with those pesky orange pamphlets, and I utilized that system with tremendous success.
I should leave that topic right there (before I get into trouble with my English teaching wife) and go back to my first class with Doc O.
Well, for the first couple of weeks I let his “way over my head” use of the English language slide, but when I realized that the majority of the tests would be based on the lectures, I decided that something had to be done.
So, whenever John uttered one of his Double Jeopardy! words, I raised my hand. He would immediately stop speaking, with a huff, and with his nasal Illinois accent say, “Yes, Jason?” I would simply respond, “I don’t know what that word means.” He would huff again, and then quickly define it.
Most of the time his definitions were partnered with some sort of a hand motion. Much in the same way you use your hands to try to communicate with someone who speaks a foreign language. If you ever see me around, just ask, and I will show you his sign for edify.
As we approached mid-term, I knew that John was getting frustrated with me. I don’t know why; I was trying to be a responsible student, but I was stopping class on an average of eight to ten times per hour.
One day, just before Thanksgiving break, he walked in with a brown paper bag that had a piece of white string tied around it. He placed the package on his lectern and started class.  We made it about five sentences in before my hand shot up. He stopped the lecture, this time with a smile instead of a huff, picked up the brown bag, and said, “I have an early Christmas present for you, Jason.” He handed me the package, which I cautiously unwrapped. Contained in that bag was my very own soft cover Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. I smiled and said, “Thanks?” And he retorted, “No more questions.”
Now, I told you that story to tell you this.
I was standing in front of my bookcase the other day looking for an anthology of short plays that I had, in my mind, egregiously misplaced when I spotted it. I still have that dictionary. It doesn’t get used very often because when I need a definition, synonym, or etymology I can simply make a few keystrokes and find what I am looking for. But that book represents more than a reference tool: It represents one of the most important lessons I have learned in my lifetime; the amazing versatility of words and the power of language.
That book taught me that nothing can be “extremely historic”; it either is or isn’t, and that regardless of personality, no one is “very unique” because unfortunately, unique does not have degrees. Finally, after putting my foot in my mouth a few times, I learned that no matter how much a woman is “showing” she is not “very pregnant” because pregnancy is a state of being.
Through that simple mid-semester gift, I learned that there is a difference between girl, woman, and lady and that ironic and coincidental do not, in fact, mean the same thing. However, I still frequently use literally when I mean figuratively, but we all have room to improve.
On Sunday, John received an award from The Fairmont Arts & Humanities Council honoring his contribution to theatre and the arts in Fairmont. In my opinion, it was long overdue.
I have a lot of great stories about Doc O. Perhaps someday I will blog about how he brews the best beer I have ever tasted or about the time he convinced me that the Super Bowl was the largest theatrical event in the world. But, for now, on this holiday week, I simply give thanks for someone who has made an impact on my life as an artist and as a human being!
I will keep you posted for the day that “Old & Stout” ride again.

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