Alumnus Offers Kennedy Course
By Greta Petry
William Kennedy’s ears must be burning.
People are talking about the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and director of the New York State Writers Institute on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. In class, that is.
Twenty-eight students at Siena College are taking a course on the literature of Kennedy from English professor Tom Bulger. They’re reading Legs, Ironweed, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Very Old Bones, Quinn’s Book, The Flaming Corsage and O Albany!
Bulger earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Notre Dame, and a master’s degree in English from UAlbany in 1976. He went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester.
“When I first started teaching the Introduction to Literature survey course, I wanted to add an element that would appeal to our students, so I had them read Ironweed, because Kennedy is from Albany and is a Siena graduate,” said Bulger. “The more I taught Ironweed, the more I became immersed in Kennedy’s own writing and the Franciscan dimension of Kennedy’s writing. (I wrote an article) in which my argument was that the main character in Ironweed, Francis Phelan, was a failing Franciscan. The more I taught the work, the more it just got me very interested in it. I’ve always done a lot of work on Kennedy’s literature.”
This is the first time Bulger has taught a full course just on Kennedy. However, many courses taught at the University at Albany over the years have included the author’s works. Among the former and current UAlbany professors who have taught Kennedy’s works are Warren Ginsberg, the late Tom Smith, Bill Dumbleton, Steve North, and Fred Silva.
“At first, it’s a little disconcerting, but you get used to it, and you learn things you didn’t know about your own work,” Kennedy said. At one point, in 1984, a continuing education course that included a reading of Kennedy’s work and a tour of the Albany sites in his novels turned into a city-wide four-day celebration of his work and of Albany.
As Bulger’s class attests, that interest continues.
“I thought it was a good time to teach this course,” said Bulger. “When I started teaching Ironweed, Kennedy had only written three or four books. Now he has published seven and is working on his eighth. This corpus of works shows a real evolution in a writer’s history. It’s been a real learning experience for me. One of the reasons I’m teaching this course is that, like Kennedy, I’m Irish Catholic by heritage. I grew up in Troy, I’m at Siena, and by doing a course on Kennedy, I’m recovering my own past. My dad graduated from Siena in 1949, the same year as Kennedy. Kennedy was editor of the school newspaper; my dad was the advertising director. It’s a very small world around here,” he said.
Bulger has invited Kennedy to be a guest speaker. “I told him I was going to teach it and I asked him to come in and talk. And he said, ‘Sure.’ ”
Bulger credits the late UAlbany English professor Hugh Maclean with helping him land his first teaching job at Siena in 1981, when he was still working on his dissertation.
“I had a great experience at UAlbany,” Bulger said. “I received very rigorous training from people like Hugh Maclean. The level of scholarship enabled me to go on wherever I wanted to go.”
Artist Simmie Knox to Paint Former President H. Patrick Swygert
Knox has built his reputation on his likenesses of such individuals as former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, boxer Muhammad Ali, entertainer Bill Cosby and family, and writer Alex Haley. A graduate of Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia, he has specialized in oil portraiture since 1981.
Knox said he was delighted at the opportunity to know and paint Swygert.
“I was extremely excited about it because I had been wanting to contact President Swygert on my own and see if I could do a portrait of him,” said Knox, whose studio is a converted garage at his home in suburban Silver Springs, Md. “He is a leader in the community, and I have great admiration and respect for him.”
“I get excited about all of the portraits I do. I’m always interested in people, and I like getting to know each of the people I paint.”
Once completed, the Swygert portrait will be installed among those of other UAlbany presidents on the second floor of the University Library, according to Art Museum Director Marijo Dougherty, who made the arrangements with Knox.
In a telephone interview, Knox said that he has already met once with Swygert at Swygert’s home to discuss the project and take some photos. The artist said he typically has three meetings with the individuals he paints, and that the finished product can take anywhere from a week to two months.
“There is lots of prep work involved. President Swygert is like a lot of the people I have painted - he doesn’t have time to sit for two hours on several occasions - so I rely on photos and sketches,” said Knox.
Knox became the first African-American ever commissioned to paint an official portrait of a Supreme Court Justice in 1989, when he painted Thurgood Marshall. He has also painted portraits of several U.S. congressmen and state senators, former U.S. energy secretary Hazel O’Leary, civic leaders, sports figures, educators, judges, religious leaders, military officers, businessmen, and private individuals. The historical figures he has captured on canvas include educators Frederick Douglass and Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune, actor/activist Paul Robeson, voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The 64-year-old Knox said he turned to portraiture after years of painting a variety of subjects because he found there is nothing more interesting to paint than the human face.
“I think that a good portrait is the most difficult thing for an artist to bring off successfully. Not only must you get an accurate likeness, but you must create a good painting. Somehow, you must convey a subject’s character, spirit and personality; and everything must communicate the dynamism of the subject,” he said.
CLD Rejuvenates Municipalities
Such was the case in Lebanon - until the University at Albany’s Center for Legislative Development (CLD) stepped in to remedy the situation. Founded in 1970 as the Comparative Development Studies Center and located at Rockefeller College, CLD adopted a mission of academic and applied studies in the administration of legislative organizations and in legislative research and information technology. As the premier U.S.-based institution with this focus, the center is recognized internationally for its work in mounting training and technical assistance programs that aid government institutions, particularly legislatures, in setting up and sustaining democracies.
Over the past three decades, CLD has successfully implemented projects in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Central Europe, and the Middle East. In Lebanon, the challenge was to determine “the needs of the government at the legislative, executive, and local levels” while making known to citizens their rights and responsibilities under the law, according to CLD director and UAlbany faculty member Abdo Baaklini.
That task began in Lebanon in 1993, when the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded the center funding for a multi-year project to resurrect basic governmental institutions. Local elections had ceased in the 1960s (they were not reintroduced until June 1998, when they were held in 708 of Lebanon’s 768 municipalities), and the Lebanese civil war erupted in 1975. As a result, explained Baaklini, many of the services formerly rendered by the federal government - such as highway maintenance, the furnishing of electricity and water, and the collection of federal taxes - were taken over at the local level by agencies ill-equipped to provide them. Already understaffed municipal governments remained accountable for collecting local taxes, issuing building permits, and taking care of other city-related services.
In addition, many federal offices, banks, restaurants, and other public institutions and private businesses formerly situated in the capital, Beirut, relocated to Jounieh, a city 15 kilometers to the north. And while many Americans might wish for that sort of economic boom in their own hometowns, it had dire ramifications for Jounieh. Within 10 years, “Jounieh changed from a small, peaceful town to a bustling metropolis,” observed Baaklini. Its infrastructure became strained, and the national government further eroded.
The consequences radiated throughout Lebanon. But Baaklini and the CLD staff were able to “rejuvenate” local government in scores of cities, including Jounieh. “By the end of 2002,” the director stated, “we will have worked with more than 100 municipalities. The project is expected to be extended for four additional years to cover 200 more cities.” As it continues, the CLD colleagues will address such issues as “human resource management, training, excessive administrative practices that hamper inter-municipal and municipal-central agency operations, and inadequate revenue collection,” added Baaklini.
The Daily Star, an English-language newspaper in Lebanon, recently praised CLD for its work with USAID and the Lebanese government in “taking an existing administrative mess, and restructuring, reshuffling, and reorganizing it one rusty old file at a time.” The article noted that computers, printers, copiers, faxes, and software programs were provided, as was “basic employee training in computer literacy and the use of newly installed software and workshops on how administrative procedures, based on existing laws, can be implemented.”
While the Lebanese have benefited from the CLD project, the center itself and the University also have much to be grateful for. Said Baaklini: “We have a number of partners. Our primary resources are our fantastic faculty, not only at the Graduate School of Public Affairs, but across the disciplines and in our libraries. We also rely on many individuals in New York State government who work for us on projects or receive international visitors. Of course, our students work closely with us, both here and in the field.”
In turn, faculty and students alike “have access to our research,” he continued. “We translate many of our experiences with these projects into graduate courses. Over the years, we have given many scholarships and assistantships to our students, who gain practical experience by working with us. In fact, we sometimes hire our graduates as full-time staff members. Others become part of an international group of advisers; they work with us overseas.”
Nan Carroll, CLD’s deputy director, observed that center activities attract students from all over the country - and the world - to UAlbany. Many former students, she adds, “are sending their kids, and their grandchildren, to study with us now. We have a second generation coming here specifically because of the work we are doing.”
“Oh, that makes me feel old,” sighed Baaklini, with a chuckle.
Len Slade: For
the Love of Freedom
In fact, Slade admits, he draws from such varied sources as news reports, personal experience, friends, his faith, and his own musings in creating his literary works of art. “I do a lot of meditating,” says the Department of Africana Studies professor. “I try to objectify my own experiences, and other people’s experiences, with language and symbols, and present them in poetic form.”
Slade’s words are carefully chosen, and the images he employs are strong. The religious imagery - the cross, the sinner’s head bowed in prayer - contrasts the lowliness of humanity with the grace and the power of God. He credits “divine providence” for some of his inspiration. “I have spiritual beliefs. I go to church every Sunday, and I pray three times a day. So some of my ideas do come from my God, and my poetry has religious elements,” says Slade.
His view of the church as “a hospital for sinners” is evident in “The Cross,” in which he writes of a humble penitent seeking the Lord’s forgiveness. Another poem, “Reasons for Celebration,” briefly reflects on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. It closes: “His love is divine/His home is eternal.”
The most chilling work in the book, by far, is “The Freezer,” in which Slade tells of a woman “bragging about her frozen foods - Sweetcorn/Sweet peas/Pork-chops/Pigs’ feet.” The poem ends, however, after her son dies, with “Relatives. . ./Discovering/Chopped human body parts/Ready for burial.” Slade drew the inspiration for “The Freezer” from news headlines.
If he seeks inspiration from many venues, Slade also provides it. “Song of a College Student” could probably have been written by a freshman. In it, a student implores: “Don’t give up on me, dear teacher/ because my entrance test scores were low/Nor be impatient with me when I question/you with whys. . .”
Within the next two years, Slade plans to complete another project: a children’s book of poetry, Black American Heroes, featuring odes to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and others. Martin Luther King - “one of my heroes” - will also make an appearance in the work. Recalls Slade: “When I was in college, I heard Dr. King speak. I have the greatest admiration for him. He sacrificed so much. He fought and was willing to die for the cause of freedom and justice.”
At some point, the poet also plans to train his literary spotlight on Jesse Jackson, who admitted recently to fathering a child out of wedlock. “He is human, like everybody else. He is asking for forgiveness, and so that is going to be the subject of a future poem,” says Slade, who is also working on a novel.
In the meantime, he continues to find inspiration in “the simple pleasures we take for granted. It’s the little things - ‘the kiss of the cool breeze,’ a ‘cabin by the road,’ a tea bag that ‘makes love to white sugar’ - that bring us the greatest joy. They are beautiful and powerful. I am trying to emphasize those small things, as Walt Whitman, one of my models as a writer, did with Leaves of Grass.
“Maybe a hundred years from now, somebody will think one of my books is worth another perusal. Edgar Allan Poe said that poetry was ‘the creation of beauty for the purpose of elevating the soul.’ I hope my readers’ souls will be elevated.”