Tuesday, November 23, 2010

THE FIELD OF PLAY by Steve Heller

Steve Heller is director of the MFA in Creative Writing Program, Antioch University Los Angeles. Please acknowledge Steve Heller as author in reproductions of any part of this tribute.

This past Saturday the football teams of Northwestern University and University of Illinois met on a neutral field in Chicago. Northwestern’s record stood at 7-3 overall, but only 3-3 in the Big Ten. The Wildcats had already qualified for a post-season bowl game but were out of contention for the conference championship. Illinois stood at a mediocre 5-5, needing at least one more victory in order to meet the minimum NCAA eligibility for post-season play. The game has already been played, the outcome decided. But this story is not about who won and who lost.

The game was played at Wrigley Field, which from 1921 to 1970 was the home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears. Wrigley is much better known, of course, as the historic home of baseball’s loveable losers, the Chicago Cubs, whose last World Series Championship came in 1908. Despite the Cubs’ century of frustration, Wrigley Field has a rich baseball history. Hall of Famers Gabby Harnett, Hack Wilson, Ferguson Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, and Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks, all played there. But this story isn’t about baseball either.

Wrigley Field is known for its classic jewel box shape, ivy-covered outfield walls, and its home runs when the wind is blowing out. Ernie Banks called Wrigley “the friendly confines.” Because of Wrigley’s size and shape, the football layout for Chicago Bears games was north-to-south, accommodating the full dimensions of a football field, plus barely adequate room beyond each sideline and end zone. However, because the Cubs had subsequently added seats along the first and third base lines, the layout for the Northwestern-Illinois game had to be east-to-west. As a result, the southeast corner of the east end zone nearly abutted the right field wall. Despite heavy padding on the wall, Big Ten officials determined that the east end zone was unsafe for players. A decision was therefore made to have every offensive play run toward the west end zone, thus requiring teams to trade sides of the field with each change of possession. The special ground rule had implications for game strategy, of course—but this story isn’t about strategy or even sports. It has something to do with safety, but mostly it’s about something bigger than that.

When I heard the game between Northwestern and Illinois would be played at Wrigley Field, my first thought was: What would Phil Heldrich think about this?

Aaaa, it’s gonna be a flea circus, I imagined Phil crabbing in a flat nasal tone, dismissing the whole notion with a toss of his right hand. They’ll bounce off right field like pinballs (forgive my mixed metaphor). Every time somebody scores, the zebras will have to duck.

Phil had grown up in Chicago, “a beer’s throw from Wrigley,” as he put it. Despite what I already knew he would think about the reconfiguration of the park for a single college football game, I wanted to ask him: Would you go to the game anyway?

Go? His eyes would flash, shoulders stiffen. Of course I’d go to the game!

Of course he would have. Phil Heldrich was my student in the MA in English Program at Kansas State University. The day he first walked into my office in Denison Hall (since demolished) back in the fall of 1991, neither of us could have predicted the future that lay before him.

“I think I need to withdraw from the program” were his first words to me, before he’d even settled into a chair.
“Well, that seems a little rash,” I said, or something like that. “Classes haven’t even started yet. What’s the problem?”
“I don’t really like literature,” Phil admitted with a grimace. “I mean, I’ve read literary books, but they’re not really about anything.”
“Well, that could be a problem, because literature is about everything. Who do you like to read?”

He folded his arms across his chest. “Stephen King.”
I shrugged. “That’s a place to start.”
Phil squinted at me like I was a bug in his soup. “See, the thing is . . . I thought this was going to be a creative writing program. You know, workshops, agents, editors, how to get published, that sort of thing.”
“We have creative writing workshops; you’re enrolled in one.”
“Yeah, but you have to take all this lit too. I don’t know if I can stand it.”

I reached for the nearest bookshelf and grabbed a copy of The Great Gatsby.
He shook his head vigorously. “I’ve read it already.”
“Read it again,” I said, pressing the book into his hands. “Not for class, just for yourself. And when you read it, I want you to think about these things . . .”

Please understand: No magical transformation occurred here. The conversion of Phil Heldrich from cynical consumer of popular literature to dedicated literary artist and devoted teacher took a long time and involved at least two English departments. And it was never complete. “Good writing is good writing,” Phil liked to say. For years, he served as Chair of the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture and American Culture Association, leading efforts to examine all aspects of the many cultures that inform our lives. But somewhere along the way, Phil definitely drank the literary cool aid. He overcame his previous lack of serious reading, the initial skepticism of many faculty (including me), and, most of all, his own negative view of the literary life. Over a period of years, Phil became, in his own way, a man of letters. He completed not only his MA at Kansas State but a PhD in English at Oklahoma State University. He joined the English faculty of Emporia State University, and co-directed the Creative Writing Program with Amy Sage Webb. He won numerous awards for research and teaching, and eventually moved on to become Associate Professor of English at the University of Washington in Tacoma.

Phil studied fiction with me, but he wrote and published in almost all genres, including literary criticism. His book of poems, Good Friday, won the X. J. Kennedy Prize, judged by Kennedy himself. His book of essays, Out Here in the Out There: Essays in a Region of Superlatives, won the Mid-List Press First Series Award for Creative Nonfiction. He published individual stories, poems, essays, and critical articles far too numerous to mention. He became, in short, an accomplished literary artist. In my 30+ years of teaching, he is also the student who progressed the most, the writer who did the most with what he had.

By now you’ve probably guessed that Phil is no longer with us. On November 11, 2010, nine days before Northwestern played Illinois at Wrigley Field, Phil died of complications related to spinal cancer. He was 45 years old. He battled the cancer for more than two years, but kept that battle secret from most of his friends and colleagues, including me. When the news was finally leaked to me by a former colleague, I attempted to contact Phil. But I was too late. Not long after I’d begun to wonder what he would think about the upcoming football game at Wrigley, I learned he was dead.

One of things I had the privilege of observing Phil learn was the power of irony. Like Housman’s athlete who died young, Phil’s renown did not outrun him. He was productive to the very end, teaching classes and writing stories, poems, and articles until his body simply would not allow it. He remained on the field, playing as hard and as well as he could, regardless of obstacles, until the field itself crumbled around him. He is survived by his wife Christine, his daughter Alexendra, and by many hundreds of friends and former students who admired him. He is, and will remain, a model for everyone who dreams of becoming a writer. Today I call upon all my students, past and present—as well as readers and writers of literature everywhere—to read Phil Heldrich and to reflect on the examples of his life and art. The field Phil learned to play in was indeed friendly—and, I believe his life and work teach us, unconfined. #

Another tribute is at: http://singasimplesong.wordpress.com/
Comment from E. Washington University: http://www.tacoma.uw.edu/news/remembering-ias-faculty-member-philip-heldrich