Professor Edward J. Coomes (1929-2004)

Professor Edward J. Coomes (1929-2004)

Professor Ed Coomes Reclining in a ChairThe other day, I received my university’s alumni magazine. And as is my normal routine, I flipped to the obituary section in the back and scanned for recognizable names. And there it was–a name that I had expected to show up for quite awhile, ever since I bore witness to his frail yet vibrant academic wizardry five years earlier. Professor Ed Coomes had passed away.

It’s hard to describe the impact that he had on me. In brief, he changed my life and probably didn’t even know it. And in full, I don’t think I could ever stop writing about the times he amused and challenged me.

When I first went off to college, I decided to major in my greatest talent, which was art. Junior and senior high school were nothing but an extended studio class, and I produced a rich portfolio of comic-book art. My dream was to work for Marvel Comics, drawing brawny superheroes and their buxom female cohorts.

As time went on, I found out that I did not have “The Right Stuff” in terms of passion and talent, and that a living in art would be hard and ultimately frustrating. Unfortunately for me, the timing of my epiphany was proving lousy, since I was near the sunset of my undergraduate career. But I will never regret my art education, for it exposed me to large amounts of art history and criticism, and in turn this awakened the passion I’d had for history since my childhood.

As a kid, I devoured all sorts of history and fact books–at one time, I even read the World Book Encyclopedia cover-to-cover. And throughout high school, I was a persistent presence in the local library, reading whatever I could find about medieval England and the ancient Mediterranean world. And since all majors require a minor, soon enough I was pursing history as one of my many minors, and in the fall 1997 semester I was enrolled in a Greek civilization class.

Day one came, and I took my customary place in the back of the classroom where I could get away with the murder of doodling in the margins of my 5-subject notebook should the discussion prove boring. Around me were a dozen quiet, well-tanned students, fresh from the summer and perhaps too relaxed for their own good. I laugh knowing now about the hurricane that would soon sweep over them!

The calm was abruptly halted, as the classroom door smashed open and a gruff, deep voice boomed, “Good morning, scholars!” Marching into the room was one of the oldest, shortest men I’ve ever encountered. His arms bore a stack of overstuffed manila folders–it was my guess that this stack was as tall as the man himself. It was hard to judge this for sure, because the second he walked into the door, before he ever reached the podium, he was already beginning his lecture. Pencils scratched furiously, papers flipped violently, as we struggled to keep up with the crazy old man. And this continued well beyond the allotted class time–the suffering ended only when an exasperated student was successful in penetrating the lecturer’s oratory and bringing to his attention that class ended five minutes earlier.

This, ladies and gentleman, was Mr. Coomes.

By the end of that first day, I was tired and frustrated, feeling that the old man was spewing voluminous detail only to serve his ego. I would drown in useless minutiae instead of learning useful facts. I remember talking to Jim about my first week of class. I explained in detail the insanity that greeted me every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10:00am, and how I feared that my teacher could keel over any second from a heart attack. And when I dropped his name, Jim’s eyes widened. “Coomes? Ed Coomes?! He’s still alive?!” I came to find out that Jim had Mr. Coomes for a teacher nearly a decade earlier, and back then he had made the same observations I had.

By the end of the second day, I thought he was eccentric. When in need of a piece of caulk, he’d often fumble instead with a pack of cigarettes, and each of his spoken words would count down the seconds until class would end, he could rush outside, then inhale that sweet, mild Chesterfield flavor. And then there was the in-class debate I had with him that involved Celtic civilization, the island of Atlantis, the element phosphorous, exploding glass tubes, nuclear Armageddon, Wooten Hall, and alien cockroach visitors from Alpha Centauri. I shit you not.

But by the third, I was hooked. The epic amount of notes became common-place, and afterwards I could focus on the minutiae of his lectures. I learned to write Greek and to think of my own reasons for the Peloponnesian Wars and not just what Hammond says. And when I took his history of Nazi Germany course, I was in awe of the scope of history and how events far beyond our lifetime influence the events of today–the class began with Tacitus in 70 A.D. and culminated with the fall of Berlin only a day before dead week that semester.

Despite his eccentric nature, the tendency to deviate from history lecture to social commentary, and the stress of reading and writing in ways that I had never experienced before, by the last days of our teacher-student relationship I was addicted to scholarship and completely sold on this gentleman into academia. Someday, I hope to complete a doctoral degree and have a teaching style akin to that of Mr. Coomes: articulate, detailed, full of concern for the whole story, and aware of perspectives besides those of the victors. Mr. Coomes might not have remembered me in the way that I recall him, for I was likely one of the many semi-anonymous students to have revolved through his world–to him, I was probably one of the many people that he knew only as “scholar” but respectively just as equally. I’ll miss the crazy man!

Photo credit: North Texan