In Memory of Dr. John Purcell

In Memory of Dr. John Purcell

November 25, 1932 – June 15, 2012

Lee F Wilberschied (Dr. Lee), Ph.D., Associate Professor of Modern Languages, Cleveland State University

Dr. John Purcell, a charter member and former OFLA President (1988-1989), died after an extended illness. His death is a loss to OFLA, to our profession, and to me. As one of his many former students, I have lost a teacher and a mentor; but, more than that, he was a colleague and a friend whose guidance spanned the length of my career and that of others.

The symbolic nature of poetry is comforting to many of us during times of loss, and several poems have been helpful in expressing the sense of loss that will be common among us who knew John Purcell as a consummate professional. One that comes to mind is the following:

At Lumen-Empty Monastery, Visiting the Hermitage of Master Jung, My Departed Friend
by Meng Hao-jan, translated by David Hinton

The blue-lotus roof standing beside a pond,
White-Horse Creek tumbling through forests,

and my old friend some strange thing now.
A lingering visitor, alone and grief-stricken

after graveside rites among pines, I return,
Looking for your sitting-mat spread on rock.

Bamboo that seems always my own thoughts:
It keeps fluttering here at your thatch hut.

Instead of standing by a hut, I work every day in the office that was John Purcell’s for his entire tenure at Cleveland State. I first sat on the other side of the desk as a teacher candidate, when Dr. Purcell began his first year here. Throughout the years I returned to add this endorsement or that, and, at one point, I jokingly told him, “When I grow up, I want to do just what you do.” Either the universe has an odd sense of humor, or Dr. Purcell thought that it was a good idea, because he supported my studies and guided me through the requirements until, indeed, I was hired for the position that he had once held. Even then, he came back to the university to visit the department regularly, but always stopped and took me to lunch, where he interspersed collegial conversation with helpful advice. He emailed, sent materials, and, most importantly, left big shoes to fill, with every expectation that I would (and would be able to) do so.

Those “big shoes” included a lifetime of accomplishments. Born in Cincinnati, he was the eldest of three children. In 1955 he completed a B. A. and a B.Ed. at the University of Cincinnati, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He served in the U. S. Army from 1956 to 1958, and then taught and was department chair in the Cincinnati Public Schools. In 1962, he completed an M. A. at Middlebury College. In 1970, he completed a Ph. D. at The Ohio State University with a dissertation on “Role Definition of the State Foreign Language Supervisor,” and was hired for a position in Spanish and Foreign Language Education at Cleveland State University. He earned the Associate Professorship with tenure in 1973, and the rank of Professor in 1985.

He taught Spanish language and literature and all of the foreign-language education classes at Cleveland State. In addition he supervised student teachers until he retired in 1995. One of his students wrote at his death, he was “a consummate professional, and I greatly enjoyed his Spanish language classes.”  Another student he mentored who is now a teacher commented that he “made a profound impact on the way I structure my classes and the methods I use. He made a tremendous impact upon foreign language teaching in Ohio, and he was a kind and caring person.”  His colleagues over the 25 years he taught as CSU agree that he was a pleasure to work with, a valued colleague, and a true asset to his departments and the university. Leona Glenn, former State Supervisor of Foreign Languages, and Dr. Ed Allen both regarded Dr. Purcell as a brilliant scholar who was, at the same time excellent in Spanish and methodology as well as having extremely strong skills in relating to teachers, students, and colleagues.

Dr. Purcell delivered over 40 papers at professional conferences and published 16 articles in his field. He edited or co-edited two published collections of essays. He served three times as Acting or Interim Chair of Modern Languages, and one year as Chair (1994-1995). From 1972 until his retirement he served on the Advisory council of the Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Not everyone was aware that his extra-academic focus was to vexillology, the study of flags. He was an active member of the North American Vexillological Association and served a term as its president. He participated in many of its annual conferences around the world and published several articles on flags. Governments on every level contacted him when a flag was needed, so he designed and created flags, both for himself and for others. For more than 40 years, with colleagues in the Association, he worked on a reference work that was published in 2003, under his editorship, as American City Flags: 150 Flags from Akron to Yonkers. The information from this book was included in his talks around the state, entitled, “A Tour of Ohio’s City Flags.”

Some say that the measure of a person’s life is to ask whether he or she leaves the world a better place. My colleagues and I will heartily agree that this is the case with our friend, mentor, and teacher. Robert Bly expresses this incomparably in his poem about how our teachers hold us up. And Dr. Purcell did; he lifted us high, and for that I will, along with so many others, be thankful for his life.

Gratitude to Old Teachers

Robert Bly

When we stride or stroll across the frozen lake,
We place our feet where they have never been.
We walk upon the unwalked. But we are uneasy.
Who is down there but our old teachers?

Water that once could take no human weight-
We were students then-holds up our feet,
And goes on ahead of us for a mile.
Beneath us the teachers, and around us the stillness.

from Eating the Honey of Words, 1999, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY Copyright 1999 by Robert Bly.

This entry was posted in In Memoriam, Vol. 51, No. 1 - Fall 2012. Bookmark the permalink.