Monday, January 31, 2011

In Memoriam: Dr. James A. Blessing, Imparting Wisdom

The start of another semester, complete with relentless wars with technology: Chains of emails to program coordinators and my mentor instructor, the evils of the quasi-defunct Xerox machine in the Writing Program office at Rutgers-Newark. It was inevitable, as with the start of every term, that I'd be thinking of Dr. James Blessing, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Susquehanna University. And I was shocked, saddened, when I learned that Dr. Blessing had passed away on Thursday, 27 January.

When I was an undergraduate and one of Dr. Blessing's student workers in the Poli Sci department, we all knew that Dr. Blessing and "the technology"--as he unilaterally referred to computers and machines of most stripes--were seldom on speaking terms. But he still learned PowerPoint and prepared slides for his freshmen class--Comparative Government and Politics--because the students had asked him to do so. I helped Dr. Blessing save the PowerPoints on a flashdrive so he could easily access them in SU's smart classrooms. One morning in his office, before he was off to teach the freshmen course, he was telling me, for the umpteenth time, how distracting technology could be. As he waggled the flashdrive in his hand, that thumb-shaped, plastic wedge of a device suddenly looked absurd.

Because, of course, it was. Because, as I learned from being a TA at Bucknell and from leading my own section of freshman comp at Rutgers-Newark, Dr. Blessing was right. Technology is a distraction from what actually matters: the people one encounters.

(And I can't ignore the irony of using technology to say all of this.)

Dr. Blessing knew this, better than most, when he went to his classes--as he always phrased it--to "impart wisdom." Dr. Blessing was more than a good teacher and a good advisor to his students. He watched out for us, in and out of the classrooms. We were there to learn, and he would make sure we would. His hand-drawn diagrams were scrawled on the chalkboard to slow himself down so we, the students, could ask him questions and better understand the complex structure of the European Union; the PowerPoints he made for his freshmen class gave the students clear study aids.

He was wry, clever, sharp. And, though somewhat irascible, kind and brilliant as anything. In Dr. Blessing's classes and his company, your wit had to be quick, and you had to open your mind to inquiry.

During the three years I worked for the department, I was living on campus year round, and Dr. Blessing was there, too, looking after me. I had a succession of...hazardous cars, and whenever I drove anywhere, Dr. Blessing grilled me on my return to make sure nothing went awry, that my deathtrap cars did not fulfill their particular idiom. While my oldest brother was serving in Iraq, Dr. Blessing called me into his office and asked if I needed to talk about anything. And he listened, counseled--even when I knew he had stacks of papers from his different classes to get through.

Having taught at Susquehanna for 44 years, Dr. Blessing affected generations of Susquehanna students, shared with them his knowledge and his generosity. I'm not the only student with Dr. Blessing stories, and I'm not the only student who has found himself inspired by his example. Dr. Blessing has given us, firstly, the academic ability to inquire and to investigate. But he has also given us an example to live up to, a model for leading a compassionate and meaningful life.

I tend to avoid the creative nonfiction spiel like the proverbial plague, mainly because I'm not sure that I have anything worth saying. But maybe the point of the personal essay is precisely that it's personal, that it contributes to our understanding of how people think, that it makes us want to be better at whatever it is we do. Maybe, for me, the personal essay should be about what others have given. Not just to me, but to others. And this is what Dr. James Blessing has given me, and other Susquehanna students: Something to live for, someone worth writing about.

(Read Susquehanna University's in memoriam about Dr. Blessing.)


  1. Very nicely written and so true. Thanks Koz

  2. Wonderful, Pat. I was right, it made me cry. But that's okay. Dr. Blessing wouldn't want such attention, but of all people, he deserves it. -Karen

  3. Pat,

    What a great tribute. I know many think this but few could write it this well.


  4. Wonderful memories, Pat, and beautifully written. Thank you.

  5. Dr. Blessing was, without a doubt, the most dynamic, challenging, and compelling teacher I have ever experienced. I loved the passion and frustration he brought to the classroom. I remember entering his office with trepidation to discuss the progress (or lack thereof) I was making on my senior thesis, and he quickly dispelled his often intimidating presence by lighting a cigar and taking a giant gulp of coffee before declaring with a disarming smile, "OK, I've had my caffeine and my nicotine. Now we can talk."

    Thank you for the worthy memorial.

    --Michael. Class of '93