Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Jim Doyle (1944-2005)

[Photograph scanned from the 1978 Fordham College yearbook, The Maroon.]

I learned today that my favorite professor has died. Jim Doyle, James P. Doyle, was my teacher at Fordham College, Bronx, New York. He later taught at Lyndon State College in Vermont. His years at Fordham matched mine--he started in 1974 (when I started on my B.A.) and left in 1980 (the year I finished my M.A.).

Jim was the best teacher I ever had. He was the teacher who made the why of poetry clear to me, who made it clear that poetry was an urgent human enterprise. I had a class with him in my and his second semester at Fordham (drama), and it was not great, as he agreed. He was learning, I think, and he was facing a group of mostly uninterested and wary freshmen. But when I took his courses on modern and contemporary British poetry as a junior, I began to understand what literature was all about. Jim brought poetry to life, by any means necessary, often with humor, and always with absolute dedication and integrity. He was never ironic or glib about the works he was teaching. He was the real thing, and he presented tremendously difficult poetry (e.g., David Jones, Geoffrey Hill) to undergraduates in all its difficulty, without apology. I remember how several of us treasured our copies of Four Quartets, every page covered in notes from class ("the Doyle edition"). I still have my copy. I remember going to an optional review class during reading days before finals and coming in very late (after a grandparent's funeral, believe it or not), which prompted Jim to just keep going, out of kindness. What a teacher! I'm glad that I told him how much his teaching meant to me.

When I started on an M.A. at Fordham, I sat in on the modern British course I'd already taken, to get all the notes I'd missed the first time around. Here too, in that more leisurely world of reading days, there was an optional extra class, hours long, to get through Four Quartets. It was in mid-December, at night, in a more or less deserted classroom building. The room was packed, people listening intently, coats piled everywhere. There was the strangely magical feeling that sometimes comes from being in a classroom at night--brilliant fluorescent light inside and the black winter night in the windows. The class suddenly became very moving, as Jim stopped what he was doing to talk about the difficulty of the works we were reading and of how they wouldn't really become clear to us for years. It was an intensely human lesson about the whole project of living and learning.

I have so many memories of Jim. He once told us that he'd gone to church that morning (during Easter week, I think) and that he was the only person there--so it was a good thing that he went! I remember his hilarious account of trying to explain to a prim Fordham girl what a phallic symbol was. He brought one (or both, I can't recall) of his children to class--the only time in all my years as a student that I ever saw a professor open up his family life in that way (I'm proud to say that I did likewise when my two children were younger). He took me out of my graduate cubicle once with the invitation, "Come take a walk with me," and we went out to Fordham Road and had ice cream. I also remember a completely casual aside that Jim made while teaching "Prufrock." Many years later it came back to me when it was exactly what I needed to remember in my life, and I'm glad I was able to tell him so. I feel lucky to have some books that he gave me before he left Fordham, and some letters and cards from over the years.

Jim's obituary has something of his gratitude and humor in it: "Jim lived a wonderful life and was happy that it was long enough to see the Boston Red Sox win the World Series."

[December 11, 2007: A fair number of people have been finding this post by searching for jim doyle. If you've been looking for Jim online, do read the comments that follow, and please consider sharing your memories there too. Thanks.]

Other Jim Doyle posts
Department-store Shakespeare
Doyle and French
From the Doyle edition
A Jim Doyle story
Teaching, sitting, standing

comments: 22

B. said...

Will you divulge the "Prufrock?" aside?

Michael Leddy said...

Sure--it was an observation about "having an emotion about having an emotion"--the pointlessness of luxuriating in that sort of self-pity.

Anonymous said...


My name is Ben Doyle (Jim's younger son) and I just wanted to let you know how kind it was of you to post what you did. We miss him everyday, but it is also nice for our family to know that we are not the only ones. Thanks for your words.

Michael Leddy said...

Ben, thank you for writing!

Anonymous said...

It is the 8th day of September 2007, and I learned today that my mentor, James P. Doyle, has died, and some time ago. We met in 1971, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard; Jim was a PhD candidate and my honors advisor.

I shall state what all who read this, who knew him, already know: he was lovely and generous, and, in his remarkable way intolerant of anyone who knew better and made choices that pulled from an inferior sensibility.

No one teacher in my travels has influenced me more; no one teacher was more Catholic, nor as lovingly irreverant. I probably knew in 1971 I would never measure up--but the possibility made me think fondly of James Doyle--across now, thirty-six years.

And since it was my folly to lose contact with him a long long while ago, I may now move forever forward in this place, knowing he is not in Vermont, nor New York, nor anywhere our paths may again converge. It is a harsh but, somehow fitting penalty for letting him out of my sight.

During our year together he gave me a 17th century teacup. I think he gave it to me because it was beautiful. I still have it.

He gave me a version of Little Gidding published in the late 1930s on handmade paper. I still have it, of course.

I helped move Jim and his family and all his books and modest furniture, and one old refrigerator, like a stevedore, to a second floor flat in Tarrytown once. It was probably the only time I would be able to repay him with some work fitting my gifts.

I will hold to the richness of the experience of knowing this man first hand, and the legacy of his admonishments to steer away from decisions that do not lift the self or others, and his encouragement to believe that it is possible to make good choices.

I will cry to know the failings he sensed so deeply, just beyond the hopes and wishes that hide them from view for all of us, are real and present in my life in no small way. I had the privilege to study with him and to ask questions, to break bread with him, and to weep with him after a verse or a headline caused him to empty his soul; and to return the love he shared so remarkably--so imperfectly.

Thank you for the opportunity to remember him with you, now. I cherish his memory.

With kind regards to his family,

Jeffrey Snider
Pasadena, California

Michael Leddy said...

Jeff, I'm glad that we were able to talk and remember Jim together.

Unknown said...

My name is Dominick and I was deeply saddened to learn of Jim's passing. I had the pleasure of seeing poetry and life through Jim's eyes. He introduced me to Alan Paton's, "Too late, the Phalarope," and through it taught me the beauty of language. I had never appreciated the intricacies of language before. I am grateful for having known Jim and sorry that I did not keep in touch with him.

Michael Leddy said...

Dominick, thanks for remembering Jim here.

Unknown said...

I was fortunate enough to be in Jim's Greek and Roman Classics class at Lyndon State College. I guess that would be about 10 years ago now. I can't tell you how much of an inspiration he was to me. I went on to study Classics and Literature essentially because of the love for these subjects that he somehow awakened in me.

In spite of the fact that I was very shy at the time and disliked speaking in class, he would force me to give my opinion. I hated him for this at the time, but have come to undestand why he did it. He forced me to become critical and aware of my own bias. His criticisms of my work made me see that it wasn't enough to be "smart" and say the right things. But that I actually had a duty to think carefully about and express honestly what was in my head and my heart.

Unfortunately I had made plans to move on to another school after that semester and did not get to take his Mythology course. I'm sure it would have been amazing. He gave me a few books, including a copy of the Four Quartets, which I treasure.

If only I knew then how rare it was to meet someone who combined such a brilliant intellect with such depth of feeling and spirit.

Michael Leddy said...

Jayson, thanks for adding your memories of Jim here. I remember now that he occasionally called on me in class. (I liked talking to profs during office hours, not in class.)

Anonymous said...

I happened upon your site by chance after having googled "James Doyle and Vermont" as a follow up to a conversation with my 23 son Michael {the 2nd of four children of My wife Anita and I - we met at Fordham in 1979} - about the greatest teachers we ever knew. You have no doubt heard a version of the the rest of the story ... Jim Doyle and The Odyssey lectures, Jim Doyle and Hardy..., Jim Doyle and Prufrock and on and on... I recall one early spring semester morning at Fordham College Rose Hill in 1980. Contemporary British Poetry class. Professor Doyle showed up rather tired, rumpled and almost abject in demeanor. He stared out the window at the spring blossoms for a few minutes while we sat in his Dealy Hall classroom awaiting his instruction to open to a page of the Norton Anthology {he was very kind that way - one text - always available and inexpensive supplemented with reasonably priced Penguin paperbacks from Lamb's bookstore - I retain and treasure them still). A silence settled upon the room as we realized he was teary eyed and about to speak. His words as I remember them were "I read a book last night... a few times in your life you are blessed to read a work of literature that truly moves you and changes your view of the world... last night I read such a book - "Alan Paton's 'Too Late the Phalarope'... I recommend it to you all..." He then proceeded to speak for one hour -off syllabus - and I have never since been in the presence of such a spirit. I am now a practicing lawyer of 20 years experience, the father of 4 - 2 College Aged/ and 2 Grads and I have related to them all the particulars of that day in Jim Doyle's class. I pray that they all enter that zone before graduating. By the way - I still read Thom Gunn, Larkin, and Muir - that's the ultimate tribute to Jim Doyle from this tabula rosa.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for sharing your memories of Jim, Mike. You were lucky to have had a class with him before he left Fordham.

You might want to know that Lyndon State (where Jim taught after leaving Fordham) has a scholarship in his memory. This page has details and a contact name.

I'll have to read Paton's novel now that two people have mentioned it. : ) I bought it years ago, and I'm now realizing that Jim must have recommended it.

Anonymous said...


My name is Ethan Cook. I count my time as a student of Jim's at Lyndon State (almost eighteen years ago) as treasure.

Jim showed a dark, sad kid something of the potential subtlety, beauty and worth of words. This profound part of his conduct I will not forget: the rigor with which he treated cynicism and ugliness as thoughts unworthy of a human being.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for writing, Ethan. I think I know what you mean about cynicism and ugliness — possible responses to life’s difficulties that Jim would just not entertain.

Anonymous said...

The first college course I ever attended was taught by Jim. On the first day, I came out of the course dazed and amazed. In a wonder I stumbled back to the dorm room, called up my parents and said, “I could spend decade thinking about what I just learned in the last hour. And I have three more classes today!”
I was soon to find out that Jim had set the bar incredibly high.
In my final semester at college I had a bunch of electives left…so I took three Jim courses. It’s worth noting that by this time Jim’s health was starting to fail, and he had a reduced number of courses he was teaching. I think I took three because that was all he was teaching. He was talking retirement. One of these courses was an obscure religion course. Jim walked into the class and blinked and said, “Why are you here? No, seriously. This class should be like six people. Why are there so many people in here? I’ve got freshmen to seniors in here. What gives? I’m serious.”
And he started pointing at us demanding why were taking this course. The first three people I don’t think had ever met Jim and had no idea how to handle this. So they mumbled responses. He pointed at me and said, “C’mon, be honest, you’ve had me before, why are you here?”
And I told him the complete truth from my heart, which I’d found was the best way to talk with Jim. “This is my last semester in college. This will be my last chance to see Dr. Jim Doyle teach. Do you really think I was going to pass that up?”
He flipped me off.
The next was a freshman, and he must have taken a cue from me, and said honestly, “They say you are retiring. My roommate told me if I missed an opportunity to see you teach I was an idiot. This was the only course you had with openings. So I’m here.”
He got flipped off too.
Jim didn’t deal with compliments too well.
Jim Doyle was the best teacher I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some greats. I can’t imagine someone ever being educated and NOT having learned from Jim. And especially Jim and Kurt in the same semester as they became opposite sides of the coin for me- both geniuses, both passionate and great…but completely different. And good friends, if diametrically opposed on every subject. Kurt used to keep a list that was “You cannot consider yourself an educated person without having read these books.” Well, on my list of things you need to experience to know true awareness of the world around you…a course with Jim Doyle is #1 on that list.
It is a true tragedy that so many in the world will never know that experience. If I had my way, I’d make every student in the world have one.
There are very few weeks that go by that I don’t think about or share some of Jim’s insights with unsuspecting friends.
A Greek vase he gave me is on my desk at all times to remind me of him and my time with him, and I cherish those memories.
A great teacher, a great man…. He is missed.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for sharing your memories of Jim, Anon. I can see him reacting to compliments just as you describe.

Matt said...

I, too, searched for jim Doyle...today...almost 8 years after he died. I looked on the Lyndon State College website for his email address - and ended up here...

I am a high school English teacher beginning my 18th year, the last 10 overseas. Today, during my orientation at my new school in Abu Dhabi, we were shown a TED talk about 'lollipop moments' - those moments when a small something helps someone out. It immediately made me think of Professor Doyle. In September 1988, I was a freshman in Intro to Lit. I had tested out of 101 and was the only freshman in a freshman English class - and scared. I was enthralled with Jim's passion for literature and teaching and learning.

My real anecdote, though, is when I received my first essay back. He shredded it...I got a C-...and then he told the class that I completely understood the concept I was writing about but I didn't know how to write. 'That," he told the class, laughing, 'is fine - I can teach you how to write. I cannot teach you how to think about feel about literature."

25 years later, I still think about that - and often say the same thing to my students.

Jim Doyle was an amazing man, and one of the biggest influences on me becoming a literature teacher. 'The Red Wheelbarrow" is still my favorite poem...only because of Jim...

Michael Leddy said...

Matt, I’m sorry that you had to learn of Jim’s death from this post. At the same time, I’m glad that this post is here for his students to find.

Many a student would have dropped a class after what happened to you. How fortunate that you didn’t.

I wrote something about grades and writing and my first class with Jim in this post. I’m guessing that you would like it.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for creating this blog. Jim was by far the best teacher I ever had. I was 40 when I started working on my BS in special education at Lyndon State College in Lyndonville,VT, and a classmate who was on old friend said, take Doyle’s course in Intro. to Literature, and you will never look at poetry the same again in your life. I took the course, and found that she was definitely right. The life and caring and personal energy that he invested in his teaching and his students was phenomenal. Now, at Lyndon State College, (currently named Northern VT University - Lyndon), a framed photo of Jim hangs in the hallway near the Library entrance, and next to his name and years of service is the comment, “The Most Loved Professor.” During my time at Lyndon I took every course he taught, and over the many years since then I have thought of him often with gratitude for the worldview he shared that enriched so many of us. For me, he was an amazing teacher and a treasured friend.
- Christine Colwell, Retired Teacher

Michael Leddy said...

I’m happy you found this post, Christine, and I’m happy to know about the photograph of Jim in the library.

And I’m happy to know that Jim was so greatly appreciated at Lyndon State. He had fans at Fordham, for sure, but it seems that his teaching was deeply valued by countless students at Lyndon State.

I can only imagine what Jim would have to say about the idea of an all-digital library for Northern Vermont-Lyndon (in the news recently, I’m guessing you’re aware of it).

Unknown said...

Yes, he would have been livid! Many of us were pleased to see a quote from a respected source published in prominent red print on the front page of The Caledonian Record newspaper recently. It said, “Any college administrator who proposes closure of the campus library should be sacked immediately.” I think Jim would have joined many of us in wholehearted agreement with at sentiment!

Michael Leddy said...