• Bill's Hendrix Odyssey

  • The Compleat Better Half

    Posted on Thursday, April 03, 2014

    I first met my future wife in the fall of 1985, when we were both wet-behind-the-ears graduate students at Oxford University. Marjorie Swann was a Canadian, from a fly-speck of a town on an island in Lake Huron with more moose than people. She was at Oxford on a Commonwealth Scholarship (a charming remnant of British imperial noblesse oblige) and was reading for a degree in English Renaissance literature. Our courtship was not exactly the stuff of romance novels or made-for-Lifetime movies. To say it was nerdy is putting it mildly: think The Big Bang Theory but with humanities geeks instead of scientists. We would take tea breaks together, she emerging from the ancient, overheated library she preferred, me staggering into the sunlight from the medieval dungeon of a library I frequented. We knew things were getting serious when we started editing each other’s seminar papers. Then, as now, Marjorie was an absolute whiz with a red pen and a stickler for clarity and logic. It was love at first comma splice.

    We were married in 1989, in Marjorie’s family’s little church on St. Joseph Island. We then began the peripatetic lives of contemporary academics. Our first stop was Princeton, New Jersey, where Marjorie finished her dissertation and earned an Oxford D.Phil. while I was still stuck in classwork and sitting comprehensive exams. She subsequently earned a prestigious postdoc (thank you, cradle-to-grave Canadian government) and stayed in Princeton when I went off to Japan for a year to conduct research. We reunited in, of all places, Denton, Texas, where Marjorie had won a coveted tenure-track job at the University of North Texas. After a year in the Lone Star State, when I was happily a kept man, working on my own dissertation while Marjorie labored as a grunt of a junior faculty member, we packed up again and hit the road. 

    The next port of call for us (and a long layover, it turned out) was in Lawrence, Kansas, where we both landed jobs at the University of Kansas. In our 17 years at KU and in one of America’s great college towns, we accomplished a lot, both personally and professionally. We both earned tenure, Marjorie published her first book (on the culture of collecting in early modern England), brought home a slew of teaching awards, and directed the Museum Studies master’s program.  We became rabid basketball fans, even more rabid regional art collectors (of which more will follow in another blog post), and we rescued a historic home from demolition, completely renovated it, and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Marjorie returned to her roots in rural Canada (where she had a summer market garden to earn the money for college) and kept us supplied with a backyard bounty of scrupulously organic raspberries, herbs, and heirloom tomatoes.

    Since 2010, of course, we have been down in Dallas, where brutal summers make gardening all but impossible and a historic house is anything built before 1995. Marjorie has continued to rack up the teaching honors and is already well known as one of SMU’s most demanding and best English professors.  (Warning to future students at Hendrix: Dr. Swann will work you hard and have no patience for sloppiness or laziness. Advice to future students at Hendrix: Take Dr. Swann’s classes, because you will learn more in one semester about reading, writing, and thinking than you ever thought possible.)   

    As always, Marjorie continues to burn the candle at both ends, being an active scholar while still heaping red ink by the bucket-load on student essays. For several years she has been working on Izaak Walton, a seventeenth-century author who is regarded as something of a literary patron saint by all sport fishermen. His 1653 volume The Compleat Angler (if only Marjorie had been around to correct his spelling!) is the second most frequently reprinted book in the English language after the Bible. The more the merrier, it seems, since Marjorie has just completed (compleated?) a new edition of the venerable volume, released in the United States this month by Oxford University Press. It is a lovely book, with a ribbon bookmark and a striking cover designed to attract all those fishermen who are voracious readers in the months when they cannot be standing amidst a stream in their waders. In her introduction, Marjorie urges us to reconsider how we regard this time-honored text: The Compleat Angler, she argues, is not just a fishing manual, not just a celebration of the countryside, and not just an Anglican meditation in an age of civil war, but it is also very much an ecological study, an unusually early reflection of an environmental consciousness in English literature. Even if Walton’s writing is difficult to plow through at times (The Canterbury Tales meets Moby Dick is a rough approximation), Marjorie’s introduction alone is worth the cover price.

    The edition has already been attracting lots of attention, even in places where ivory-tower scholars usually fear to tread. It was one of two featured reviews in an issue of the TLS (which is, in British literary circles, like running in the Kentucky Derby if you happen to be a racehorse). It was written up admiringly (and compared to, believe it or not, Lady Chatterley’s Lover) in the sports section of London’s newspaper The Independent. Marjorie has been asked to deliver the keynote speech at this summer’s annual convention of the Izaak Walton League of America, a national conservation organization for sportsmen. And she is scheduled to do a book signing at the Bass Pro Shops superstore in Altoona, Iowa. Wow! Just look where an Oxford doctorate can take you!

    Marjorie has written a blog on The Compleat Angler for the publisher (you can read it here – link to http://blog.oup.com/2014/02/fishing-with-izaak-walton-compleat-angler/). It is illustrated with photographs by yours truly, taken during our “vacation” to England last year (which, incidentally, fell during the coldest spring in the British Isles since the last Ice Age). While Marjorie was walking in the steps of Izaak Walton, visiting all the historic sites associated with him, and poring over sources in museums and libraries, I was either obligingly taking photographs (often while wearing mittens) or else relaxing in a pub across the street, trying to stay warm. It was all in a good cause, though, as the edition sets a new standard for reprints of Izaak Walton and as Marjorie is hard at work on a book about The Compleat Angler and its post-Renaissance afterlives.

    Marjorie is looking forward to the move to Conway, to joining the Hendrix community, and to teaching poetry come the fall. And she’s also eager about learning how to fly fish after we arrive in Arkansas. I understand our next “vacation” to England is going to involve not just walking in Walton’s centuries-old footsteps, but actually angling where the great man once did.  

    And, just so you know, we still edit each other’s writing, even after almost 25 years of marriage.  The couple that proofreads together stays together. 

    Home on the lanes

    Posted on Thursday, March 06, 2014

    I am not exactly known for my athletic prowess. I have never excelled as a participant in any sport, although I am quite proficient as a spectator. Growing up in Aggieland, I regularly went to A&M football games with my father back in the days before Johnny Manziel made the team respectable and when Kyle Field only held an intimate 40,000 or so. I took the path of least resistance in PE throughout my school career, but I improbably ended up on three straight champion intramural soccer teams in high school (despite being more of an impediment on the field than an active player). I was a member of the Middle Common Room cricket team when in grad school at Oxford, as just about anyone can stand around on a lawn in white clothing between tea breaks. When Marjorie and I arrived at the University of Kansas I didn’t know the first thing about basketball, but you have to be a fast learner in that environment (and living in Dr. Naismith’s house for a decade didn’t hurt either). Our season tickets in Allen Fieldhouse were somewhere up beyond the nosebleed section: after a game I always felt like I was suffering from altitude sickness, not to mention temporary deafness. Lately I have contented myself with watching sports mainly from the sofa, especially my beloved and benighted Baltimore Orioles, who I defiantly adopted in the late 1960s in opposition to my father’s cherished (and despicable) New York Yankees. 

    The only sport in which I can claim even the most rudimentary expertise is bowling. Now I know what you’re thinking: first, that bowling is not a sport and, second, that little in the way of expertise is needed beyond perhaps funny shoes, a shirt with a groaner of a team name (e.g. The King Pins) stitched on the back, and a pot belly. Be that as it may, I love bowling and have been indulging regularly for a very long time. I started in sixth grade, when all the students at St. Michael’s Academy were bused across town to bowl for a couple hours every Wednesday afternoon, presumably to give our teachers (and the school’s physical plant) a much-deserved rest. I was not exactly enamored of bowling at the start, but I did well enough that at the end of the year I was presented with the “Upper School Bowling Award” at graduation. I am the first to admit this was not the Heisman Trophy or an Olympic medal, but I was darned proud of it and, modest though it was, it ended up being the only sporting recognition I would ever earn in my life.

    My athletic ambition stoked by this external recognition, I started pestering my father to go bowling with me on weekends. My father did not drive — which, more so than being Japanese, regularly wearing Bermuda shorts, and not owning any firearms, make him quite an outlier in Bryan, Texas — so every Saturday we would get out our bikes and ride over to Triangle Bowl.  After cheeseburgers, fries, and large Big Reds (the diet of champions in bowling circles), we would intensely and very competitively roll a few games. My father usually won, which irritated me considerably, but we always enjoyed the time together and the good-natured rivalry made us both more proficient bowlers.

    For a good many years after my father passed away, through college, graduate school, and beyond, I did not set foot in a bowling alley. Then, in about 2000, I was traveling with a group of KU undergraduates in China and was persuaded, against my better judgment, to go bowling in Wuhan late one night. I was immediately hooked again. As soon as I got back to Lawrence I started going to Royal Crest Lanes, first once a week or so, then twice, and ultimately as often as I could fit it into my schedule. I bought my own shoes, then a ball, then a better ball, and was soon decked out like a pro, with a tricked-out roller bag, flashy bowling shoes with flames up the sides, and lucky towels. When Marjorie and I left Kansas, I think I was as sad to say goodbye to Royal Crest (and my friends Mary and Jerry behind the desk) as I was bidding my university colleagues farewell.

    Since coming to Dallas, the frequency of my bowling has tailed off considerably. I have little in the way of free time and it’s quite a drive to the nearest alleys. I should confess that I am quite picky about where I bowl. I am no fan of the fancy-schmancy new bowling centers popping up these days, especially in trendy places like Dallas, with martini bars and mood lighting and plush sofas and wall-to-wall hipsters and exorbitant prices. As I like to tell people, I like a bowling alley that smells of feet, a good old-fashioned place with families and ugly carpeting and a welcoming feel and (of course) Big Red on tap. Think The Big Lebowski. So these days I have to drive all the way to Garland (no biking that far) to a big warehouse of place with no official name that I know of, but with the letters B-O-W-L glowing starkly on the side facing the expressway. 

    I understand that the bowling alley in Conway is the kind of place I will like. I hope I can squeeze enough time into my schedule to pick up a few games now and then. If there is a student bowling club, please consider me for faculty advisor.  And if there are professors and staff members who enjoy the sport, by all means let’s head down to the lanes. 

    Love blooms in unexpected places

    Posted on Thursday, February 13, 2014

    One of the most rewarding parts of my current job (and something I very much look forward to doing more of at Hendrix) is meeting alums and hearing their stories of what made college so special for each of them. I am complete sucker for all the nostalgic memories of professors who made a huge difference, friends made for a lifetime, momentous career decisions cemented in the weeks before graduation, and fun times had in the days before homecoming. Some of my very favorite stories, however, come from couples who met in college and went on to spend decades together. Since Marjorie and I first met in graduate school, at a drinks party where we were the only two folks not partaking of the spiked punch, I might have a particularly soft spot for tales of college romance.

    Not long ago, two SMU grads (now close to my advanced age) shared with me the story of their first encounter. It was set in Hyer Hall, a historical building at the heart of campus and once the site of physics labs (before, it seems, we needed billion-dollar machines tunneled into European mountains to discover things of great import). Hyer is lovely from the outside but a little less charming, shall we say, in its interior decor. After one faculty member once complained of its general drabness, I replied (with my tongue firmly in cheek), “Come on, now, it got a new coat of gray paint just ten years ago!” One would never guess that Cupid would be roaming the hallways of a building so lacking in ambiance. But for this couple I spoke with, Hyer Hall was an absolutely magical place: they started chatting after class one evening in front of a vending machine in the basement and, within six months, had tied the knot. The husband, who seemed like a true romantic, confided that he later tried to buy said soda machine but that cold-hearted bureaucrats, either at the university or at Coca-Cola, vetoed the idea. These days, when I walk by Hyer, I almost always smile and think about how love can bloom in the most unlikely places and how college can be filled with unexpected, transformative, perfectly wonderful moments.

    Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to meet dozens of Hendrix alums. To a person, they have been warm, approachable, interesting, and accomplished people, with an abiding affection for the College and a profound attachment to its character, values, and commitment to excellence. Nancy and Tom Fomby are just the kind of folks all of us in the Hendrix family can be proud of. Tom is my colleague here at SMU, Director of the Richard B. Johnson Center for Economic Studies and a distinguished econometrician. He knows as much about “big data” and analytics (among the hottest topics in the academy and the business world right now) as I know about Godzilla. And Nancy worked for 31 years at the Episcopal School of Dallas where, as lead college guidance counselor, she advised generations of nervous students and confused parents (and steered quite a few recruits to Conway). Nancy and Tom can talk about their days at Hendrix as if they were last week: Tom recalls the math professor who changed his life and, even more importantly, the evening he looked down some bleachers and saw his future wife for the first time. The Fombys have been generous supporters of the College and still drive through campus every time they come back to Arkansas to visit relatives.

    I am certain there are loads more Toms and Nancys out there, with great stories to tell, memories to reflect upon, and dreams for the future of Hendrix to express. I look forward to meeting as many of you as I can, and hearing all that you would like to share with me, in the months and years ahead.

    A Texas-sized passion for barbecue

    Posted on Thursday, January 23, 2014
    Bill and Grill

    As some folks at Hendrix already know, one of my passions is barbecue. I have been eating smoked meat for just about as long as I can remember. My family moved to Bryan, Texas, in 1969 and I would guess that about half the restaurants in town (which probably totaled ten or fewer at that time) were barbecue joints. We lived not too far from Tom’s BBQ, which is long gone but still fondly remembered in the Brazos Valley. Tom’s back then was located in a shabby cinder-block bunker of a building, with no windows and (in my mind’s eye at least) covered in faded maroon paint, just across the road from the Texas A&M campus. Tom’s was famous for the Aggie Special, a mound of smoked beef and sausage, a stack of Mrs. Baird’s white bread, pickle slices, a whole onion, and a slab of very yellow cheese, all served up on big sheets of butcher paper, with worn, wooden-handled steak knives the only utensils provided. This less than elegant presentation (common in the German meat-market-style barbecue tradition of Central Texas) did not go over well with my mother, who forbade family meals at Tom’s. As she was a biochemist (and thus, regrettably, had some credibility when it came to hygiene) my father and I had little choice in the matter.

    The only barbecue place in town where we ate regularly was Randy Sims, which was the closest restaurant to our house, at least until a Taco Bell sprouted on Texas Avenue. Randy Sims was acceptable to my mother — I recall the dining room being antiseptically clean and the cafeteria trays sparkling, all terribly out of character for a BBQ establishment — and the brisket there came to set my standard for smoked meat. Randy Sims very proudly used the legendary Red Bryan’s original recipes; only later did I learn that Randy (who is very much a real person and played for Bear Bryant at A&M in the day) had married Red’s daughter. Red’s son (named Sonny, appropriately enough) went on to create a small barbecue empire in Dallas. Randy Sims’ place has now been closed for years, perhaps decades, but I can still imagine the smoky, tender, memory-enhanced goodness of his meat when I order a beef sandwich at the now rather corporate, mass-produced Sonny Bryan’s.

    I have spent most of my adult life trying to recapture that imagined perfection of Randy Sims’ brisket, piled high on slices of Texas toast griddled with margarine. Looking for good barbecue in Boston was like searching for fresh-off-the boat lobsters in Bryan. England was hopeless for smoked meat as, not surprisingly, was New Jersey. When Marjorie and I moved to Kansas in 1993, however, I felt like salvation was at hand. I soon discovered that KC ’cue, despite the hype and the undeniable charm of venerable, scruffy joints like Arthur Bryant’s, was a profound disappointment to my Texan taste buds. Kansas City BBQ ran heavily to pork ribs, the brisket was usually dry and sliced wafer thin, and the sauce was a sticky, sugary, candy-like abomination. For seventeen years marooned in the heartland, dreaming of the barbecue of my youth, I felt like a shipwrecked sailor on a desert island: Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

    Ten years ago, Marjorie took pity on my plight and for my fortieth birthday bought me a way out of my barbecue frustration: a gigantic smoker from Houston, gleaming stainless steel with an offset firebox and all the bells and whistles, made by the same outfit that supplied George H.W. Bush. The first day I tried to use it I cut open my finger on one of its heavy-metal grates and spent three hours in the emergency room getting stitched up. Over the subsequent months and years I came to realize how hard it was to make great barbecue and how much experience, patience, and sweat-equity was required to turn beef, salt, pepper, and smoke into mouthwatering goodness.

    For Christmas this year, Marjorie got me a book on Southern — not Texas — barbecue. I think she was hoping to ease me into the different foodways of Arkansas easily, as I am sure she still remembers my impassioned rants against what was represented as smoked meat in Kansas City. The volume, a mixture of travelogue and cookbook, did catch my fancy and, after reading for days about pulled and chopped pork, barbecued bologna, and all the varieties of sauce and slaw from the Mississippi Delta to the Carolinas, I decided I needed to roll my smoker out of the garage and give Southern BBQ a try. Of course, the early January day I picked to do my barbequing happened to be 35 degrees, with a steady wind out of the north dropping the wind chill well below freezing. But I am not one to let a little weather stand between me and a pork shoulder, so I bundled up and smoked away.

    I am looking forward to exploring Arkansas barbecue when I arrive at Hendrix and I would welcome recommendations of your favorite spots and tips on little-known gems around the state. And I expect I will be firing up my smoker next summer in Conway when I get a hankering for that lovely Texas-style beef I’m so addicted to. You’ll know I’m at work when you see the clouds of smoke drifting across campus and smell a hint of brisket on the wind.

    Meeting the Folks, Greeting the King

    Posted on Monday, December 16, 2013
    The Provost the King and the President

    I had a great couple days on the Hendrix campus last week. There were plenty of the usual meetings in conference rooms, the kind of things that academic administrators know only too well as an unavoidable part of the job. But I also had a lot of fun learning more about the Hendrix community and meeting many of the folks who work, teach, learn, and live at the College. There was the public safety officer, who told me about his military tours of duty in Grenada and Kuwait, as well as his continued amazement at the things 18‑year‑olds can get up to on weekend evenings. And the sports coach who introduced himself at the WAC and joined me in a few laps around the indoor track, talking proudly about the wonderful teams of young people he had recruited to Hendrix. And, of course, all the students: the classmates cramming for a Native American history course over breakfast; the sociology and biochemistry and religious studies majors from Maine and Louisiana, Nashville and Ghana; the seniors headed to med school, Americorps, and a stint as a bartender; the group struggling to remember the Mandarin word for "taste" at 11:30 at night. All impressed me with their passion for their work and their studies, their clear affection for Hendrix College, and their patience in putting up with my endless questions. I even had the chance to meet Elvis: who knew he would be waiting outside Provost Entzminger’s office?!

    I enjoyed four meals on Thursday in the Caf, if you count that slice of pizza at Late Night as a meal. I think I put on my full "freshman fifteen" in one day. Grits and biscuits for breakfast, delicious BBQ brisket for lunch (thanks to Chef for smoking this up with me in mind!), and a corn dog for dinner. Pure heaven. You can take the boy out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the boy. I hate to imagine what will happen to my waistline when my office is just a stone’s throw from the SLTC.

    I will be back on campus once or twice a month in the spring and I look forward to making more new friends, hearing more amazing stories about Odyssey projects and study abroad trips, and perhaps indulging in another corn dog or two.

    How do you pronounce that?

    Posted on Monday, December 02, 2013

    When confronted for the first time with my last name, the world seems to divide into three clear groups. Most numerous are those who gamely give it a go: Soo-soo, Tut-soo, and Chew-chew are pretty common attempts, although sometimes I hear more creative pronunciations. A significant minority of folks just won't even touch it: some form their lips, struggling to get their minds around that jumble of letters, but no sounds come out; many just default to calling me Bill or something curious like Mr. William; a few shake their heads and say "I'm not even going to try that one." And then, of course, there are those with a natural advantage, all of the world's native speakers of Japanese, who don't miss a beat in rendering a flawless Tsutsui every time. 

    I have to admit that I do not pronounce my own name in accordance with the best practices of Japanese diction. All my life, I have followed the lead of my mother, who was born and raised in upstate New York of honest, hardworking (but very un-Japanese) German and British stock. She made things easy for tongue-tied Americans by ignoring the initial T in our name and grouping the subsequent letters in a way that made sense to English (if not Japanese) speakers. Thus, she and I go by SUIT-sooey. Think of a suit of clothing followed by a call for the hogs. Perhaps not the most elegant mnemonic, but it's hard to forget and almost impossible to mess up. My father, who was originally from Japan, always winced a bit at our Americanized pronunciation but patiently put up with it as just another of the many small compromises that immigrants are obliged to make. 

    So feel free to take a hack at Tsutsui when we first meet. Or you can just call me Bill. And please forgive me if I mangle your name the first time around: I will try to learn how to get it right, especially if you have a neat little trick like SUIT-sooey that you can share. 

    Getting to know Hendrix

    Posted on Tuesday, November 12, 2013

    It was the thrill of a lifetime to be introduced November 1 as the next president of Hendrix College. After reading just about every page on the Hendrix website, looking the College up in every guidebook I could find, and meeting with the presidential search committee, I had some idea of just how extraordinary the Hendrix community is. But I was still impressed and touched by the warm welcome I received last Friday, and indeed every day since. I want to thank all the students, faculty, and staff who came out to meet me, and all the alums, trustees, parents, and supporters who have emailed and phoned since the announcement. I look forward to getting to know you all better and hearing your stories of what makes Hendrix College so very special among America’s leading liberal arts institutions.

    As I have told many people, my process so far of getting to know Hendrix has been like drinking from a fire hydrant. Of course, I still have a huge amount to learn, but I already think I am getting a clearer sense of Hendrix’s unique values, distinctive personality, and remarkable strengths. More than anything, though, I have been impressed by the people I have met around campus: the students are bright, engaged, and enthusiastic; the faculty are deeply committed and highly accomplished; the staff, at all levels, are professional, great at what they do, and invested in the College’s growth; the trustees are dedicated to the success of the school and have high expectations for the future. And, of course, Hendrix is an absolutely beautiful, completely captivating place, sheltered by trees, hugged by a low stone wall, and buzzing with intellectual activity and true fellowship.

    I feel blessed to be joining you in Conway, as does my wife, Marjorie Swann, who you all will be meeting (and some of you will be studying English literature with) in the coming months and years. Until we arrive on campus at the start of June 2014, I will be using this blog to chronicle my experience of becoming part of the Hendrix community, as well as to provide you with some insight on who I am, where I came from, and what values and aspirations I bring to the College. I hope you will keep reading these posts, and that you will feel free to contact me anytime with your hopes and dreams for the future of Hendrix College.

  • About Bill

    William Tsutsui

    Dr. William M. Tsutsui, Dean and Professor of History at Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University, was named the 11th President of Hendrix College. His presidency begins June 2014.