Charles T. Hazelrigg ’37: Lifelong Teacher
RELEASED: Sept. 1, 2005
DANVILLE, KYDr. Charles T. Hazelrigg ’37 came to Danville to enroll at Centre College as a tall, thin, 18-year-old freshman in September, 1933. Since then, the only time he was apart from Centre was when he left to work in the Library of Congress in Washington, attend graduate school at Yale in New Haven, and command an LST craft that was a kamikaze target in the Pacific during World War II.
Last spring, more than 72 years after first stepping onto campus, he was still attending events at Centre’s Norton Center, accompanied by his courageous and patient wife, Margie Hedrick Hazelrigg ’43. Although he was 89 and confined to a wheelchair, he had never lost his twinkling eye and his open, courtly manner.
Thomas A. Spragens was probably Centre’s most important president in the 20th century, and Dr. Mary Sweeney was probably its most influential dean. But neither President Spragens nor Dr. Sweeney had Charlie’s record for sheer longevity and perseverance in the Centre cause.
When I arrived at Centre in the fall of 1971, the English program triumvirate of Mary Sweeney, Paul Cantrell, and Charlie Hazelrigg was still intact. I had the great good luck to be able to work closely with Mary in the freshman writing program and to sit in on Paul’s Shakespeare course and Charlie’s Brit Lit sequence. Could any young fledgling have possibly had three better mentors—with three more different teaching styles?
Could any three Centre professors have supported those youngsters who would inevitably replace them with more good will, rock-sound advice, and humor? That inestimable Old Guard treated their talented younger colleague Roberta White as an equal partner, even though she must have represented to them a slightly different paradigm: a teacher/scholar whose scholarship and work in professional organizations outside Centre was of new importance, though it would never be as important, at Centre, as classroom teaching.
Though Charlie willingly took his turn as chair of the humanities division, he did so with some small regret—because it meant he could not teach his eight courses each year that were always filled to capacity, and beyond. It’s almost certain that he taught more students at Centre in the 20th century than any other professor. Many students arrived on campus with the goal of getting into one of his British Literature classes. Their parents—and at the end of his long teaching career, their grandparents!—had told them that this was a requirement if they wanted to gain a lifelong appreciation of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Burns, Wordsworth, Byron, Yeats, and Eliot, and also learn, forever, the importance of correct grammar, clear writing, and . . . how to spell.
Through his meticulously crafted lectures and time-consuming, one-on-one paper conferences, his students learned that clarity of thought and attention to the smallest detail are the keys to good writing. And good living, as his own full life proved. Charlie was unapologetic about the virtue and even necessity of studying great works of literature (a word he always pronounced correctly, with four syllables): “Other subjects may teach you how to make a living, but English will teach you how to live,” he often said.
After he taught his last Brit Lit sequence and moved out of the Cheek Emeritus House, I happily moved two of his file cabinets into a large storage closet in my office. From time to time, he or someone else would ask me to retrieve a letter, and he invited me and my colleagues to make any use we wanted of his teaching materials, including his famed “visual aids.”
Amazingly, in those files there are about 800 manila folders—in exact alphabetical order of course—of carbon copies of letters of recommendation and encouragement he had written for his students over the years. (Whenever I feel a little pressed about writing one more letter of recommendation for a student, I recall the literally thousands of letters in my closet signed “Charles T. Hazelrigg.”) His letters reflect not only an earnest, charming professionalism but an uncommon generosity toward even those C- students who’d struggled to receive even that grade. Another extensive set of folders contains letters and notes he received back from his students. One student who is now a prominent legislator wrote:
“I’ll never forget a year ago when I was taking your British literature final. I thought if by the grace of God I pass this course, I’ll never be fool enough to take another. Well, I wouldn’t have had the chance except for a very understanding professor. Every time I ran across a question that confused me, you came over and straightened me out. With all your compassion for a poor student, I picked up 15-20 points on the exam and received a C.”
Another student who went on to earn advanced degrees from the most prestigious universities wrote him: “I always think of you on the eve of every great battle. Somehow in the crazy, mixed-up tangle of memories, ideals, and faiths, you are one of the people I would not want to disappoint. . . . I miss you and I miss Centre.”
Perhaps more than any other person, Dr. Hazelrigg represented the historically close connection between town and gown, between Danville and Centre. He was so active in so many civic/social/religious groups, that to this day, Dr. Hazelrigg was Centre to scores of local people. Until the very end, very few days went by that he didn’t talk with his younger Danville friend, Joe Frankel, whom he’d met when he first arrived in 1933. African-Americans in Danville and at Centre will always hold him in special regard for the important role he played in bringing about racial integration at the College and in Danville.
There are scores of letters to and from Danville students who weren’t even students at Centre and to and from Kentuckians with no ostensible relationship at all to Centre. In one long letter, he offered detailed advice with a list of contacts to a promising local boy at another college who went on to win the Yale Younger Poets award.
And the most prominent sportswriter in Kentucky wrote him: “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your kind note. It’s always nice to get a complimentary letter, but especially when it comes from someone who is an expert in the use of the language. In moments of depression, I’ll take your note out and re-read it to boost my spirits.”
Charlie loved teaching and loved his students as much as anyone I’ve ever known. It became a standard joke that he was going to retire . . . again. (He formally retired at least twice, that I recall.) At one of his retirement celebrations, his closest colleague for many years, Paul Cantrell, called up the passing of Arthur and the end of Camelot.
Now that Dr. Charles T. Hazelrigg has passed away, I think more of the passing of Beowulf, because Charlie loved to quote a particularly moving passage near the end of that epic: “Beowulf spoke—despite his wounds spoke, his mortal hurts. . . . ‘I held this people fifty winters. . . . In my land I awaited what fate brought me, held my own well, sought no treacherous quarrels. Sick with life-wounds, I have joy of all this.’”
“So it is fitting,” the Beowulf minstrel writes, “that man honor his liege lord with words, love him in heart when he must be led forth from the body.” After the old Anglo-Saxon warrior’s spirit has moved on to the eternal happiness of Valhalla, “warriors began to awaken on the barrow the greatest of funeral-fires; the wood-smoke climbed, black over the fire, the roaring flame mixed with weeping. And the Geatish woman, wavy-haired, sang a sorrowful song about Beowulf. Heaven swallowed the smoke.”
To submit your own recollection of Dr. Hazelrigg, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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