Remembrances: Alan Dowty


He was a great raconteur who could retell fairly ordinary experiences in an amusing way.

Alan Dowty

Alan Dowty

In the fall of 1966 I arrived at Shimer College with my wife, Nancy. We were both invited as visiting professors for a year, but with the clearly stated possibility that we might stay on if things worked out. Both of us were Shimer graduates, class of 1959, imbued even after graduate school with the Shimer great-books-and-discussion ideology. We had gone from Shimer to the University of Chicago, and in 1963 to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but the return to Shimer was in some ways a homecoming.

John Bellairs arrived at the same time, and almost simultaneously with the publication of St. Fidgeta. Having a published author of literary works was not that common in Shimer's small faculty, so the book received a good deal of attention on campus. Both of us, as well as others on the faculty, read the book and spent considerable time with John discussing his experiences growing up as a Catholic, something quite different from our own experiences. We did share with John the Hyde Park (University of Chicago) background and a generally similar outlook on life, so we quickly began spending a considerable amount of social time together.

Mt. Carroll is a small town with few diversions; Shimer faculty generally spent most of their leisure time with each other. We had a fairly roomy apartment for ourselves and our two small daughters; typically John would drop by in the evening for rambling conversation, and drinking, that would often last into the wee hours. What made it fun, of course, was John's great sense of humor and his somewhat avuncular style of conversation. He was a great raconteur who could retell fairly ordinary experiences in an amusing way. I recall few specifics after such a long interval, but it does seem to me that life at Shimer, in itself, furnished much of the material for our mutual entertainment. Shimer's small size and intimacy, together with a perhaps disproportionate representation of unusual personality types and bizarre situations, meant that there was a never-ending source of targets for our wit.

One of the most charming aspects of John's conversation was a talent for gentle self-deprecation that was totally disarming. Though he had certainly by that time acquired a fair degree of sophistication in many dimensions, John was totally free of any kind of pretense and in fact often enjoyed downplaying his own qualifications as a man of the world. I recall in particular one occasion in which, after having commented quite knowledgeably about a particular wine, John proceeded to explain this knowledge as a fluke and to describe himself, quite charmingly, as a fraud as far as any wider knowledge was concerned.

John, the two of us, and Harry Golding - another remarkable Shimer personality - became even closer during the months of turmoil that followed. The faculty drug of choice was booze and I have strong recollections of the four of us drinking and talking late into the night. The campus adversity that year created very strong ties; though it is hard to believe that our total time together, with both John and Harry, was only a matter of months. There were a number of dissident social evenings (the GIS caused a social segregation of the two sides) that were very well lubricated. These were the moments when the pressure of the GIS led all of us into mutual commiseration and support.

I dedicated my first book to the Shimer College dissidents of 1966-1967. It was a year that could serve as the basis for a major literary work; too bad that John is no longer around to write it.