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Dr. Grammar


The poet Wallace Stevens once penned a poem titled "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," a poem that explores, in part, the multiple perceptions that are always present when we look at the world around us. That poem, to me, is also a picture of Jim HiDuke, a wonderfully kind, compassionate, and complex man whose many sides were seldom seen by others. But those sides were still there, forging a man who was, in so many ways, a study in remarkable contrasts — a wonderful collection of those ways of looking at the blackbird.

To many, Jim was a very private man, one who appeared not to mix his work at the University with his life away from it. What most did not see were the times when Jim met with new faculty members to help guide and counsel them through their first years at the University. These behind-the-scenes meetings helped so many begin their professional lives in a positive manner, including yours truly. Few also knew about the extra help sessions Jim had with his students at his home when they could not meet him during his regular office hours at school. True, I had to scold him more than once for doing this because of some University rules that were being challenged by this work, but I couldn't fault his motives — and I always scolded him with a smile on my face because he was making and taking the time to help his students build excellence into their lives and work.

In a related vein, several summers ago I team-taught with Jim a writing course during a summer session. I'm sure it at first seemed to the students like a bout of tag-team wrestling. First, I'd give a lecture to introduce the material of the day, and Jim would then follow with the specifics and "how to" of the instruction. As I watched Jim in the classroom, I saw a man devoted to his students and devoted to their successes, at times much to the chagrin of those students. In the classroom Jim was a tough and demanding teacher, especially hard as nails when it came to evaluating their work. While teaching with Jim that summer, I saw a student paper he had graded. According to Jim's evaluation system, the student missed 135 out of a possible 100 points. Yes, the student was given 35 of the famous "HiDuke Minus-Points." Needless to say, it woke the student up. The very next day after class I saw Jim working with the student in the Maucker Union. Over two hours later, I went back to the Union to grab a bite to eat, and Jim and the student were still there, hard at work. And that student's score on the next writing in that class? 80 out of 100 — quite a turn-around. And it happened because Jim cared — because of the behind-the-scenes dedication and support. If I had to put Jim's teaching into one sentence, I'd say he was demanding but fair, exacting while being compassionate.

Another side of Jim that only I saw presented itself in my office just about weekly. Jim loved his job, and he wanted all others to feel the same way. Just about every Tuesday morning for the past eight or nine years, Jim would come into the office to ask if there was anything he could do to help the Department or the newer faculty members. Quite often there were things he could do, and he always followed through when providing this help. These acts of kindness ranged from helping new faculty design course outlines to helping folks move into their new homes when they first arrived to town. Jim never talked about this help and support he gave to so many. To him, talking about that behind-the-scenes help would have been rude. But I knew about them all, and my respect for Jim grew with each act of kindness and selflessness.

In recent years, most of us also knew Jim by the moniker "Dr. Grammar." The Dr. Grammar service actually came about because every time someone would call the office to ask a question about use of the language, I would refer them to Jim because I considered Jim to have the best knowledge of grammar, punctuation, and usage of anyone I had ever known. We were averaging about three to four calls per week from individuals who had questions of all types involving use of the language, and one day when a man from West Branch, Iowa, called with a question about an uncommon use of the colon, I said, "I don't know the answer to your question, but I know who will — our Dr. Grammar, Jim HiDuke." The man on the other end of the phone laughed at the title until he realized that Jim really could live up to that name. Soon, with the help of computer genius Tom Peterson, Jim created the Dr. Grammar website to help others with related questions. Within months, the website was receiving in excess of 30,000 hits a month. Again, behind-the-scenes, and few people were aware of this, Jim started getting questions from congressmen, senators, national television networks, and radio personalities. In addition, he received requests for help from as far away as China and Indonesia. He was, for so many, the lifeline that kept their words flowing.

There was also a side of Jim that practically everybody knew about but few people ever saw behind the scenes: His love for the game of golf. And what no one knew — thank goodness — was that Jim had been giving me golf lessons on the sly for years. I played golf like a man chopping wood, and Jim had fits trying to get me to concentrate and focus on the game. But, he never gave up — as he never gave up on his students or his colleagues. He strived for excellence in all he did, and he tried with all his being to pass this on to others. Golf was the perfect medium, and message, for Jim — it was, in so many ways, his metaphor for life. Jim wasn't just content to play "par" golf or exist at "par" in life, and every day of his life was the pursuit of that perfect round. And all of us were the richer for it. If there is any justice in this universe, right now, as we sit here, Jim is exiting a clubhouse and heading for his tee time on the course of his dreams. That would be Jim's heaven.

Jim HiDuke leaves behind a legacy of excellence in his work, compassion with all, and a kindness that will continue to bear fruit forever. He was a valued colleague, a skilled teacher, and a kind man. And he was my friend, and I'll never forget him.

Finally, and this is also something I would guess very few knew, the great American writer Jack London was Jim's favorite author. I think it fitting to use the following words from Jack London to describe the heart and soul of Jim HiDuke:

"I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."

Jim used his time well, and all of us are the richer for it.

Jeffrey S. Copeland, Head
Department of English Language & Literature
University of Northern Iowa