Lit Boy


I’ve reached the half-way mark of Updike, a biography on John Updike written by Adam Begley.  I pause to reflect on how I arrived here.  “Here” being how did I come to be reading John Updike’s biography.  Yes, it was Amazon’s Best Book of the Month for April, 2014. That helped, but that wasn’t it.  It was that man in the photograph that is responsible.  John VandeZande.

It was an undergraduate elective class titled “Good Books.” It was highly recommended by my senior jock buddies: “Just show up, read a few books and you’re done.”  I signed up for the class. I sat in the back of the room.  And hoped never to get called on.

He would assign Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Updike, in his biography, would describe them as “textual titans.” At the time, I would describe them as literary unknowns – – DK, a lover of Hardy Boys who then graduated to the genres of Jeffrey Archer (Kane & Abel), James Clavell (Shogun & Tai Pan) and Stephen King – – was being heaved up into the major leagues.  I slumped further down in my chair at the back of the room.

He would break the awkwardness of the early classes by reading long passages from the assigned readings. He would sit on the edge of his desk.  The book in his right hand.  And then immerse himself in the passage. There were no pencils tapping. There was no shifting in chairs.  We were gently transported with him on the journey.

He struck the match. And stoked the fire. And I went on a tear.  First Hemingway with The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea. Then Faulkner with The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!. Followed by John Steinbeck with The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row and East of Eden.  And then John Updike with Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux and Rabbit Is Rich.  And to this day, my serial runs on “Textual Titans” continues. (In Begley’s biography of Updike, Updike explained that: “A real reader,” he explained, “reading to escape his own life thoroughly, tends to have runs on authors.” That had my head spinning.)

I take a rough tally in my head of how many teachers and professors I’ve had in my years of schooling. My Count? North of 100.  I counted Professor VandeZande among 3 that left an indelible mark. I wondered what Professor VandeZande was up to today so I googled him:

“An annual undergraduate fiction award has been established to honor the memory of longtime English professor John VandeZande, who passed away in May 2006…VandeZande served on the English faculty for more than 30 years. His writings appeared in a host of publications and his story collection, Night Driving, was published by W.M. Morrow. VandeZande’s work also earned him the Lawrence and Chautauqua prizes for fiction. He retired from the English faculty in 1996. “He was a revered teacher and a much admired writer of fiction,” said James Schiffer. “He grew up in Big Bay and had many friends in our community. He was a very kind man, a great storyteller, a yarn spinner, with a great sense of humor.”

Melancolía drifts in.

Yeats: Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

What price does one put on the lighting of a fire? A flame that hasn’t stopped burning since the day I stepped into his classroom.

Just show up, read a few books and you’re done.


Image & Professor VandeZande Quote Source: Northern Michigan University


  1. Isn’t it great to have had at least one teacher who made an impression on you?


    • You know Anneli, I thought long and hard about that question. I couldn’t even recall the names of most of my teachers. But those that made impressions, were few, but they were great. And I’m fortunate to have the few. Yes, very much so.

      On Mon, May 5, 2014 at 11:46 PM, Live & Learn wrote:



  2. Beautiful homage. Thanks, David.


  3. One cannot put a price on the lighting of a fire, but I trust keeping it burning bright would be an acceptable payment. Beautiful.


  4. Those who read a lot tend to write well. You are proof of that adage, David. Glad to see a fire still burning, even with frequent commutes into NYC! Keep reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Were you able to find his short story collection?


  6. At the end of the day, who do we remember in life? The people who inspired us, engaged us, made a seminal difference in our lives. I have a few teachers that did that for me, one or two mentors, some people who’s actions were so aligned (in a good way) with their hearts that they are forever in my memory. And usually there aren’t a whole lot of people who make the list. Your professor accomplished what few achieve. And his memory will be a blessing. Beautiful post Dave – and a well deserved tribute to the man who lit your fire..


    • Thank you Mimi. Yes, how many make a seminal difference. Who take the time to care, to help, to offer a helping hand. Few. But as we know, it only takes one…


      • And honestly, I believe that there would be more, if we asked ourselves with greater regularity “who’s it for?” If we’re honest, more often than not it isn’t for the other guy…and yet, our most successful moments occur when the answer to the question is ‘the other guy’.


  7. Such a lovely post, DK, and as others have said, a wonderful tribute to a man who made an indelible mark on your life. I was fortunate to have a handful of wonderful teachers as well, chief among them my high school Latin teacher. She made me realize that there was a LOT of world to experience and curiosity and the willingness to experience something different, foreign even, were the only requirements for “admission to the theatre.” May your fires continue to burn….


  8. A truly beautiful post, David.


  9. I love this post, David…and, yes, I will always and forever remember the instructors who were responsible for the “lighting of the fire.” One in particular was influential enough to get me to go to UC Berkeley…I was sort of following in his footsteps. This instructor died in a car accident just two months before I was set to go to UCB…the car he was traveling in went off the road and into the river on the way back from Yosemite. I still always felt that he was with me on my journey through Berkeley…and, to this day, many years later, his name just kind of appears in my thoughts every now and then. Yes, once that fire is lit, it stays alive for all the rest of our lives, I believe. Thanks for sharing your words, David, and for reminding me of the important people in my own life.


  10. i really got chills reading this david. those kinds of people happen into our lives every so often, and at first we have no idea the impact they will have on us, but in the end, we find ourselves touched by them and somehow changed forever. beautiful tribute to the power of the written word as well as the one who inspired you to realize that power.


  11. (Smiling) – “Reading to escape his own life thoroughly…” Yes, that’s why I read.


  12. Elaine VandeZande says:

    David, You put a song in my heart and a smile on my lips by your lovely post. My son Jeff who is an English professor in Midland, MI. came upon your blog and sent it to me. Jeff followed in his father’s footsteps and is an accomplished writer as well. It’s so rewarding to hear from John’s former students and to know that he made a difference to so many. John was a gentle man who cared about his students and would look at them as a father would and comment, “They are somebody’s children.” He would be so excited when his love of great books sparked something in his students. You brightened my day. It’s been eight years since John died and to hear from a grateful student helps to know he is still remembered. Thanks, Mrs. Van


  13. Beautiful♥


  14. Dave, I stumbled across your blog because I Googled, “John VandeZande.” I enjoyed reading the effect that John had on you, but it was no surprise. John was that kind of person. I personally knew John about 40 years ago when I was living in Munising, MI. We met because our wives took up an immediate friendship at Mt. Marquette when our children were attending the skiing school sponsored by The Mining Journal during Christmas week one year. Unfortunately, we didn’t maintain the friendship after leaving the UP in 1980. Perhaps Jean has renewed the friendship since our divorce. I also enjoyed reading Elaine’s post above. Since you grew up in BC, how did you find your way to NMU?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Emil. Thanks for sharing. Your mention of Munising, The Mining Journal and Mt Marquette brought back warm memories.

      I attended NMU on a hockey scholarship. There were 5 of us from Castlegar, B.C. that were recruited to NMU in a 2 year period. We had a wonderful undergraduate experience and formed long lasting friendships and memories.

      Thanks for taking me back there Emil.


      Liked by 1 person

  15. Amazing story. Thanks for sharing. Have no idea how I ended up here but I’m glad I did.

    Liked by 1 person

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