Under the Influence: My Mentor, Professor Fraser Drew.
by Hank Nuwer.
I Before Buffalo State English Education Professor Robert Mehl would let me student teach to graduate, I had to purge from my speech ungrammatical constructions and Polish inflections thick as my grandmother’s duck’s blood soup. I bought a grammar book and a tape recorder with two reels the size of 45 RPM records. All the summer of ’67 I spun those reels in my room. Instead of sophisticated, I sounded breathless – and still do. But the supervisor of student teaching was satisfied and let me student teach – a requirement for graduation.
I hold no resentment against Buffalo State. As if atoning for the obliteration of my speaking voice, it introduced me to the teacher who helped me find my voice on paper.
During the 1964-1965 school year, while I played right field sparingly on State’s freshman baseball team, Professor Fraser Bragg Drew went to Ireland and hopped a steamer from Galway to the Aran Islands, his face blistering from wind and salt. Trim, lithe and commanding in a classroom, although paralyzed when speaking elsewhere, Drew had a crewcut that he mowed often. He was half Irish, the English and Scots in him splitting the difference. In 1966 1 signed up for his introductory literature course. He was an honorary brother in my fraternity, and I thought he might be a pushover, an impression I’d formed when he signed my pledge plaque. On my first day, I flirted with an oblivious female classmate. Drew stopped lecturing and pointed to a seat in front of him. I collected my books, cheeks glowing like oven burners. Some pushover.
Drew had been reared in Vermont, a country boy much like Robert Frost’s swinger of birches. He was mad about horses, accompanying an aunt and uncle to the track to watch their trotter compete. Later his love shifted to wolves, foxes, jays, and hawks. He came to admire the writings of John Masefield and Robinson Jeffers who used animals as metaphors in their poetry. His early learning came from books, and he prayed that he pronounced words properly the first time he said them
As an adult he combined scholarship with his love for adventure. In 1955 Drew had an audience with Ernest Hemingway, the novelist whose books moved him the most. Hemingway seemed shy until the visitor pleased him by recognizing Joan Miro’s painting, The Farm, across a dining table. The writer took Drew to his office and pointed out his typewriter atop a bookshelf where he typed while standing. Hemingway gave Drew a sackful of signed books for himself, his father,and three students. Drew had come up with the idea of starting an annual contemporary literature award, giving his best students copies of signed volumes by writers and Hemingway applauded such generosity.
The writer talked about his convalescence from a plane crash and wished that he could have taken Drew on a fishing cruise. “Writers are always a disappointment when you meet them,” Hemingway said. “All the good in them goes into their books, and they are dull themselves.”
It was fashionable then to separate the work from the artist. Some colleagues dismissed him for emphasizing the biographies of authors when he taught. He fought back, telling them that such teaching would be soulless and sterile.
In 1953 he maneuvered to spend an afternoon in RobertFrost’s Vermont cabin. Frost was prideful enough to inquire how hispoems were being taught. He sent the teacher away with an admonition:”Don’t teach them a lesson,show them a lesson.”
I never missed class, because I never knew what treasureDrew might bring in next: a signed letter sent to him by Masefield or Jeffers, the rare books and magazines he collected, and personal photographs taken of authors that they themselves had given him. He was so enthusiastic that his voice skipped octaves when he lectured – except when he recitedpoetry and ancient ballads with the skill of an orator.
My attention shifted from the joys of hitting a fastballto literature. I changed my major from history to English, checkedoutbooks by the sackful from the library, and put the same manic energyintostudy that had goneinto batting practice and mischief.
In 1967, John Maseficld passed away, and I took Drew’sclass in contemporary literature. I began writing to authors, telling them how their work moved me. Replies came from novelist ThorntonWilder, poet Archibald MacLeish, and humorist Ogden Nash. I would show these to Drew as they arrived. He seemed excited by my excitement,never letting on that he had cultivated similar enthusiasms in hundreds of students.
One day I bushwhacked him in a grassy quad after class and asked him if he would read some poems I had written. He returned them with a few encouraging remarks. His guarded approval made the arranging and rearranging of words a satisfaction, something constant in my life that I’ve kept to this day
I began sending poems to magazines. A few were published, but in time all I could see in them were defects. I destroyed them as I closed in tight on my 30th birthday. Perhaps I recalledDrew’s praise of Housman’s flawless use of language and his “happy faculty of selecting the exact, the inevitable word and phrase.” The author of A Shropshire Lad (which Drew bought in a first edition for 510 pounds sterling) concealed the labor in his work, never showing chisel- marks in stone. My poems had been sculpted with a heavy hand, dulling the chisel and fragmenting the stone.
Right before graduation my father called me into theliving room and said that my name was in the Buffalo Evening News. I froze, because it had just been in there for speeding down Main Street,a fact that I’d kept from him until the paper printed my conviction. He showed me a notice that said Buffalo State had named the winners ofDrew’s 1968 contemporary literature award. I’d been awarded a firstedition signed by Drew and poet Louise Townsend Nicholl. She wrotehim 1,056 letters in her lifetime.
Rarely have I seen Drew since. Twice he met withmywife and me tohold his namesake, Adam Robert Drew Nuwer. He warnedmywife that oneof his three small dogs liked to burrow in the sweatersof ladies, but mischievously left her to figure out which one did. He came to my father’s wake with his housemate; they whispered quiet wordsto comfort my mother.
We keep in touch with letters. The handwritingis shaky, but the ideas, the wit, and the insights remain bold and challenging. He uses postage stamps honoring writers: Jeffers, Frost, Hemingway – andI thrill to know a man who has corresponded with these geniuses. I once sent him a packet of pictures of my son. On the envelope Ihad put an admonition not to bend or fold. This brought back a note. He had once sent that message to a woman who gave him a gentle reproach:”Mrs. F. D. Carpenter admits that on occasion she might bend but will never fold.”
When I applied for a teaching position at Ball State in 1985, he wrote a letter of reference, stating that I had been in the topone percent of allhis students in scholarship and the best writer. He must have possessedsufficient ego to have wanted to produce a literarygenius,but he neverinflicted pressure on me to achieve, understandingthe insecurities of writers. When my book containing interviews with contemporaryauthors was publishedwith printer-caused typographical errors, he calmedmy rage. Housmanhated typos, he said. There was one on theform distributed at the poet’s funeral.
In 1973 the chancellor of the State University of NewYork named Drew a Distinguished Teaching Professor. In 1982 then-mandatory retirement at 70 forced him to leave Buffalo State after 38 years. He did not go gently into retirement, taking trips to Ireland and paddling a red canoe in Lake Erie. In 1999 he permitted me to start an award at Buffalo State in his name (and that of a deceased friend, Joe N–). Every year I send signed books from contemporary writers to the library.
For many years he has slipped nitroglycerin under his tongue to combat angina pectoris. A couple years ago he wrote to say that getting letters from friends had become preferable to face-to-face meetings. He admitted that an elderly friend had once hurt him with a similar rebuff years earlier and begged me to understand. “We wither into the truth,” he wrote, quoting something that William Butler Yeats had said in a different context.
Early in 1993 I lectured at the University of Vermont. I visited Bailey/Howe Library and was astonished to see plaque after plaque commemorating donations that Drew had made in the name of his deceased kin and his mentor, Lester Marsh Prindle, a Harvard-educated professor at Vermont who introduced Drew to Housman’s poetry. A special collections employee told me that Drew has been the department’s single most generous benefactor.
Photos come from him every two or three years. The distinguished look is still there, but the fragility – where did it come from? I phoned his house mate, who is in his 60s and vigorous, to getDrew’s copies of published notes from his visit to Hemingway, but didn’t want to tip Drew off that this piece was in the works.
“Is that for me?” I heard in the background. Hearing Drew’s changed voice was like recognizing a long-lost silver fork in spite of its tarnish. His father lived into his 90s, I reassured myself.
During the 80s and 90s his letters contained references to friends, colleagues and students who had died. “It is unnatural to survive one’s children or students,” he wrote. He began to regularly ask about my wife’s health and mine, as she and I did about his. On June 23, 2013, he turns 100. 1 cannot know what living a full century is like for him. What I do know is that he reads his beloved Housman to get him through times of strife and sorrow. He is like the survivor of a bad accident, warm in an idling patrol car, but aware of wreckage nearby. I hope that his splendid Irish literature collection sends him back to days when he was invincible. In my mind’s eye, I see him navigating the rough waters off the Irish Blasker Islands in a fragile currach, taking notes to show his students a lesson.
PS: I am attaching an article about Fraser Bragg Drew from the Buffalo State alumni magazine
Full Circle by Mary Durlak
Every professor who is a teacher as well as a scholar hopes to make a difference in the lives of his or her students—and many do. However, all too few know how influential they have been. Among that fortunate few is Fraser B. Drew, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor emeritus of English.
Drew, who served Buffalo State from 1945 to 1983, was on campus in May to sign copies of a book he edited with Hank Nuwer, ’68. The book, One Long, Wild Conversation: Selected Letters Between a Buffalo State Professor and His Student, a Writer, is a collection of letters the two have written to each other since 1970.
Nuwer has achieved international renown for his expertise on, and uncompromising opposition to, hazing. But it was Drew’s former students who packed the room where the book-signing took place.
Sonia Young, ’54, ’66, one of the many alumni in attendance, recalled, “Professor Drew made students love literature.”
Although Nuwer was already a passionate reader and lover of words—“my mother pulled me to the library in a little red wagon three times a week,” he said—he learned much from Drew. “He gave me a framework to understand literature,” he said, “and the ability to focus.”
However, Drew’s real gift to Nuwer was his willingness to mentor the young student. Mentorship is a labor of love because it requires making the time and effort to provide support, encouragement, and advice. When Drew indicated approval of Nuwer’s college poetry, it gave Nuwer the confidence he needed to begin to emerge as a writer. Over the years, the mentoring relationship became a friendship as well.
The two have shared many interests, including dogs, travel, and authors. Drew established correspondence with notable writers—Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost are perhaps the best known—as a way to answer questions raised by his students in class. He found Hemingway especially accessible. “Writers want to know that their work is being taught and passed on,” said Drew. Drew’s custom was to obtain authors’ autographs on their books and award the signed books to selected students, a practice Nuwer has followed.
However, what binds them more than common interests is a shared attitude of interest, a curiosity about what wags the world. For example, as research for an article about rodeos, Nuwer rode a bull—at age 58. (His broken ribs have healed.) Drew’s second home for 15 years was Ireland, which he never tired of exploring. They are enthusiastic about whatever engages them, and they both extend palpable warmth to strangers.
“Curiosity and enthusiasm are integral to teaching and writing,” Nuwer said.
However, it wasn’t curiosity that led Nuwer to become a leading expert on hazing. “Hazing found me,” he said.
While he was a recent past president of a graduate student association at a university in Nevada in 1975, a fellow student died in a hazing incident. When he tried to learn more about the practice of hazing, he found that little information existed. So Nuwer applied for and received a grant from the Gannett Foundation to research and write Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, which he has followed with three more books about hazing, in addition to his other writings.
Buffalo State recognized his achievements with the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1999. He has established the Hank Nuwer Hazing Collection at the E. H. Butler Library at Buffalo State, and he expects it to become the premier resource in the country for research into the topic.
Drew is among the people to whom Nuwer dedicated Broken Pledges. Upon seeing the dedication, Drew wrote to Nuwer, saying, “Any ‘debt’ you feel to the long-ago teacher has been lovingly paid, and more than adequately.”
Nuwer, for his part, suggested the title for their book in the last letter in the collection, adding, “As with all things between us, I hope you approve.”
Update: The Death of Fraser Drew