UD’s defender: remembering Dr. John Alvis

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Photo by Peter Burleigh

On Dec. 23, 2019, alumnus and professor of English, Dr. John Alvis passed away, just nine days after the death of his wife of 50 years, Sara Kathleen Alvis. As The University News conducted interviews with retired professors, current faculty, administration and students, their testimony showed that John Alvis left much behind to the University of Dallas community. 

Alvis devoted over 50 years to serving UD. His involvement focused on two different roles—student and educator. 

“Dr. Alvis and I were undergraduates around the same time – he was two years ahead of me,”  retired English professor Dr. Eileen Gregory wrote. “And as soon as he graduated, he continued his work as a graduate student, with a masters and a PhD (sic) from the new UD politics and literature programs. As a student and then later as his colleague in the English department, I was always a little in awe of him.” 

“He was always working, always bending over a legal size yellow pad, writing steadily,” Gregory wrote. “He had a brilliant mind, particularly in the way that he could take complex and intricate texts and somehow see them comprehensively, articulating their structure.”

“When in department meetings, discussion became heated and confused, Dr. Alvis’ remarks would often help to still the turbulent waters,” Gregory wrote. “I wouldn’t say that he was humorous inthe ordinary way – but his speech was often laced with irony – not a biting irony, but the kind of irony that comes from seeing discrepancies and taking delight in them.”

Alvis took part in department hires throughout the years. Former Rome Director and Professor of Politics Dr. Wayne Ambler recalled the first time that he met Alvis. 

“When I interviewed for the job way back in 1978, I was taken out to dinner and grilled by Dr. DeAlvarez, Dr. West, Dr. Thurow, and Dr. Alvis,” said Ambler. “Alvis was not a member of the politics department, he was very quiet, he wasn’t taking part in the conversation. He was drinking a martini and he had a thick southern accent. And for all of these reasons I thought he wasn’t going to cause me any trouble. Of course, I was interested in making a good impression by showing everyone that I knew a lot about Aristotle. A half an hour into it, this southern guy who I was not too worried about …  jumped in at a certain stage of the conversation citing Aristotle’s Politics by book and chapter. It was quite a shocking revelation too that an English professor would know that particular text so well, but that was UD.”  

“I left the Irving campus to go to the Rome campus where I spent 10 years,” Ambler said. “In the library there I found a couple books that John had donated to the library. He was in Rome for just one year, but I could actually see how much reading he had done outside of the teaching he was doing. For example, there was a book on Venetian politics, a thousand-year history. I could tell that he had read the book carefully by the notes in the margins. You might think that a UD professor going to Rome for a year might just enjoy the city and eating out and all of the pleasures that Rome has to offer.”

Alvis influenced many students beyond the English majors. 

“Dr. Alvis was one of my professors here when I was here for my master’s and stayed for my PH.D.,” said politics professor Dr. Richard Dougherty. “I had him for four or five classes, but sat in on a couple other classes as well. A broad range of classes including epic, Shakespearean  literature, and one in American literature. And that alone shows the breadth of knowledge that he had.”

“His advice on teaching for example: when you go into a classroom, you tell the students what you are going to tell them, you tell them ‘it,’ and then you tell them what you told them,” Dougherty remarked. “And he did teach that way … It was obvious that he thought about the technique of teaching. Not just the content.”

“He was my Lit Trad I and II professor. He was one of the first people I had here at the whole university,” said Dr. Gregory Roper, Associate Professor of English. “I came here as a green science major from a large public suburban high school. I loved to read, but thought literature was just subjective, airy, not very valuable.”

Alvis changed that for him. 

“From day one Dr. Alvis showed me through his example and through his perceptive reading of the epics how powerful literature is as a way to truth and wisdom,” Roper said. “By the end of two semesters I was a changed young man, and was on my way toward being an English major. He was so powerful in his intellect and critical (in the best sense of the word) in his interpretations of the texts that I was bowled over.” 

“[Alvis’s] commitment to the mission of the university as a place where Truth and Justice could be pursued in real freedom, is his greatest legacy,” Roper wrote.“[His] generosity of spirit and kindness towards others, even or especially those with whom he disagreed … he would stand up strongly for what he felt was right.”  

“John knew this is a special place in the sense that it is a place where the Philosophic quest, in its deepest sense, can take place, and he did everything to foster that,” Roper said. “He and his wife really gave their lives to this place.”

According to Braniff graduate school records, Alvis served on dissertation committees for 47 students. 

“Very often teachers ask questions that ask the student to figure out what’s in their head. That’s not very useful. Yet at very advanced stages of work it’s hard to get away from asking those sorts of questions,” said Dean of Braniff Graduate School Dr. Joshua Parens.  

“He absolutely never, ever would ask such a question,” Parens continued. “It isn’t just bringing out the question asked or the answer given, he would be able to see exactly the right question to bridge the gap between the question asked and the answer given to get the student to move beyond the answer they gave in writing that might not sound like the most amazing thing. But it is the most amazing thing.”

“I was writing my thesis on Henry V, I read a book that really struck me,” said Sam Postell, a current Ph.D. candidate at UD. “It was Shakespeare’s Political Thinker. Of course Dr. Alvis had an essay on the Henry V in that volume. That piece blew my mind. So I reached out to him and asked him a few questions and he was kind enough to respond. Eventually that led to us chatting and me coming to UD for grad school.” 

“Something really important to know about Dr. Alvis was his patience,” Postell said. “Both with his students in the classroom, and with himself when he didn’t understand something.” 

“What I observed with Dr. Alvis was what the office of the teacher ‘is.’” said Dr. David Davies,  English and classics associate professor,. 

“Occasionally you’ll have a student where the ground is moving under his feet. He is finding it very difficult to even answer any questions, he’s freezing up,” Davies said. “Dr. Alvis had this ability to discern what he says, to see the place where the ground wasn’t moving. And beginning from there asking questions that were not leading questions. Casually drawing out from the student things he had not yet realized he understood. And that is what a teacher is.” 

Davies made reference to Alvis’ 1989 Speech at the King/Haggar awards ceremony. Alvis’ speech, UD’s Tri-Focal Character: Thoughts from an Academic Alamo discusses the relationship between American, philosophical, and Christian education.

“The greatest legacy is the understanding of education,” Davies said. “Over the years, John was a constant defender of what we do. The greatest legacy is that students can come to a place like this, there’s no other place like this that does the three things together.” 

“The fact that the school is what it is now is due to John,” Davies said. “The thing that people need to remember is his greatness as a teacher and a deep understanding of what we are and his vigorous defense of that.” 

In his speech at the King/Haggar Awards ceremony in 1989, Alvis defined and defended that for which the education UD is proud, according to UD’s website. 

“We fight to win,” Alvis said. “But some losing battles are worth the fighting if they witness to a purpose which might inspire better-equipped armies to fight in the same cause and which, by bringing the margin of high-heartedness to their stronger forces, might enable those who come after to prevail.”  

What can Dr. Alvis teach us? To take a stand where it matters.

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