Sept. 1 marks the centennial of the birth of George C. Connor, distinguished educator, esteemed citizen and devoted Episcopalian. A 1938 graduate of Central High School, Mr. Connor's subsequent education was interrupted by three years of combat service in the U.S. Army in Europe in World War II.
Connor completed his A.B. degree at University of Chattanooga in 1947 and several years later earned a master's degree at Middlebury College. Following a teaching stint at City High School, he became the founding executive director of the Adult Education Council, which morphed into the Arts and Education Council. He began his 36-year career in the English Department at the University of Chattanooga in 1959. Teaching was the thread that united all his endeavors. Former students speak of him in reverential terms. To some, he is always "Professor Connor." To others, he is "George." I will use the latter.
Carolyn Mitchell recalls George's class in world literature on Friday afternoon, Nov. 22, 1963, soon after initial reports that President Kennedy had been shot. "Everyone in the room knew we might be on the verge of dreadful news, but our professor checked his own apprehension and deftly turned shaken students to the deathless literary work under consideration. At the end of the hour, we walked out of the room steadier by his example of grace under pressure and better able to meet the calamitous event of the day."
Rick Govan remembers: "George was not only an excellent teacher and mentor, but also a loyal friend to many former students. While serving in Vietnam following college graduation, he wrote regularly to check on my morale and keep me up to date with news from the university, community, and our church. During the holidays, I received a large package filled with books. Later, I learned that he did the same for many others serving our country."
Herbert Thornbury began his Army service after graduation from UTC. George wrote him periodically at his U.S. and Vietnam postings. One mailing included the novel, "Guard of Honor," which dealt with the complex effects of war upon a diverse group of servicemen. The novel reminded Herbert of other novels, which George had discussed in class, works which explored racism and societal inflexibility. "On my second day back George told me, 'We had sweated you out and are thankful for your safe return.' I have never forgotten his welcome home."
Martha Sternbergh reflects, "When I returned to college in my late 30s, I was searching for a missing link in my life experience. I was wife and mother of two but felt a deep yearning in my heart and soul to open up my world. I thought I might find it in writing and literature and I did, but it was magnified and sharpened by the encouragement and affirmation of George Connor who became my beloved professor and lifetime friend. I took George's course in "The King James Bible as Literature." He made me think about my faith and put those thoughts in writing. It was also through my friendship with George that I met Frederick Buechner, the esteemed and celebrated Christian writer. I thought I had died and gone to heaven! In the company of these two great men, I became free to think beyond the boundaries of a tightly bound Christianity and make peace within myself."
Brenda Neal encountered George in 1974 when she returned to UTC to take courses in literature. She recalls detailed comments attached to papers which she submitted. She still has the hefty anthology of American literature, which she used in his course. Explanatory notes from her professor cover the margins. George often quoted a passage from one of his favorite authors, Henry James, "Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost."
"In 1992, I went on to teach an American Lit. survey at ETSU and whether consciously or not was informed by what I had learned from George 20 years earlier."
Over 25 years, I learned from George, who died in 2002, through lectures, book reviews, seminars and panel discussions. Learning never ceased in George's company. I am one of many of his "informal students." All of us continue to benefit from his wisdom and the abiding friendship which he generously bestowed upon his students.
Contact Clif Cleaveland at email@example.com.