He was known to mutter words like “rubbish!” and “horrors!” when analyzing a piece of writing.
This week, one of my favorite professors at Eastern Mennonite College (now EMU) died. Not of COVID-19, but after a long battle with vascular dementia — which sometimes comes about after a stroke, I’m told. Omar Eby taught English literature and writing courses during my time at EMU.
Omar (we usually called our professors by their first names, a practice he was fine with) was perhaps the single most influential person guiding me into the occupation I’ve loved: writer.
He was not one to mince words regarding what he thought of our writing. More than once I stiffened as he’d huff out the word “rubbish” in response to a piece of writing. But he was not rude, nor rough, just honest and not afraid to let you know how and where your writing needed improving. As a writer, you have to be ready for critique, editing, refining, putting in the most perfect word.
According to his obit, Eby was a friend and mentor to many aspiring young writers. Eby’s life of 85 years was impacted greatly by serving six years as an English teacher in east and central Africa. It was there, I’m thinking, that he learned to speak with a bit of a British English accent and flair. As he returned to the U.S. teaching at the college level, he frequently shared what he’d learned from the cultures of Somalia, Tanzania and Zambia. He also wrote several novels and other books, some centered in Africa: “How Full the River” (published while I was under his tutelage).
I never saw much of him after leaving EMU, until he moved to Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community, which offers full nursing care in a non-institutional, homelike setting. A group from my church would usually go there to carol at Christmas. I remember the first time I saw him with a huge bib at the large dining room table, and almost nonverbal. I drew in my breath. Could that be the professor who was always dressed neatly, always had a witty and incisive remark about a piece of writing, who had no patience for mediocrity. It was hard to see him there and as I approached him to say hello, he seemed to remember me. But I wasn’t sure.
But what counts is the instruction he gave me, mostly affirming and positive or suggesting other words or approaches. He read and graded carefully, catching the smallest misspelling and encouraging us to submit articles that he deemed outstanding to various magazines. I still laugh when I read a note on one of my papers when I tried to coin a word, “poetize.” “Horrors!” he wrote, “what a term.” I think I thought it meant to “wax poetic.” Another time I used a word, “silented.” He wrote simply, “No!” The paper got a C+. That paper ended up being a chapter in my first book — carefully fixed and expanded.
Once Omar shared how he had written a long essay on assignment for Saturday Evening Post about returning to the continent of Africa and the feelings that overwhelmed him as he flew over the western coast. He quietly told us it had been accepted for publication (at that point still a literary magazine). Then came the bad news. They ended up paying him a kill fee — and if that sounds brutal, it is to any author/writer. It was substantial for those days, somewhere between $500 and $1,000, but he said he would have been much happier to be published in the magazine and foregone the payment.
So he was human. And now has left us, like so many others. These times give us opportunity to reflect more fully on what various people have meant to us, and, I hope, give us pause to decide to invest ourselves more fully in bringing meaning and joy and instruction to the lives of others.
What did you learn from a favorite teacher, pastor, family member, friend?
Thoughts? Send to firstname.lastname@example.org or Another Way Media, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834.