Chief among the special qualities of Bethany are the faculty members who touch the lives of their students in countless ways. At gatherings of alumni and friends around the country, I often hear the names of unforgettable professors who taught well and continue to teach and influence our graduates for years afterward.
We lost one such notable professor in early December. John R. Taylor, 87, Professor Emeritus of English, died following a traffic accident in Bethany. To say that he was memorable and influential is an understatement.
Professor Taylor’s association with Bethany spanned seven decades—from the days of fountain pens to texting. A 1944 graduate of the College, he served as a member of the faculty here from 1955 until 1992, continuing to teach part-time until 2009. His own education had taken him from Bethany to Princeton University, with additional study at the University of Akron, the University of Kansas, the University of Birmingham (England), the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Oxford. His love of knowledge and his gift for bringing to life the classics of Shakespeare and other literary giants took his students to worlds they could scarcely have imagined before sitting in his classroom. His words speak to us from a marker placed beneath a tree at the Erickson Alumni Center: “Found a Universe at this Small College.” Introducing students to that universe is the duty of a professor at a liberal arts college—to fling open the mind. In his case, that intellectual obligation also came with a taskmaster style of instruction that kept students’ heads shaking for decades.
He was a fierce defender of the study of English literature, especially the classics, of Latin as well, and the pursuit of knowledge for the pleasure it brought throughout one’s life. There was no end to education, in his view, no commitment to intellectual exercise unworthy of effort.
He knew his subject; in a sense, his students became his subjects themselves. Commenting on his remarkable life, Bethany alumna Linda Comins ’77 wrote in the Wheeling Intelligencer and News-Register that “Dr. Taylor was an imposing figure who frightened many a freshman. But students who looked beyond the curmudgeon-like behavior found him to be a witty man, erudite, astute and gracious in his formality. Behind the gruff exterior beat a kind heart.” In her tribute to him, Linda described him as a “Renaissance man” who acted in Bethany plays, sang in the church choir and hosted his own classical music program on WVBC-FM. She recalled his many trips with students and alumni to his beloved England.
With his passing, the importance of being a “Renaissance man” has lost a powerful advocate. No doubt Professor Taylor regarded with dismay the modern world with its narrow vocational specializations, instant technology and lack of civility. As he might have quoted from his favorite play by Shakespeare, King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”
Yet his love of the College and his passion for his profession will endure and find continuing expression in the minds and lives of his many students. In the finest tradition of the liberal arts college that is Bethany, Professor Taylor’s voice will be heard for generations to come.
We will honor him well if we rededicate ourselves every semester to the transformational nature of liberal arts education, imparting to our students the importance of intellectual curiosity and scholarly discipline. The gift of knowledge and the challenge of attaining it are and will be his greatest legacy.