By Alex Vavoulis
A reception for Dr. Eugene Zumwalt was held on April 14 sponsored by Dean Vida Samiian for the School of Arts and Sciences at Fresno State. It was to honor Zumwalt for having a scholarship fund placed in his name for the amount of $50,000 by a former student. It is one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on a teacher. Zumwalt is a professor emeritus of English at Fresno State, and the reception was held at the home of his son, Kurt.
Zumwalt was a founding member of the Fresno Free College Foundation (FFCF) when it was organized in 1968 to defend the academic freedom rights of an English Department poet and to provide him and his family with a stipend following his dismissal by the administration. Zumwalt was also there to help the FFCF after it evolved into a cultural and artistic force in the Fresno community.
He used his printing skills to assist the FFCF with its David S. Bates Fund that was established in 1974. Bates was a professor of music for three years at Fresno State until he died from cancer at the age of 38. Zumwalt printed one of his compositions called “Suena,” which was performed by his wife Susan Bates (cello) and pianist Ena Bronstein. This performance was recorded by KFCF (the Foundation’s radio station) and broadcast on the station. In addition, a national competition in Bates’ name was established by the FFCF, and Zumwalt printed a poster that was distributed to many music departments throughout the country.
A highlight of the reception was the selection of Dr. Dale Bush to speak about his colleague and friend. This turned out to be a stroke of genius by Dean Samiian. Bush provided the assembled group with an informative and delightful biographical sketch of Zumwalt. Bush was a good choice because both were comrades-in-arms during a most repugnant period at Fresno State. Bush was a founder of the FFCF and served on its first Board and remains interested in the activities of the organization to this day.
Bush spoke of Zumwalt as a man of many parts:
Among other things, Gene is a jack-of-all-trades in the best sense of that term. He has mastered the use of just about every tool known to carpenters, plumbers, electricians and every skilled craftsman in between. He is a journeyman welder, builder of boats and a master printer. Gene loves tools. I don’t believe he has ever met a tool he didn’t like. He is notorious for collecting tools of every sort. In pursuing this hobby, he has become a denizen of flea markets up and down the state of California. Happily, Chris, his lovely wife, enthusiastically joins him in these forays.
Gene is also an accomplished classical pianist, poet, author of short stories, a publisher, an outdoorsman, an inveterate birdwatcher and an expert fisherman who gently returns his catch to the water—although he does confess to eating some of the fish he catches. He says he is not a purist.
Speaking truth to power:
It is difficult to believe that this gentleman was a P-38 pilot who experienced the horror of aerial combat as he flew missions over southern Germany. Nevertheless, it is precisely the courage he exhibited in WWII that has been on display throughout his life as he has taken up one noble cause after another. Gene has consistently spoken truth to power, defending free speech and opposing those who would corrupt the values of higher learning and pervert the mission of the university.
The outright suppression of free speech is bad enough. It exists today, as it has throughout history. But far subtler, and perhaps more pervasive, is the capacity of powerful vested interests to induce the artist to engage in self-censorship. The best defense against “art made tongue-tied by authority” lies in the vigorous and open crusade against tyrannies of all kinds. And that crusade has been diagnostic of Gene’s career.
Those who have read his poetry, or heard his lectures on Chaucer or Shakespeare, or studied writing with him, can tell you that his greatest act of courage is to be found in his dogged commitment to intellectual honesty in a world that is increasingly indifferent to the search for true self-awareness and dismissive of the arts and humanities that nurture the quest for enlightenment.
On the bolting of the doors:
In what has to be one of the most bizarre academic atrocities of the 20th century, on Dec. 4, 1970, Gene, then chair of the Department of English and his assistant chair, Roger Chittick, were physically evicted from their office by the acting dean of the School of Humanities with the assistance of armed campus police. A locksmith then proceeded to put metal bars and locks on their file cabinets and bolt shut the door to the office.
This ridiculous charade was undertaken as the acting dean informed Gene and Roger that they were being fired from their positions as chair and vice chair of the department. When asked by the press why the administration had engaged in such unusual behavior in an academic personnel matter, the acting dean said disingenuously that it was simply a matter of “normal procedure.” New Yorker magazine, in one of its famous short quips, reported the acting dean’s “normal procedure” with a dismissive raised eyebrow.
The paranoid delusions that prompted the university to take these actions are hard to explain, as they had no grounding whatsoever in reality. In truth, the firing of Gene and Roger from their administrative positions in the Department of English was in retaliation for their public expressions of concern over the well-established fact that the administration had undertaken a political purge of the campus.
I remember very well those who perpetrated this outrage, but I will not name names. There is really no need to do so, for they have long since descended into obscurity, whereas Gene Zumwalt continues to thrive.
On the printing of the journal:
One of the most pleasant experiences of my professional life was the time I spent working with Gene on a professional economics journal of which I was the editor. We printed that journal in Gene’s print shop located in the garage of his house in Fresno.
Our first task was to edit the articles and abstracts contained in the journal. It is a well-known fact that economists speak a foreign language and are incapable of writing understandable English prose. Thus, we had to try to edit my colleagues’ writing so that their ideas could be clearly understood. We labored for hours on this chore. It was during this undertaking that Gene taught me a few things about the English language—its diction, syntax and the rhythm of its sentences. With great subtlety, he tweaked their sentences, producing edited manuscripts that were actually comprehensible.
The second task was to print the journal. It was during our work in his print shop that I observed firsthand Gene’s love for machinery and the skills required to run it. He delights in hard work and takes pleasure from creating something out of the combination of physical skill and intellect.
In conclusion, Bush said:
The greatest reward in being a teacher is to witness one’s students discovering their own minds. To whatever extent a teacher can nurture this process, the fulfillment of one’s career is realized. But seldom is the fulfillment of a teacher’s career celebrated in a more appropriate fashion than that which has brought us here today.
I wish to thank, from the bottom of my heart, the donor who has generously endowed a scholarship for the Department of English in the name of my dear friend and colleague. It is truly a fitting tribute to one of the finest teachers ever to have served on the faculty at California State University, Fresno.
The Fresno Free College Foundation, a nonprofit corporation, was formed in 1968. Throughout the years, it has preserved many of the events mentioned above:
- The “normal procedure” comment was given artistic form by a Fresno State student and is part of the photo gallery on the FFCF Web site.
- The “bolting of the doors” is part of The Slow Death of Fresno State, a book written by Kenneth Seib and published by the FFCF.
- The first broadcast by KFCF is in image form in the FFCF photo gallery.
- Information about the David S. Bates Fund is in the FFCF 1975–76 Annual Report.
Alex Vavoulis is professor emeritus in chemistry at Fresno State. He served as president of the Fresno Free College Foundation from 1972 to 1992 and was a Board member from 1999 to 2011. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.