SMU's Professor Marshall Terry

Novelist Reflects on a Wandering Eye, Cutthroat Softball, and a Mentor for Life

By Joe Coomer

I was someone else when I first came to SMU in the spring of 1980. I had less to lose and so I was more courageous than the middle-aged author I’ve become. I hardly recognize myself, 19, walking into Marsh Terry’s office, asking if he was “the writing teacher,” telling him I wanted to be a writer, too. Who is that kid? He had no qualifications, barely had written 10 pages of prose, had made a B- in his only other writing class.

Professor Marshall Terry:
"The Founding and Defining of a University"

On Feb. 7, 2007, Professor Marshall Terry presented the Maguire Public Scholar Lecture, "The Founding and Defining of a University," a reflection on those who have lead SMU since its founding and the university's future.
He was a transfer student from the University of Kentucky who’d been majoring in business administration and was failing miserably at it. I needed the permission of the professor before I could take his class.

It amuses me now to think that Marsh met with about a dozen of me every semester in this same way. I think the only real requirement to get into his class was the audacity to admit you wanted to create something new, or simply tell how things got to this point. I sat in the deep chair across from Marsh and tried to keep in front of his wandering eye. If it moved, I bobbed. If it swerved, I swooned. Occasionally it would come around and lock up with the other eye, and then the two of them would have you pinned to the back of your comfy chair. He allowed that as I was from Kentucky, which shared a border with his home state of Ohio, he thought he could squeeze me into his class. Then, out of the blue, he sang at me, some ditty or college chant or state song that seemed to have no connection with the conversation we’d just had, the environment we were in, or our professional relationship. It seemed to give him great pleasure to do so. On my bumfuzzled way out of his basement office, I turned around and said, “I sure appreciate it, Mr. Marshall,” as if he were Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke and I were Festus Hagen. I was somebody else, but already, with so little of Marsh’s input, I was becoming me.

I came to SMU because it was the only college in Texas with a major in creative writing. That was Marsh Terry’s doing. I came because SMU had a Literary Festival each fall. Marsh had a hand in creating it. I came because it had a literary magazine. Marsh was its adviser. I don’t know why I didn’t just move into his house. He invited his students there often, and I always tried to look as if I were extremely comfortable at his table or thumbing across his Hemingways and Faulkners, even taking care to lower the toilet seat after I used it. But I could see he had his own children, besides the 15 other would-be boarders milling around trying to look twice as comfortable as me. 

I walked to my writing classes as if the floors of Dallas Hall were mined, the walls were electrified, and the doorknobs, well, were the firm and untested breasts of young women. We’d read our short stories aloud to each other and then sit in silence, hoping a big wind would come and sweep everything away. Then Marsh would lean forward from his chair, and say something like, “Well, can we know that?” or “I wish I had a milkshake,” or “This is a good day, isn’t it?” or ask if any of us had read The Bear and wasn’t this just like that? He wanted to know what we thought, and what he said sometimes was just a way to slice the wind open for us. 

That fall, John Updike came to the Literary Festival. I read at the student reading, a short story about an old man plowing with a mule. I was working through my John Boy Walton stage. I’d never plowed behind a mule, but I read a story about doing it, as an old man yet, to John Updike. At Jim and Ann Early’s that evening, Marsh took me by the ball socket of my shoulder, squeezed me to his side, and introduced me to Mr. Updike. He said, “John, this is Joe Coomer, a fine young writer of ours.” If my own father had done this to me, I would have slunk away in shame and embarrassment. Because Marsh had done it, I stuck out my starving hand and shook John Updike’s. When Marsh let go of me, I realized he’d inserted two extra vertabrae in my spine when he’d hugged me to his side.

OK, we’re in the fifth inning of the English faculty versus the students softball game. We’re down a run, there are two outs, and it’s about to rain. Marsh is pitching. I’m up to bat for the first time. I hit 650 in Pony League. He lofts a very soft one and I scream it back up the middle, right between Marsh’s testicles. He collapses on the ground. I’m instinctively halfway to second when I start becoming me again, right between first and second base I continue to become me, and make a sharp left-hand turn to the pitcher’s mound where Marsh is still sprawled, surrounded by the ball, his hat, his glove, and his two testicles. When I get to his side and lean down, he lightly touches the ball to my knee and says, “You’re out, you SOB!”

One of the reasons, I think, Marsh is so affable is he’s surrounded by his friends. I was, too. When I wasn’t writing, I was reading the books Marsh and Ken Shields and Larry Perrine and Vickie Hill suggested. I went to classes with blurry vision and short on sleep. So maybe I was in a sleep-deprived daze when I saw Larry Perrine crying as he read a poem by e.e. cummings to our class, or when Ken Shields put his hand on my back as if I were his son when I said, “Eudora Welty is sitting in your comfy chair,” or when Tom Arp talked to me for an hour one afternoon about a Conrad story that he hadn’t assigned. I found that if I became a writer, I could hang around the books I loved, and other people who loved books, for the rest of my life.

Some say it’s impossible for one person to teach another to write. I know I fell in love with writing during my stay at the SMU English Department, wanting to be like the people who worked there. Marsh took the time to encourage me. As far as I’m concerned, he used his whole life to encourage me. Many of his other students feel the same way. So he’s lived many lives, all of them with a grace and self-possession I aspire to. That’s true for me now, and was true to the guy who’s so hard to recognize from 25 years away, and will be again to that old man some day, remembering his mule plowing days, his Little League batting average, and his love for his teacher.

Joe Coomer, who earned a B.A. in English from SMU in 1981, is the author of Pocketful of Names, One Vacant Chair, Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God, The Loop, Sailing in a Spoonful of Water, and Dream House. He lives in Texas and Maine. He said, “It was a great pleasure and gift to write” about Marsh Terry. This essay first appeared in the Fall/Winter issue of SMU Magazine.