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  • Professor Josef Fox: An Appreciation

    • Posted on Apr 04, 2016

    By the time you read this, a long-time Cedar Falls resident and local legend will be well on his way to his new permanent home in Peacham, Vt.

    Joe Fox is probably into Ohio by today, rolling east on the turnpike in his old blue Ford for the last time.  Just last Friday I lunched with Professor Fox and another (besides myself) former UNI student-turned-faculty member, Robert Waller.  

    Robert and I both felt a need to say goodbye to the Grand Old Man of UNI, the professor whose legend had touched us both.

    Back in the late fifties-early Sixties, when ISTC was becoming  SCI, the saying among students was “Avoid the four F’s!” These were professors whose last names all began with “F” and that was supposedly the grade that they most often assigned. “Fox” was of course one of them.

    Yet, Fox was also given the “Favorite Prof” award an unprecedented three times, showing that those students who didn’t obey the “Four F” rule loved him.

     That’s the way it is with legends, I suspect; they’re both loved and hated, revered and feared. Legends never provoke indifference, and Joe Fox never tolerated it, either in himself or in his students.

    The key to his legendary status around UNI certainly was his presence. Joe Fox always seemed like a huge man to me. Actually he’s not; he’s under six feet, and probably weighs around 170.

    But he always projected himself outward with a thunderous, rolling voice, carefully cadenced into fully realized sentences. He orated when he spoke, much like Orson Wells narrates or the younger Everett Dirksen spoke before the senate.  

    And Joe would look at his hearers with penetrating, intense eyes-no glasses-under a deeply furrowed forehead and bushy eyebrows.  His eyes always seemed to place his points while his voice hammered them home.

    More than one freshman trembled before Josef Fox’s rolling thunder.  Indeed, more than one faculty member and administrator trembled.

    I remember once when the administration committed an obvious blunder; the whole faculty knew it, as did most administrators, but they forged ahead anyway, defying the full faculty and refusing to admit their mistake.  

    At a faculty meeting held to debate the issue, someone said, rather weakly, “Maybe we could just count on the Board of Regents to act honorably and overturn this decision.”  

    This was after long debate and discussion.  Joe Fox rose majestically, took us all in with a deep, sorrowful glance, and began softly, “If (pronounced “eeehff”) the department head had acted honorably, we would not have to deal with this problem today.  (pause. Then louder) And eeefhh the dean had acted honorably, we would not have to deal with this problem today.  (longer pause. then almost shouting.)

    AND EEEHFF THE VICE PRESIDENT AND PRESIDENT HAD ACTED HONORABLY, WE WOULD HAVE NO PROBLEM TODAY. (pause. now very softly again.)  Ladies and gentlemen, I submit: If our administrators haven’t yet seen fit to act honorably, we would be foolish to expect the Board of Regents, who hired them, to act honorably NOW!”

     The faculty always giggled a bit after these outbursts because such passion and rhetorical flair had long gone out of style.  Cool reserve and stumbling managerial doublespeak was the order of the day.

    Still, no one could deny Joe Fox’s presence, and his speeches, which he usually placed at the end of a faculty debate, would often swing a vote entirely.

     So I was surprised when I asked him, “Joe, why didn’t you ever publish your ideas nationally?”  And he answered “I wasn’t good enough.  By the time I was 40, I realized I wasn’t going to write a great book, and my pride wouldn’t let me write a bad book.”  

    So Joe Fox’s legend has remained local/

     But not his legacy.  Friday afternoon, afternoon, after his final lecture, he took a moment to thank his “Present Predicament of Mankind” class for their attentiveness.  The whole class rose and fervently gave the Old Professor a sustained standing ovation.  

    It was a movingly right moment, though we all knew we couldn’t repay him for those 32 years of exhorting, explaining, questioning, wondering aloud, struggling with mankind’s follies, tragedies, and now the ghastly predicaments facing us all.

     What Joe Fox leaves us is the notion that education, a genuinely liberal education, is a fundamental first condition for understanding one’s self and the world.  Without that, we remain in personal darkness.  He insisted that we must change our attitudes and institutions, and soon.  To not change is to not survive.  

    And Joe thought that the most important mission of the university is changing students’ minds-teaching the ways of seeing, thinking and communicating that will insure mankind’s survival.

     He was not optimistic last Friday.  He saw a horror of a decade ahead precisely because so few people can or will change.  But of those few who do initiate positive changes, Fox insisted that it will be because they were touched sometime by a good teacher in a good class.

     Professor Fox was too modest last Friday to suggest he made that kind of difference at UNI.  When I asked him what he thought his major accomplishment had been, he said with a chuckle, “I made up the reading lists for the humanities course years ago.  That got the students reading books they wouldn’t have.  That’s my major accomplishment.”  
    Well, as he would say, horse manure.  

    Those of us who know him well or appreciated him as a teacher carry part of him with us as his permanent legacy.  When we catch ourselves hearing a voice thundering inside us, “By damn, that’s Wrong!” or “What is the REAL problem here, beneath all this CRAP?” or “I’m sorry, I’m confused.  Please enlighten me,” we can thank our local legend, Professor Josef Fox.

    He’ll be more than missed at UNI. He’ll be remembered and revered. 

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    Posted in
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    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • A Tale of Two Coaches

    • Posted on Mar 27, 2016
    Here's this morning's Courier column--does God intervene in basketball games?
    Happy Easter.   

    “To God be the glory!” exclaimed Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy after their utterly improbable win over UNI Sunday night. His team had come back in the last 38 seconds from a 12-point deficit to tie, then to win in double overtimes against the Panthers. 

     Coming off the floor, he insisted that his players prayed their way to victory. 

     In contrast, UNI Coach Ben Jacobsen at the postgame NCAA press conference struggled with words, explaining,  “unfortunately, we were on the wrong side of just a crazy thirty seconds—you know, we aren’t ever going to be able to have an answer for, nor do we need one.  It just happened to go that way.”

     Three of his senior players, Paul Bohannon, Matt Jesperson, and Wes Washpun, sat beside him, looking utterly exhausted and disappointed.  They had been beaten down not only by the furious pace of the game, but also by the shocking turnaround from winners to losers in just over a half-minute.   

    Jacobsen forged ahead by supporting his players, saying “but everything that happened to get to that point—these are three of the finest young men and three of the best guys we’ve ever had come through our program, and I’m extremely proud of them.” 

     They had just experienced an epic game loss they will relive for years, though they won’t blame coach Jacobson for it.  Nor themselves.  Nor God.   

     So, did God answer the A&M coach and team’s fervent prayers for a win?  Or, as Jacobson insisted, did it just happen for reasons they’ll never clearly understand?  And don’t need to?  

     As much as we all hope for a supernatural entity that will intervene when she/he/it hears enough prayers, that’s an empty hope.  In the ringing phrases of the Old Testament’s Ecclesiastes (9:11, to be exact) “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

     Anyone who gets past kindergarten knows this to be true.  We’re all subject to time and chance, and to suggest that we didn’t pray hard or long enough comes perilously close to blaming the victim.   

     Teams win or lose because of a variety of events all emerging, creating a win or loss.  We call them “perfect storms” now, but it’s the same as the Biblical “time and chance.”   

     Most important, Coach Jacobson handled the loss exactly right by graciously thanking his team, complimenting the winners, and moving on.   

     To praise or blame anyone feeds resentment, creates false responsibilities, and ultimately calls into question one’s faith.  That’s the irony of thanking God for winning.

    If God helped you win, what about when you lost?  Isn’t blame the logical response?  So I compliment Coach Jacobsen for taking the Ecclesiastes route, admitting that time and chance happened to the team.  

    That’s true, and it’s the long-term best attitude.   

     The A&M Coach’s insistence that God helped them win amounts to a lack of faith in his players and their last-minute burst of strategy, energy, and lucky breaks.     


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    • Religiosity
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