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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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  • Finally, Dems and GOP Agree: Craziness Rules the GOP

    • Posted on Mar 13, 2016
    This morning's Courier column--craziness rules the GOP--not just Trump, who seems the very definition of crazy, but Republican ideas, which are just as crazy.  

    It’s kumbaya time for GOP and Democratic Party leaders, united in one deep and ongoing agreement: Donald Trump must never become President.  

     As Republican Senator Lindsay Graham put it, “My party has gone bat---- crazy.”  
    Thank you, Senator Graham, for saying what some of us have been thinking now for months.  Not enough bad can be said about Donald Trump as a candidate, but his own party keeps trying: Phony, con artist, bully, misogynist—from Mitt and Marco and Ted—virtually in unison with Democrats.  Finally, they agree. 

     If only GOP leaders could apply the same sound judgment to their own ideas.  Instead they insist they will support the party’s candidate even if it’s Trump.  Logicians they are not.  

     Consider four other just-as-crazy GOP positions:  
    (1) “Originalism”
    (2) Defunding Planned Parenthood 
    (3) Repealing and Replacing Obamacare with “something better”  
    (4) Not even hearing SCOTUS nominees   
    These GOP ideas deserve no better than Trump. 

    One at a time: 

    Originalism.  Basically, “originalists” insist that founding documents need to be read and applied as the founders intended, not what later interpreters “read into” them.  It’s called a “principle of interpretation.”  

     Get that—principle of interpretation.  Interpretation is what we humans do, day in and out, in order to survive and thrive. That means we inevitably filter everything through our own consciousness.   

    Originalists use this principle to impose conservative ideology onto founding documents, pretending that the founding fathers intended it just as current conservatives now see it, as “originalists.”  However, they’re interpreting.  

     Meaning is co-created; it doesn’t somehow magically exist in a document to be discovered like gold nuggets.  “Reading into” any document, old or new, is necessary and unavoidable.  That’s why we teach literature basically as interpretation.  That’s why we hire lawyers to read contracts.     

     To pretend otherwise is, well, crazy.   

     Defunding Planned Parenthood arises out of the oft-repeated lie that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue, which is illegal, and mostly performs abortion, another lie.  Anyone can look these facts up, or visit any Planned Parenthood clinic. 

    Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, leading the charge, keeps repeating these distortions. Indeed, Ted Cruz tried to shut down the government in order to defund Planned Parenthood.  Off-the-charts crazy.   

     Repealing Obamacare.  As Lindsay Graham noted last Sunday on “Meet the Press,” trying to defund a plan that was passed by a President whose name was on the bill was impossible.  Nevertheless, GOP time-wasters voted on it roughly sixty times. No wonder voters are furious.  

     Even crazier, Republicans had nothing workable to replace it. 

     The major bat-guano GOP crazy item amounts to an abdication of constitutional responsibility.   President Obama still serves for eleven months, and no other President has been denied his legal obligation this long to nominate a Supreme Court Justice. 

     It would be one thing to hear and question a nominee—that’s expected.  Reject him/her if you must. But to utterly deny a hearing?  

    That’s crazy, and our own Chuck Grassley deserves national scorn for lack of judgment and party-line toadying.

     So, serious agreement between the GOP and Dems about Donald Trump deserves celebration. Aside from the GOP’s bat---- crazy other positions, it’s a start.   

    Go comment!
    Posted in
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    • Politics
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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