Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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  • Professor Josef Fox: An Appreciation

    • Posted on Dec 21, 1979 by Scott Cawelti
    12-21-79

    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
    • Personalities
    • Education
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • Ayatollah Khomeini and Putting the Shoe on the Other Foot

    • Posted on Nov 30, 1979 by Scott Cawelti
    11/30/79

    Suppose Richard Nixon had actually done what many of us feared: suppose he had actually killed or imprisoned those many citizens on his "enemies" list.

     And suppose, to help him, he had created his own secret police force to intimidate and terrorize all those who might be candidates for Nixon enemies, meaning hundreds of thousands of the noisy minority.

    Suppose he also formed alliances with other countries who supported him (some might even say helped put him in office) and who bought American products in return for, say, oil. 

    Now suppose that we fiercely independent Americans, after a few years of Nixon's secret police and foreign oil, decided to rise up and turn him out of office. Nixon would wisely flee, taking millions of our dollars with him to the countries who had supported him.

    And suppose Nixon ended up in a hospital bed in one of those countries, under their guard, supposedly ill with, say, cancer. Would we have trouble believing that, since he had lied to us so often before? 

    And don't you suppose we'd want him back? Don't you think we'd be angry at the country that refused to send him back, especially if that country arrogantly insisted that our new leader was a fanatic, when all the new leader had done was to help throNixon out and punished his secret police force? 

    Wouldn't you be tempted, honestly now, to take a few of that country's citizens hostage until they returned Richard Nixon for trial?

    I submit: we would, by now, have demanded that Nixon be returned or else. Hell, we probably would have sent in the marines to drag him home, kicking and screaming, for trial. 

    So let's stop our self-righteous ranting about the Iranians. Put their shoe on our foot and we likely would stomp just as hard. 

    Khomeini, however, certainly has some communication problems with the West. That's because communication involves communing, a commonality—look at the word.

    Without some common agreement, however small, no communication can take place. 
    We've all had the frustrating experience of trying to explain a point to someone with whom we disagree entirely. The argument goes round and round, in and out, up and down, until both arguers either quit in disgust or find some bludgeons. 

    Once in a great while, though, the arguers find to their surprise that they do agree on a point or two after all. Then, and only then, do they proceed to actually disagree and —communicate. 

    But with Khomeini, we're at the round and round, in and out, get out the bludgeons stage, with no commonality in sight. He thinks we're satanic, we think he's fanatic. He thinks we're imperialist war-mongers, we think he's a monomaniacal absolutist. He thinks we're capitalist manipulators, we think he's a throwback to pre-industrial zealotry. 

    No wonder we're not communicating. 

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Politics
    • Hot Button Issues
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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