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Remembering Joseph B. Trahern Jr.

Joseph B. Trahern Jr., Beloved Colleague and former Department Head of English

Chuck Maland delivered these beautiful remarks at the funeral of Joe Trahern on January 29, 2023. You can read the formal obituary at the Rose Mortuary website. Maland’s remarks capture some of what he contributed to the UT English department and to the lives of so many colleagues. Joe was kind, brilliant, humble, funny, and a great scholar. Those of us who had the privilege of knowing him mourn his passing and carry his memory with us.

Let me first thank the family for giving me the chance to say a few words about my friend, colleague, and mentor Joe Trahern—and to convey my condolences to Peggy, Sarah, Joey, and the rest of the family for their loss.

Joe and I both joined the UT English Department in 1978, Joe as incoming Department Head after teaching 15 years in the English Department at the University of Illinois, me as a young assistant professor whose job, in part, was to develop some courses in film studies.   My first encounter with Joe is emblematic of the thoughtful and generous spirited man we all knew.  It came in the form of a letter Joe sent me in the summer of 1978.  I was teaching in the Chicago area at the time.  Although Joe had never met me nor played any part in hiring me, he sent me a letter even before he had officially begun his duties—and I’m pretty sure, even before he moved to Knoxville–welcoming me to the Department and wishing me well in my new position.  His ten years as Department Head of English as I was starting out at UT provided a stable and encouraging environment for me, and for all of us in the department, to thrive in.

One of the great movies in film history, CITIZEN KANE, depicts a mysterious newspaper mogul through flashbacks narrated by five different people, each of whom tells a story, creates a portrait, of the man they knew.  Their stories are very different, and we’re left with a troubling feeling of uncertainty about who the man really was.

After learning of Joe’s passing and agreeing to make some remarks at this celebration of Joe’s life, I contacted a number of my colleagues who were hired around the time Joe was Department Head of English between 1978 and 1988.  Unlike those different portraits in CITIZEN KANE, their praise for Joe was remarkably consistent and mirrored my own sense of Joe’s core.  Here are a few of their comments:

  • I interviewed with Joe and have always admired him as truly good and kind man as well as a learned scholar. 
  • Joe hired me and I owe him the wonderful life that I’ve had here—teaching, publishing.  As you know, Joe was funny, witty, supportive . . . . He was also honest and could ask the hard questions that I still think about.
  • Joe was one of the loveliest people I have ever known, and I will miss his great heart.
  • I stayed kind of in awe of him ever since we first had dealings.  Such a kind, sweet man.  But in addition . . .  I loved his crazy jokes. 
  • Joe was head of the committee that hired me, and I feel so lucky to have had him as an unofficial mentor. 
  • I think that Joe had a unique combination of equanimity, good humor, and good sense.  He was always generous and supportive, and don’t think that I ever saw him really flustered.  His passion for music, especially bluegrass, was contagious, and he had interesting opinions on just about anything that one would care to talk about.

As these comments indicate, Joe offered consistent encouragement to and support of his colleagues.  He also helped the English Department evolve in ways that are vividly evident even today.  Besides supporting the growth of Cinema Studies offerings, he oversaw the expansion and development of the Creative Writing Program under the leadership of John Manchip White and then the addition of the poet Marilyn Kallet in 1981.  He helped hire Mike Keene, Ilona Leki, and Russ Hearst in what became the seeds of the current Rhetoric, Writing, and Linguistics division.  And he hired Allen Dunn, who was the first Critical Theory specialist in the department. While these emerging areas were taking root, he simultaneously also oversaw the hiring and nurturing of faculty in the department’s traditionally strong areas in British and American literature.

As a Department Head, Joe preferred to lead by encouraging thoughtful civil discussion and moving toward consensus in the best interests of the department. One thing I most admired about Joe’s leadership style was his ability to lead discussion without explicitly stating his position on the topic under discussion. After a vote was taken, though, I almost always felt that we as a department voted the way he wanted us to vote and that it usually was a good decision. I’m not sure exactly how he did that, but he did.

Time prevents me from detailing the many other ways he served the University in roles like the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and his support for the Knoxville Arts community, especially the symphony, opera, and Clarence Brown Theater, but let’s not forget that he did. 

And, of course, there were the jokes. I’ve always felt a day without laughter is a lost day, and I rarely had a lost day when I ran into Joe. He had a constant stream of jokes and stories and always delighted in telling me a new one. Allen Dunn told me that “I have pleasant memories of Joe sitting outside in the backyard and telling stories at our spring party. I don’t know how many times I heard the story of the three-legged pig, but it got better each time he told it. He took such a pure pleasure in the performance that it was impossible not to share his enthusiasm.” 

For those of you who may not know this joke—and even for those who do–here goes:

A man is driving along a country road and sees a three-legged pig standing in the front yard of a farmhouse. Curious, he drives up the gravel driveway, parks by the house, and sees a farmer sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. After exchanging pleasantries, the man asks the farmer why the pig has just three legs. “Well,” the farmer says, “that’s not just a three-legged pig. It’s a remarkable three-legged pig, and it’s really special to me and my family. Two years ago, as I was cutting hay on that hill in the back forty, my tractor rolled over on me. That pig saw it happen, ran to the accident, rooted around and loosened the soil where I was pinned, and helped drag me out from under the tractor. I thought I was gonna die, but I escaped with just a few bruises.”

“That is amazing,” says the man.

The Farmer goes on: “But then last year, a fire started in the basement in the back of the house, just below the bedroom my wife and I sleep in. The pig smelled the smoke, jumped up on the picnic table outside our bedroom window and squealed at the top of its lungs. He woke us up, and we not only got out safely but were able to call the fire department and save the house. My wife and I owe our lives and our house to this pig.”

 “Well, I agree that’s remarkable,” says the man, “but that doesn’t explain anything about why the pig has just three legs.” The farmer looks at him a little puzzled and replies, “Well, like I said, that pig is really special to me and my family, and we just can’t bring ourselves to eat it all at once.”

Now you might consider that a dumb joke, but as Joe’s obituary pointed out, Joe’s “laugh and love of laughter was his trademark to his many friends . . . . some might even say the worse the joke, the more glee he took in telling it.”

Besides his love of laughter, Joe also relished his family. Whenever I saw Joe, even in the last several years—memorably a couple of times with Peggy at our Academy Awards party and then more recently when he needed more care—Joe always updated me on how Sarah and Joe and their loved ones were doing, and it was evident how proud he was of his them. And the affection between Joe and Peggy was crystal clear. We should all thank Peggy for how well she cared for our friend in these recent years.

Joe was a scholar of Old and Middle English literature, and his Chaucer courses were legendary.  But I want to thank my colleague Tom Heffernan for reminding me that the Old English narrative poem Beowulf was also one of Joe’s great intellectual loves, a work that he spent his life musing about and teaching. Tom suggested that the final lines of that poem, slightly altered for this occasion, would provide a fitting tribute to Joe. 

The final scene of the poem portrays Beowulf’s funeral ceremony. As members of Beowulf’s mourning community surround the funeral pyre, the poet speaks the final words of the poem:

For we should praise a person whom we hold dear

And cherish his memory when that moment comes

when he has to be convoyed from his bodily home. . . . .

They said that he was of all men

the mildest and most beloved, and the kindest to his folk.

With the poet, let’s cherish our memories of Joe as we celebrate the life of this mild, wise, and kind man.  Thanks for helping us do that by your presence here today.