He was a professor famous for not giving As. A poker player who pranked his friends with whoopee cushions. A fly-fisherman, a dad, and a widely published poet who nearly won a Pulitzer. John Engels of Burlington passed away last June at the age of 76. Now the English department at St. Michael's College, where Engels taught for the past 45 years, has come out with a special issue of its student-edited literary annual, The Onion River Review, devoted to "Remembering John Engels."
In the 144-page paperback, reprinted Engels poems alternate with prose and verse commemorations from his colleagues, family, friends and students of all vintages. Julia Alvarez of Middlebury talks about her friendship with Engels, as do fellow local writers David Huddle, Greg Delanty, T. Alan Broughton, Geof Hewitt, Elizabeth Inness-Brown, Sydney Lea, William Marquess and Ghita Orth. Sons David and Matthew Engels offer their recollections in verse and prose, respectively. Acclaimed New York novelist and essayist Judith Kitchen describes the brilliant fly Engels tied for her - illustrated with a color photo.
The portrait that emerges is lively and complex. Matthew Engels writes, "Dad was a difficult man to know well. His personality swerved between the contemplative and the outrageous." St. Mike's professor Nick Clary recalls poker nights with Engels, who christened himself "Dr. Skill" at the card table.
But perhaps most interesting are the essays by Engels' students, who agree that he was a tough professor - and the kind you don't forget. John D. Wagner, now a prolific author of how-to books, remembers dubbing Professor Engels the "E-Man," because he laid down "august, sweeping judgments" with an Iman's authority. But, he concludes, "Without John Engels, I would likely be selling used cars or storm windows in northern New Jersey." And '06 graduate Molly McGillicuddy quotes Engels' parting words to her Hemingway seminar: "I wish you all success in your lives. And change your socks regularly."
An unpublished poem, perhaps the last Engels wrote, brings the volume back to seriousness. In typical fashion, it sails from a seemingly banal subject - the poet's kitchen renovations - into deeper and murkier waters. Even into a prettied-up room, Engels writes, shadows fall: "and then in no time at all it's dark."