Don Ward and I were utterly out of sync, from the day we met until the hour we last parted. We were baffled by each other, somehow forever falling short of achieving pleasant and productive conversation. Under any other circumstances, we never would have interacted at all. Fate had intervened, however, and he was as stuck with me as I was with him. For four inscrutable years, Don Ward was my appointed college adviser.
That was not the original plan, at least according to an initial schedule. Having declared my major in Photography and Cinema midway through my freshman year at Ohio State, I was assigned to receive academic counseling from an associate professor who had been with the department for over a decade. I had heard good things about him, and he had the bearing of a wise and approachable mentor. But when I tried to make my first appointment, I learned that I had been inexplicably reassigned to one of the newer faculty members.
Perhaps therein was the initial dissonance that created disharmony between Don Ward and me. For all I know, he might have been as surprised to see me as I was to have been directed to him. The Photography and Cinema Department was housed in a ramshackle building that had been erected in the twenties. Its ominously creaking elevator seemed to be of that era as well. Don Ward’s office was a tiny room in one of its shabbier corners, adjacent to a work area where students cropped and mounted prints fresh from the black-and-white photo lab. I walked in to introduce myself.
I found an owl-eyed man with a disheveled mop of sandy hair sitting at his cluttered desk and staring up at me through large, circular lenses. “Professor Ward?” I asked, and a corner of his mustachioed lip curled as though no one had ever addressed him with such formality. It made me slightly uncomfortable when, upon learning my name, he thereafter called me “Mr. Hunt.” Something about the way he said it suggested to me that he was dryly amused, but I was not in on the joke. Little did I know at that time that he would address me exclusively in this fashion for the next four years. Even in class, where he called on others casually by their first names, he persisted in referring to me as Mr. Hunt. Was it a subtle insult? A deliberate taunt? An indicator of familiar fondness? His idea of a joke? I was never to know. It became emblematic of our mysterious relationship, two people operating at opposing wavelengths, their thoughts occasionally intersecting but generally at odds.
Professor Ward had an unnerving habit of staring silently from behind those thick lenses, taking just a tad longer than the social norm to respond, as though he were perpetually preoccupied. He took himself seriously as a video artist and filmmaker, and on a couple occasions he shared some of his work, which I found as ambiguous as its creator. Was it serious? Was it satire? Was it good or bad? I couldn’t tell. I also took myself seriously as an aspiring director of film and video, and that was half of the problem between Professor Ward and me. He was inevitably flippant when I was sincere, yet he received my rare attempts at humor with grave annoyance.
He turned on me in class once when he solicited our opinions about what we would like to see in the way of improvements to our video editing facilities, modest equipment that was insufficient to meet the student demand. I interpreted his request as a purely hypothetical exercise in defining a fully adequate studio. He was actually trying to determine how to spend severely limited funds. I did not know this, though, and as was his habit, he called on me to respond.
“Mr. Hunt, what would you like to see in an editing facility?”
“Well,” I pondered, my eyes and imagination rising to the ceiling, “I suppose we would all like to have our own editing decks and as much time as we liked to use them.”
There was an uncomfortable pause.
“Mr. Hunt,” Professor Ward said curtly, “get real.” And then he stared at me for just a little too long, his lips pressed together in stern disapproval. I was dumbfounded.
Some time later the same quarter, Professor Ward was in a jolly and almost offensively solicitous mood. He was dropping the name of an alternative band in what seemed to me to be a desperate attempt of a man in his thirties to curry favor with a small group of very young adults. In fact, he was getting downright silly, and much to my disgust, the rest of the class was going along with it. It was a pendulum swing from his customary air of disdain. I was not about to brown-nose, and so I sat expressionless amidst the false hilarity. This bothered him, and he attempted to get me involved.
“Wouldn’t that be great, Mr. Hunt?” he asked animatedly. I was in no mood for frivolousness. The others could laugh like bleating sheep if they liked, but if he insisted on dragging me into his farce, I was going to call him out on it.
“No,” I said emphatically, without a trace of amusement. The very air evaporated from the room. Professor Ward trained his owl eyes on me and scowled as if to say, “What in the world is wrong with you?!” Which was precisely what I was thinking about him.
Which is not to say that he was totally unsupportive. He actually expressed his admiration for much of the work that I produced for his class, going so far as to slow down the playback and discuss the merits and creativity of individual shots. But not always. Once I made the mistake of debuting my final, which I had finished early, for our TA during a class that Professor Ward could not attend. It was a satirical piece that earned some good laughs from my classmates. When Professor Ward was present for the next session, he played all of our final pieces. Mine ran to complete silence, as the class had already seen it. He had nothing good to say about my work that day.
As my adviser, Professor Ward had to approve my Photography and Cinema course choices, which meant that I was regularly going into his office to have him sign off on my proposed schedules. These were usually awkward encounters with little meaningful interaction. Toward the end of my time at Ohio State, he was trying to encourage me to attend grad school at his alma mater in Iowa.
“You can’t do anything with a bachelor’s degree in cinema, not unless you’re going to be happy stuck behind a TV news camera for the rest of your life.”
But I had seen enough of the obsessive world of film and video to know that I was unwilling to devote every minute of my young life to the craft, which seemed to be what was required to make a success of it. I let him know that I had no plans for grad school at that point, and we regarded each other with mutual puzzlement.
Perhaps what he wanted for me was simply what he desired for himself. He has since become an internationally known video artist whose work has been exhibited in some prestigious venues, and he continues in education at a university out west. Well over a decade after I last saw him, he became a target of disgruntled students on one of those awful websites that allow anonymous educator reviews.
“His work is worse than many students. He really shouldn’t be a teacher.”
“Avoid his classes at all costs.”
“Quite possibly the worst teacher ever.”
I smiled as I read those words, simply because they remind me of a certain young man who was also perplexed by this unknowable professor. As such, I take their opinions with the mandatory grain of salt. I really have nothing against Professor Ward. I just never could get a handle on who he was. I suspect he might have said the same about me.
On my last visit to his office, I was determined to get in and out as quickly as possible. He must have notice the earnestness in my face. Midway through our brief appointment, the beeping alarm of my digital watch unexpectedly interrupted us.
“Time for a hamburger!” he smiled.
And at last, he made me laugh.
A nervous laugh, perhaps, but still…