News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

March 10, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: Alas, a unique Terre Hautean has passed from our midst

TERRE HAUTE — For people who started off at one another’s verbal throats, Jim Misenheimer and I certainly buried the hatchet, quickly and deep.

After a couple of testy notes, two less-testy voicemails, one conciliatory real-time call, then a full-blown gracious invitation, Jim and I finally met for the first time about five years ago. It was smooth sailing from then on.

A professor emeritus of English at Indiana State University, a classics scholar, traveler, Air Force veteran, editor and incurable lover of what once was called “the legitimate theater,” Jim died last week at 77. He had waged a dignified, but losing battle with a variety of health issues and passed into the next realm in the familiar comfort of his handsome Farrington’s Grove home. His beloved wife, Carolyn, also a retired professor, kept watch the whole way.

I never had the pleasure of learning Shakespeare or Jane Austen from Professor Misenheimer, but I can imagine that his teaching style mirrored his general style, which was so verbally rich and refined, he seemed of another era and culture.

Although a Texan by birth and upbringing, Jim would have been at home in the time and company of Austen, Keats, Shelley and Lord Byron. No wonder he could quote them all at length the way most of us sing the lyrics of Top 40 songs from our youth.

Jim not only loved the English language, he viewed it as a sacred treasure – to be honored and protected, yes, but also to be used in the daily, sacred ritual of life. He possessed a fabulous vocabulary and, unlike so many contemporary Americans, never apologized for it or allowed it to atrophy from disuse.

That vocabulary was frequently on display in Jim’s letters to the editor of the Tribune-Star or in occasional guest columns. I reread several the day after I learned of his death. While their subjects usually were serious – bad drivers and trash on city byways – the artful, feisty construction of his sentences made me smile.

Lead-footed drivers on Third or Farrington streets were nothing short of “maniacal.” Of the downside of Farrington’s repaving, he wrote: “Alas and alack, it has become a cross street for misbehavioral traffic, which pays no attention to speed or care.”

Four huge containers of street debris that Jim and his neighbors cleared from their block was not just trash, but “disreputable trash” that included among other nastiness “bespoiled diapers.”

Nearly always, he pleaded for help from city authorities.

“We who reside here are ready for a serious remedy,” he wrote in the autumn of 2008.

Some of Jim’s harshest published words were meted out three years ago in a blistering condemnation of the Academy Awards telecast. Chief among the felonies he witnessed was the best actress award going to Dame Helen Mirren for “The Queen.”

“‘The Queen’ is a film that should never have been made in the lifetime of Queen Elizabeth II, for the sake of both decorum and timeliness (or perhaps, indecorousness and lack of taste),” he wrote. Everything from host Ellen Degeneres’ jokes to Dame Judi Dench being “shunted aside” in the best actress category galled him.

“Alas, the depths of taste and lack of consideration for what is truly the best to which Hollywood has sunk is a shocking indictment of an area of our culture which should always aspire to the highest standards of conduct and aesthetic excellence,” Jim lamented. “Hollywood needs great and immediate help.”

Dame Judi was not picked at random to make a point.

As Jim’s obituary emphasized, she was “counted among his closest friends,” along with several other well-known actresses, including Kitty Carlisle Hart, for whom Jim penned a lovely Tribune-Star remembrance after her death in the spring of 2007.

The first evening I spent with the Misenheimers, I was treated to their large collection of correspondence with Dame Judi. Her personal notes, nearly always handwritten, are candid, funny and touching. She writes warmly of visiting with them when they’d come to see her in a play in London or New York and includes intriguing little tidbits from the sets of her latest films.

Jim always harbored the dream of getting Dame Judi to Terre Haute. And why not? While he was the chairman of ISU’s English Department, he’d gotten Kitty Carlisle Hart here in 1978 to receive an honorary doctorate. He and a national handful of Bette Davis fans campaigned for years to get the star her own postage stamp and were, at last, rewarded in the late winter of 2008.

I feel fairly certain that, had Jim lived long enough, Dame Judi would have made it to Terre Haute. She probably would have received not only an honorary doctorate from ISU, but also from St. Mary-of-the-Woods and Rose-Hulman – right after a ticker tape parade down Wabash.

Jim wanted Judi Dench to visit his city, which might seem an odd desire for a man with three degrees who traveled to 70 countries, served as an officer for both the Samuel Johnson and Charles Lamb societies of London, and who edited 16 volumes of the Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature.

Terre Haute may have been Jim’s adopted city, but he was almost as protective of the place as he was of language.

Our initial acrimony, in fact, sprang from a misunderstanding about my opinion of my hometown. It’s too long a story to detail here, but Jim – ever vigilant for snobby put-downs of Terre Haute – assumed when I moved back that I had it in for the city. He wrote a scathing letter to Tribune-Star editor Max Jones. But Max, knowing Jim and me, held off on printing the missive and wisely suggested I contact “Dr. Misenheimer” to seek détente.

Jim melted after my first message. Then he apologized profusely for writing mean things about me. Then he asked me to “honor two professors emeriti” – Carolyn and him – with my presence at their home for cocktails and dinner. We were never again on opposite sides of any issue.

I find it difficult to believe that he will no longer leave mellifluous voicemails on my home telephone or pen another letter about the louts and riff-raff who treat Farrington’s Grove as though it were a race track or a landfill.

Jim Misenheimer was one of a kind. Terre Haute and I shall miss him, likely more than he ever would have presumed.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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