Hands down, the best
Remembering Charles Hands, Ph.D., long-time Loyola English faculty
When I answered my phone in January of this year, I didn’t recognize the voice on the other end.
“I’m Charles Hands’ daughter,” she said. “You sent my father such a nice card for Christmas. I wanted to get in touch because I thought you should know that he passed away this week.” He had died on January 15.
As memories came flooding back and tears filled my eyes, I was somehow able to sputter to her some of what her father had meant to me during my college years and after. As I hung up the phone, I couldn’t believe that such a powerful presence was gone.
Our first meeting
The first day I met Dr. Charles Hands he, quite frankly, scared the hell out of me. In my eyes, he was an imposing figure, a tall, barrel-chested man who commanded any room he entered. When he came into the basement classroom of what we then referred to as the College Center (the actual name was the DeChiaro College Center, but none of us called it that), my classmates, who had been chattering loudly, went stone silent.
Dr. Hands walked up the aisle, stepped behind the podium, pulled out his class roster, and put on his gold wire-framed glasses. “Mr. Johnson,” he said while looking up for a student acknowledgment. “Ms. Smith. Mr. Thomas.” On and on, he went down the list. “Ms. Wojciechowski.” I raised my hand, and Dr. Hands made eye contact.
The date was Jan. 15, 1987; I was in my first class of English 130: Understanding Literature.
And I was so intimidated, I felt like I was going to be sick.
After taking roll, Dr. Hands took off his glasses, and looked up at us. He put them back on, and with a deep voice that could have belonged to a classically trained thespian as well as this college professor, he looked at a paper on the podium and began to recite these words:
It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday.
The regular crowd shuffles in.
There’s an old man sitting next to me
Making love to his tonic and gin.
He took the glasses off again and looked up at the class. As the semester went on, I would learn that he would do this quite often. “How exactly does a man make love to a drink?” he asked us. No one spoke, as he continued. “Does he gaze at the liquid with loving eyes? Run his finger around the glass rim, savoring every drop?”
We continued to say absolutely nothing. I’m sure many of us sat there, silent with our eyes bugged out, wondering what in the world this man was trying to teach us.
“Poetry is all around us,” he said. “In songs, in books, in nature—everywhere. That’s one thing I want you to learn.”
Then Dr. Hands opened his book.
Times they are a changin’
I not only survived that semester with Dr. Hands, but in a few weeks after that first day, my opinion of him changed. He wasn’t this scary professor who would be cracking the proverbial whip and frightening his students into submission. In fact, I found him to be quite the opposite: he was supportive and kind. He insisted that you know the work, but he wanted to know that you understood what you were studying as well.
As there were times, in the beginning, where I didn’t always exactly understand the work, I would go to see him during office hours. I learned that he was really funny, and when he laughed, the crow’s feet at the sides of his blue eyes—which I had once seen as piercing, but now saw as kind—seemed to cascade down the sides of his face. He did everything big—even laughing.
When I was in a writing class during my senior year in high school, my teacher taught us to capture what he called “fabulous realities”—moments in life that were particularly funny, interesting, or memorable. So I had developed the habit of writing these kinds of things in the top margins of my notebooks. I continued this in college, and that’s why I knew the date of my first day of class—or at least the first day I took notes—because I’ve kept a few notebooks that had lots memories in them.
Dr. Hands’ quotes filled up a lot of margins.
* * *
As I had grown to like rather than fear him, I chose Dr. Hands for my professor the next semester for Great Books: American Literature. We had to read about one book a week, which he would then give us quizzes on. I got 100 on each one as I always read the books. If you read the book, the quiz was pretty easy.
One week, he returned the quizzes, and while the score on mine was 100, he marked it F- – (yes, two minuses instead of one) just to be a funny.
That semester, although we studied everything from Walden to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Daisy Miller to A Farewell to Arms, there was no doubt in any of our minds what book was his favorite: Moby Dick. On Oct. 6, 1987, he told us as much on the day we began to study it: “I hope you don’t think I’m biased when I say Moby Dick is the best book ever written.”
Dr. Hands was also known for his fabulous drawings. Okay, that’s not true at all. He would draw things that he wanted us to understand on the blackboard. We used to joke with him about how bad his drawings were. I even copied a couple in my notebook margins. When he drew one to illustrate how the white whale in Moby Dick represented “malice,” and it was juxtaposed to Ahab, scar included, he said, “I can draw good oceans! Isn’t that a good ocean?”
We laughed. It was a wavy line. Anyone could draw a good wavy line.
And even though I could draw, ahem, a bit better than Dr. Hands, I always copied his illustrations verbatim, as they were hilarious.
Once he drew what looked like a blob on the blackboard. Turns out, it was the state of Illinois. We were studying Huck Finn, and Dr. Hands said, “Jim only really had to go one quarter of a mile across the river to Illinois, a free state,” he explained. “But we needed a book.”
Another time, he drew himself on the board. But he added a lot of hair. By the time we all knew Dr. Hands, all that remained was a monkish ring of white. I couldn’t imagine him with a full head. “Believe it or not, there was a time when Charlie Hands had hair,” he quipped.
Undoubtedly, we learned a lot about American literature. We also learned that Loyola’s faculty lunchroom once consisted of “a rickety old table.” That Dr. Hands was a softie: “I’m the kind of guy who needs to take Kleenex to the movies.” We even learned that our professors didn’t always like every book considered “a classic.” He once said, “I’ve tried to read The Origin of the Species at least 10 times. Each time, I read about to page 50, and then I put it away with the pious resolve to read it next year. Then I pick it up to start at page 50 and can’t remember what I’ve read. So I read to about page 50 again. Now I’m going on Emeritus, and I keep telling myself I’ll read it,” he said. “But I wouldn’t bet on it.”
(Yet, even after his admission, he still never understood why I didn’t love Moby Dick. “If we could cut out all that middle section that’s generally about whales, blah, blah, blah, maybe I would like it better,” I’d say to him. “But that’s some of the best parts,” he’d insist.)
That’s when we found out that Dr. Hands would, after that semester, become a professor Emeritus. He would still teach some classes here and there at Loyola, but he would no longer be full-time.
Dr. Hands’ last day as a full-time professor was, according to my notebook, December 10, 1987. “Today is my last day of full-time teaching. I feel a mixed joy,” he said. “But at least I won’t have to get up at 5:30 in the morning anymore!”
* * *
Although Great Books: American Literature would be my last class with Dr. Hands, it wouldn’t be the last time we talked—far from it. As a commuter student, I had some days with a lot of downtime between classes. If Dr. Hands was in his office, and I was walking by, he would invite me in. We chatted about everything from how he met his wife (he had been dating her roommate at the time), to how Notre Dame’s football team was doing (He earned his PhD there and on days he wasn’t teaching, he’d often wear a sweatshirt sporting the fighting Irish’s mascot), and why I still didn’t like Moby Dick.
I learned a lot about his life, and he learned a lot about mine.
After graduation, I would stop in to the Loyola campus from time-to-time, and Dr. Hands and I would talk. “Call me Charlie now,” he said. I remember how weird that felt the first time. Although I’d rather call him “Dr. Hands,” he insisted on Charlie, so I made myself comply. As the years passed, we would communicate through the occasional card or email. He asked to be added to my newsletter email list so that he could keep up on my writing career. He would email to tell me how he liked a particular humor column I had written or ask how I was doing.
In the last card he sent to me, he told me that his beloved wife had passed away. And while he used a walker, he was still “getting around.” When he daughter called me, she said that until he got sick just months before he died, he had continued to live on his own in the condo he and his wife shared, and he drove himself around at the age of 90.
That didn’t surprise me one bit. Dr. Hands, or Charlie, was always a strong, tough man. He had served in WWII. After returning, he earned his degrees and began his teaching career. He also loved sailing. I remember the great stories he would tell me about spending time on his boat. There’s so much I remember…
At the end of my notebook, the last notes I took read, “Is that all there is? Is there some other possibility?” While I know it refers to a book we were studying, for Dr. Hands, I hope there is. I’m sure that if there’s a classroom or a stage in the afterlife, Charlie is on it reading something aloud to a captive audience. He once told us, “Read a poem out loud to understand it. You must be an actor and read it as the poet wrote it.”
I’ve spent my career reading my work out loud—it’s one of the ways I make sure that the words flow well and sound exactly the way I want them to.
But I’ll never love Moby Dick. Not even Charlie Hands could convince me of that.