By Helen S. Plotkin
"Teaching is a calling, I believe. Teaching Hendrix students is a privilege."
That is how Dr. Charles M. Chappell ’64, Professor of English, describes his 41-year career at Hendrix. Since word spread that Dr. Chappell is retiring when the academic year ends in May, students have been packing his classes for the privilege of saying they studied with a true Hendrix legend.
When Dr. Chappell carries the Hendrix mace for the last time at commencement on May 15 and changes his title to Professor Emeritus, he’ll be taking with him a treasure trove of institutional memories, the best wishes of his colleagues and the hearts of hundreds of Hendrix students who have learned from him over the past four decades.
So, how is Dr. Chappell getting ready for the transition from full-time professor to professor emeritus? What are his retirement plans? How did he wind up at Hendrix in the first place? Dr. Chappell answered these questions and more in an interview with Hendrix Magazine. As you might expect in any discussion with a master teacher, we learned a few things. For example:
Chuck Chappell was born at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where his father was stationed during World War II. His dad was a psychiatrist, who was a resident at the famed Menniger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., after the war. His mother was a mathematician who worked at the Smithsonian Institution and was a teacher. His dad, one of Arkansas’ first board-certified psychiatrists, practiced at Fort Roots in North Little Rock and helped develop the program in psychiatry at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He grew up in Little Rock and attended First United Methodist Church where Winston Faulkner ’48 was his youth director.
After graduating from Hendrix with honors in English, he earned a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in English from Emory University. He was a teaching assistant at Emory and an instructor in English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute before joining the Hendrix faculty in 1969. He is married to Carol Weygandt Chappell ’70 and is the father of Christopher Paul Chappell, Timothy Brooks Chappell ’98, and Michael Charles Chappell ’03. His book, Detective Dupin Reads
William Faulkner: Solutions to Six Yoknapatawpha Mysteries, was published in 1997.
Question: You have been part of the Hendrix family since your freshman year in 1960. So why did you pick Hendrix? What drew you to Hendrix as a student?
Answer: I grew up knowing about Hendrix because of my Methodist connections. Many of the wonderful people at First Methodist had come to Hendrix.
I was at Central High as a sophomore in 1957. I mostly didn’t know what was going on. The schools closed in ’58-’59, so I did correspondence work in the 11th grade and my parents moved to Memphis where I finished high school.
My older brother missed his senior year because of the schools closing. Hendrix accepted him – and several other students in the same situation – without him having graduated from high school. I came to visit my brother and the people were so friendly here that I decided this is where I wanted to be.
My parents were disillusioned with what was happening in Arkansas. When I told them that I wanted to go to Hendrix, they didn’t say I couldn’t, but they asked "Do you really want to go back to Arkansas?" So, my dad came and talked with (President) Marshall Steel and with (Dean of Students) Bob Meriwether. I couldn’t believe he did that, but as a parent now I understand why. When he got home, he told me I could come to Hendrix. He said ‘they have the right values and the right approach to academics.’ "
I came to Hendrix in 1960 and roomed with John Roberts, a friend of mine. Then I roomed with Bill Tidmore. Simon Bookout and I roomed together for close to three years. We were living in Millar during the Great Train Wreck. (Read the Great Train Wreck story) I lived in Martin Room 316 with Simon and Greg Williams. It was in Dead End. My son Tim lived in the same room in Martin for a time.
Q. What’s a favorite memory from your student days?
A. I went to all the ballgames when I was a student here; many of us did. Of course, basketball was all there was after football was dropped in my first year. I went to the last game in Axley Gymnasium and the first game in Grove Gym as a student. So did Larry and Hilda Hancock Malpica, both ’64, and Maribeth Woodfin Garrison ’64. So, I made a point of going to the last Grove game and the first game in the Wellness and Athletics Center, as did the others. Of course, Maribeth was there since (Coach) Cliff (Garrison) was being honored.
Q. What’s your favorite spot on campus?
A. My office! I have this great view. I can look out over the central part of campus. It’s beautiful in the spring and fall. I walk around campus all the time. I love the fish pond, the gazebo, the Pecan Court. That’s the essence of Hendrix to me.
Q. When did you first decide to become a teacher?
A. As a student, I was very fortunate to take a course with Helon (Sanders Smith) Yates. She was an excellent teacher and took a personal interest in her students.
My professors suggested I might be a teacher during my freshman year. I took courses with Walter Moffatt ’32 and Paul Faris and Helen Hughes. I decided to become an English major in my freshman year. I didn’t know I’d get a chance to teach at Hendrix.
Q. How did that happen – your coming back to Hendrix to teach English?
A. I’d finished the classwork for my Ph.D. at Emory and was teaching at Virginia Tech, when I got a letter from Walter Moffatt saying they would have a position in English and asking if I’d like to apply. Boy, did I!
The school had changed when I came back as a teacher. It had grown to about 1,000 students and changed to the 3-3 system.
I joined my mentors. I had studied with them and now they became my colleagues. Then they retired and we replaced them with dedicated, talented people like the ones they replaced.
Q. Many alumni memories were created on the Faulkner pilgrimages you led to Oxford, Miss. Tell me a little about how that all started.
A. The first one was in 1983, the first year I taught the Faulkner course. I’ve taken 14 student groups and one alumni group to visit Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home. The Hendrix-Murphy Programs in Literature and Language have sponsored the trips.
Col. James M. Faulkner (William Faulkner’s nephew) was our host at Rowan Oak. He also visited Hendrix several times to talk about his uncle and share a slide show. He made his first visit in 1977 and his last trip in 2001. We developed a friendship and in 1997, for Faulkner’s 100th birthday, he came here, when he had a choice of places to visit.
On Faulkner’s actual 100th birthday we read aloud The Sound and the Fury. It was an all-day event. We started at 8 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m. Students, faculty, staff took turns reading. It was exhilarating.
Q. Tell me about the postcards
A. I got married on June 21, 1969, in Ohio, where Carol is from, and we drove to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, for our honeymoon. I was to start teaching at Hendrix that fall.
William Faulkner wrote a book called The Wild Palms. It’s a counterpoint – one of Faulkner’s experiments. There are two separate stories that don’t intertwine except for a coincidental place. One called Old Man is set during the flood of 1927. The Tall Convict – we don’t know his name – is sent in a rowboat to rescue some people. All he wants to do is get back to prison where there are no women. Near the end of the story, you find out why. He was arrested for robbing a train to impress a woman. When she gets married, she sends him a postcard from a Birmingham hotel. It’s a picture of the hotel with an X marked over one of the rooms. The message says
"This is where were honeymonning at. – (Mrs.) Vernon Waldrip."
I’d taught that work and knew the story. So, on our honeymoon I sent postcards to the people here in the English Department and others. I wrote the same message on the back and signed them Mrs. Vernon Waldrip.
Years later, I told a class here in Southern Literature course about it and I started to get postcards. I’ve gotten hundreds of them over the years. Some of them are creative variations. Some of them were quite funny. It’s a way of keeping contact with students so I’ve kept doing it.
Q. What are your retirement plans?
A. For more than a dozen years, I’ve taught at Life Quest for older adults. I teach a literature course for four Wednesdays in July, two hours at a time. They also have fall, spring and winter classes. I’ll be doing that this summer and will also teach some other time during the year. So, I’ll still do some teaching … but I won’t have papers to grade. I do love to teach, but I won’t mind not grading papers.
Carol and I will travel more. Two of our three sons live in the San Francisco area. So, I’ll go see them – and the grandchildren. I’ll do some reading; I might do some writing.
We have a house in Heber Springs that Carol has planned. She just loves it there, and so do I. So, we’ll spend more time there. It is powered by solar energy. One of our sons works in that field and helped us get it all set up. I plan to stay busy and active, but to set my own schedule. I asked Bob Meriwether ’49 when he retired what the best part of retirement was and he said being able to set his own schedule. I’m looking forward to that.
Q. Why are you retiring now?
A. We have outstanding young faculty in our department who are experienced teachers. I feel good about the department. I feel it is as strong as it has ever been. It is a modern and future-looking department.
I feel good about retiring now because I think the department is in a good place and that I’m leaving what was entrusted to me in good hands.
I feel so blessed and so lucky. I’ve been fortunate to be able to be here all this time and to have these opportunities. Not many people get to work in their ideal job as long as I have.
Odyssey Endowment honors Chappell
Chuck Chappell’s Last Lecture during Alumni Weekend ’10 ended with a surprise announcement.
Former classmates, family and friends worked behind the scenes to establish the Dr. Charles M. Chappell Odyssey Endowment in honor of the retiring English professor and member of the Class of ’64. The group collected more than 50 gifts totaling $54,235. The Chappell Odyssey Endowment will provide financial support for students and faculty members to pursue Odyssey experiences related to the study of English. The funds generated by the endowment will be awarded competitively through the Odyssey Program, with preference being given to English majors.
Simon D. Bookout ’64 (right) and Robert D. Cabe ’63 co-chaired the Chappell Odyssey Endowment Committee. Other members include W. Christopher Barrier ’64, Jack L. Blackshear ’64, W. Dent Gitchel ’63, Cyril Hollingsworth, Diane Haynie Lyons ’65, Ark Monroe ’64, Hilda Hancock Malpica ’64, and Michael V. Hutchison, associate vice president for Development at Hendrix.
To learn more about how you can contribute to the Chappell Endowment, please contact the Office of Advancement at 501.450.1223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
View the video of Chuck Chappell's Last Lecture from Alumni Weekend 2010.