New Hendrix president likes barbecue, grits and Godzilla

This story was originally published on June 8, 2014, in Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

By Tammy Keith

Bill Tsutsui of Conway crushes the stereotype of a stuffy college president just by virtue of being a Godzilla expert.

The newly hired Hendrix College president, Tsutsui (pronounced suit-sooie) is the author of several scholarly books, but his best-seller is Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters.

"It's the easiest thing I think I've ever written," he said of the 2004 book. "It just came out of me in six weeks."

On this morning in May, the president said he was in a "house full of boxes and unhappy cats," but he was content to be in Conway.

In some of those boxes were the 50-year-old Japanese-American's collection of Godzilla figures — probably "a couple of hundred," he said — all but one of which his wife, Marjorie Swann, makes him keep at the office.

The one Godzilla figure in their home is "a collector's-item tin toy, and it makes a scratchy Godzilla noise," he said. He got it as a gift in the 1970s in Japan.

He said his fascination with Godzilla started when he was a child.

"I grew up loving it. I, like a lot of people, just wanted to be Godzilla. I love the idea of walking through big cities and watching them explode. As a kid, I remember wanting to be big. I want to be that monster. I remember watching that first movie. It's a guy in the rubber suit, you know? It's easy for a kid to imagine himself or herself being Godzilla," he said.

Another attraction to the movies was his heritage.

"Because I was Japanese-American growing up in a place where there were almost no Japanese-American families, Godzilla was something I could relate to that was fun and cool and my friends thought was fun and cool. It was just darn fun. I have a connection to [movies] because of my Japanese heritage."

So ensconced is Tsutsui's reputation as a Godzilla authority that he influenced the new movie.

"The guy who did the story, Dave Callaham, emailed me. He said, ‘Professor, I read your book. I understand what you're saying, and we want to remain true to the spirit of the original Godzilla.'"

Tsutsui gave the film an A-minus.

"I loved it. It could have been much worse," he said, laughing. "I thought it was going to be junk. My wife, who is not a Godzilla fan at all, said, ‘That movie was pretty good. I'd come back with you, if you wanted.' The monster was great; the fight scenes were really good."

The Harvard-Princeton-Oxford graduate came to Conway directly from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he was dean of the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, the largest of seven colleges and schools at SMU.

Hendrix has its reputation, along with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, to thank for landing him.

"I'd driven though Arkansas once" while going from Dallas to Memphis, he said. "We love Crystal Bridges. I tell you, we've been twice, and the geography in the Ozarks — it's just so beautiful up there," he said.

A search consultant called him and said, "Bill, I think you might be interested in this job in Arkansas," Tsutsui said.

"I put my hand over the phone and said [to my wife], ‘What do you think about Arkansas?' She said, ‘Yeah, that'd be fine.' We had a positive impression of it, and I knew people who had gone to Hendrix; a couple of people who had gone to Hendrix were working at SMU. The reputation of Hendrix precedes it as a very rigorous academic place."

Tsutsui knows about rigorous academics.

An only child, he was born in New York City. His family moved to Bryan, Texas, when he was 6. His parents — his mother was Caucasian and his father Japanese — were scientists and faculty members at Texas A&M University. His father died when Tsutsui was in high school; his mother died in 1999.

"I was spoiled by my mother and grandmother; my father was very traditional. He wanted me to bring home good math grades," Tsutsui said.

His parents traveled to academic conferences and took him.

"I was real lucky as a kid, although I didn't realize it. By the time I was 15, I had been to Russia, Japan and Europe, hanging around with other chemists and biochemists."

He was also just a regular kid.

"I liked to play baseball with my friends in the summer. I was never any good at it whatsoever," he said, laughing. "I was one of those kids who would hang out with the other kids on the street. I also loved to read," he said.

Tsutsui loved to read The Wall Street Journal, and he said he went to Harvard in 1981 thinking he was going to be an economist and go into business.

"At a certain point, it was all about numbers … and I really like people, so that wasn't for me," he said.

"My economics teacher has gone on to be finance minister of the Philippines," Tsutsui said. The two have exchanged emails, "and he remembered me," Tsutsui said, somewhat incredulously.

One man changed his life. Ezra Vogel was head of the East Asian studies major, and Tsutsui got involved in the program, just for fun. He'd visited relatives in Japan.

"I thought I'd get it out of my system," he said.

"[Vogel] wrote a book called Japan Is No. 1 in the 1970s, a huge bestseller in Japan," Tsutsui said. "In Japan, he can't walk down the street without people recognizing him; he's that popular and famous. In this country, nobody knows who he is. I found him an inspirational teacher, and he really cared about me."

Tsutsui majored in East Asian studies at Harvard, and he went to Oxford University's Corpus Christi College on a Marshall Scholarship to study Japanese history.

"The best thing about Oxford is that's where I met my wife," who is Canadian, he said.

"We met at the first drinks party. We were in the same college at Oxford and the only two people at this party who weren't drinking alcohol. We said, where else can a Canadian girl meet a Texas guy but at Oxford, England?"

He received a master's of letters in Japanese history from Oxford.

Tsutsui went to Yale because he just knew he wanted to be a lawyer. Wrong again.

He lasted six weeks.

"I hated it from the first class. It wasn't like people were mean to me. I just thought, ‘I don't want to do this. I don't want to be involved with people's problems.' You have to be able to fight for either side."

Tsutsui said that's one reason he's always liked Godzilla: "He's a hero; he fights for the right side."

"I dropped out. The registrar couldn't remember anyone who had wanted a refund on their tuition before, but they did — good for them. I worked on my Japanese language. I didn't grow up speaking Japanese, one of my great regrets in life. Dad was an immigrant and had a funny accent," Tsutsui said. He wanted his son to speak proper English.

Tsutsui got a master's in history in 1990 from Princeton University and a doctorate in history in 1995. He became a professor of history at the University of Kansas, where he stayed 17 years.

"I actually really liked Kansas," he said. "One thing I like about Conway is that it reminds me of Lawrence, Kansas, when I arrived in 1993, a college town with good momentum, growing."

His experience at Kansas was broad.

"I did like every darn job," he said, laughing again. "I served on every committee in that university. I knew where every skeleton was buried, and that's a great thing."

He was department chair and associate dean for international studies in the College of Arts and Sciences and founding executive director of the Kansas Consortium for Teaching about Asia in Kansas University's Center for East Asian Studies.

Then, it was back to his old stomping grounds — Texas.

"After 17 years, Marjorie and I felt like we needed a change of scene. This opportunity came up at SMU to be dean of the liberal arts college down there. I was eager to go to private education after almost 20 years at a public institution."

He said he and his wife loved Dallas, and they weren't looking to move when the call came about Hendrix.

It didn't take him long to get involved in the Faulkner County community. Tsutsui worked with Hendrix United Methodist Charities for eight hours cleaning up fields in the aftermath of the April 27 Vilonia tornado.

"It was heartbreaking, really. It was at once heartbreaking and inspiring. I was so impressed with the large group that came out from Hendrix — staff, students, administrators, and they brought their families.

"What really impressed me going to Vilonia was how important the churches were in the cleanup, but, you know, the government wasn't all over the place. … Churches had really rallied and were support networks for people," he said.

Tsutsui took some detours along the way, but he said he has found his niche.

"I love what I do because I get to work with a lot of different people. While there are a lot of challenging issues, you're working with smart people, so you're working with some of the best minds coming together to solve issues," he said.

One of his goals is to raise the national profile of Hendrix, "which I really feel is one of the hidden jewels of this state. People of Arkansas should really be proud to have it in their backyard."

He said for Arkansas to achieve all it wants in terms of the economy and education, "it needs a place like Hendrix. Hendrix is really something special."

Tsutsui, something of a barbecue aficionado, has another goal — to taste barbecue in all 75 counties in the state.

"The alumni office is setting it up where I'm going to meet with alumni in every county in Arkansas to have barbecue with them," he said. "I'm a Texan, so I have very set ideas on barbecue. Just getting me to eat pork barbecue has been a challenge."

As a Southerner, he's also partial to biscuits and grits.

"I could eat biscuits and grits forever," he said.

Tsutsui and his wife, who will teach poetry in the Hendrix English department, are planning to build a home in The Village at Hendrix. Meanwhile, they're getting settled in the president's home on Winfield Street, and he's arranged the army of Godzilla figures in his office.

"It's not going to look like a usual president's office. I think they're a little scared," Tsutsui said.