By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English
Dr. John McDermott, a Fresno State professor emeritus of English, passed away on June 15. He was 89.
A specialist in early English studies, McDermott — known by friends and colleagues as “Jack” — was an expert on English author Geoffrey Chaucer and global literatures. He taught courses in literature and composition at Fresno State from 1969 to 1996.
According to Dr. Lisa Weston, professor of English and former department chair, McDermott served as a mentor and role model to many incoming faculty. He offered inquisitive feedback on their research and more significantly became a go-to adviser on pedagogy.
“Jack was a trusted and valued guide for younger colleagues,” Weston said, “providing us with institutional memory and the mental maps we needed to plot our way through the landscape of University politics.”
Howard Hendrix, a retired English lecturer, said McDermott always made time to talk ideas with colleagues. He and McDermott shared a love of the frequently anthologized James Baldwin story “Sonny’s Blues.” The story had long struck a chord with Hendrix, he said, because he saw in the narrator’s relationship with his troubled brother, Sonny, something very much like his relationship with his own brother.
But McDermott approached teaching the story from his deep background as a jazz guy, Hendrix said.
“He told me how, when he taught the story, he always brought into class the relevant jazz recordings and the history of jazz, particularly the history and music of Charlie Parker and bebop,” Hendrix said. “He did this in order to contextualize ‘Sonny’s Blues’ in terms of the popular culture of the 1950s when Baldwin wrote it. The sources and specifics Jack sprinkled into our conversations shaped forever the way I taught the story.”
Michael Clifton, a retired English lecturer, for several years shared an office with McDermott and Peter Everwine, another English professor emeritus, back when the department was housed in the now-gone San Ramon buildings.
While McDermott had his serious, academic side, Clifton said, he also had a more relaxed and animated side, “telling stories with a lopsided grin and even acting them out a little, leaning forward in his seat to do so.”
“Since the offices in San Ramon 4 were tiny, we were almost never in there all together,” Clifton said. “But I remember with great pleasure Jack telling stories to Pete and me, and Pete laughing one of his wonderful belly laughs in reaction, which made Jack even more animated. It only happened a couple of times, but I remember the few it did with great pleasure.”
Dr. Laurel Hendrix, professor of English, said McDermott embodied many of the most admirable qualities of longtime faculty. In particular, his reliable encouragement and morale-boosting of fellow faculty’s research was widely appreciated.
“Jack frequently taught the Chaucer course,” she said, “and we had a number of engaging and spirited discussions. When I published an article in the journal Exemplaria, on Chaucer’s ‘The Man of Law’s Tale,’ Jack was the first to ask for and read the article. His responses, and even criticisms, meant a lot to me.”
Hendrix said McDermott was one of the few elder faculty who participated in a Medieval and Renaissance reading group organized by younger faculty. Participants in the group, active in the English Department in the 1990s, would select a critical book, read it, and then meet monthly to discuss it.
Hosting duties circulated among the participants, and Hendrix vividly remembers the meetup hosted by McDermott shortly after he and his wife, Trude, had relocated to the foothills near Coarsegold in 1991.
“Besides the animated discussion and the elegant hors d’oeuvres we came to count on when Jack hosted meetings, I remember him showing us around the new house and outbuildings,” Hendrix said. “Jack was particularly proud of a new studio built for Trude, where she could pursue her art. Even now, this memory is a source of joy.”
John J. McDermott was born in 1933 in Buffalo, New York. His father, Thomas A. McDermott, was an accountant; his mother, Elizabeth Black McDermott, was an office professional.
McDermott grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin; Detroit, Michigan; and Hayward, California. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame University, a master’s degree in contemporary literature from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in English literature from UCLA.
In 1958 while at Notre Dame, he met Trude Croxall McDermott, who was studying art and sociology at St. Mary’s College in the same town. According to Trude, they met on a blind date. “Jack had a magnetic presence,” she said.
Jack went to Columbia and they enjoyed time together as a young couple in New York, Trude McDermott said. While Jack worked on his master’s degree, she attended business school and worked at an advertising agency on Madison Avenue.
They then married and moved to Southern California, as Jack started his doctoral studies. Jack’s mother was a “life saver” during this time, Trude said, as his parents invited them to live in an apartment over their garage in Sherman Oaks. Jack and Trude became parents to three children.
After earning his doctorate, Jack got his first teaching job at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, where the family spent seven years as part of a tightly knit community that orbited around the small liberal arts school.
The McDermotts arrived in Fresno in 1969, at the height of campus unrest during the civil rights movement.
“Arriving at Fresno State at that time was such a shock to the system,” Trude McDermott said. “There was so much going on. It was exciting and it was stressful, and the English Department, in particular, was at the heart of it.”
Trude McDermott said her husband loved teaching and was always enthusiastic about sharing his expertise. His published research included articles in Renaissance Quarterly, as well as an article on Stephen Crane’s novel “The Red Badge of Courage.”
She remembered Jack would ask his students to use tape recorders in order to practice and get the feel of Middle English, the language’s form used from 1150 to 1470. He co-taught a popular European cinema course with Michael G. Tate, another English professor emeritus. The class was open to the public, and alumni and friends still reminisce about attending, Trude McDermott said.
After retirement, in addition to serving on the Arts and Humanities Advisory Board from 2005 to 2009, Jack also spent time working on environmental justice issues.
Jack McDermott is survived by his wife of 63 years, Trude McDermott; daughter Elizabeth and her spouse, Michael Golob; son John Jr.; and son James and his spouse, Nicholas Andrade.
Memorial services will be private. Arrangements will be made by the Neptune Society of Central California.