Professor Jim Vest Bids Adieu
By Marci Deshaies Woodmansee ’90
When Professor Jim Vest was considering joining the faculty of Rhodes College—then Southwestern at Memphis—back in 1973, the beautiful campus with its Gothic quadrangles and tower, vaulted arches, shady alcoves and sun-drenched grounds quickly established itself as the perfect fit. He laughingly admits that Memphis itself, on the other hand, was a different matter.
“The climate!” the Virginia native exclaims. “My wife Nancy and I are both from the East Coast. The topography and the mindset here seemed very different, and coming from the mountains, the heat was hard to get used to.”
The lure of the college, however, proved to be irresistible. So 36 years ago this summer, Vest said goodbye to friends at Duke University, where he had completed his master’s and Ph.D. in French, and headed south to become an assistant professor at the smaller, lesser-known college in Memphis. When then-Rhodes professors Emmett Anderson and Donald Tucker invited Vest to join the staff, the French section consisted of only two faculty members, as was the case for the other languages. All of the teachers in the department were male, and there were no opportunities for students to minor in a language. Professor Vest settled into a cozy office in Rhodes Tower and began to make his mark. But this summer, he will pack up his treasured books and French mementos, as he retires from the office he has called home for more than three decades.
While Rhodes has grown exponentially in both size and stature since 1973, Vest says the spirit that has made the college special is largely unchanged.
“One of my favorite memories of my time at Rhodes will be just sitting under a tree with students and having an informal discussion,” he says. “Walking the perimeter of campus has always been enjoyable to me—there’s a mulberry tree near the Charles Place gate that I’ve always loved—and if you need to talk something out here, that’s a good way to do it. You can still sit down and talk to students at the drop of a hat.”
During his tenure at Rhodes, which included 16 years as head of the French program, Vest played an instrumental role in the growth of the department. Now of course, students are encouraged to minor and/or double major in a variety of subjects. There are four full-time faculty in French, and most of the modern languages faculty members are female. Rhodes now sends a student to Paris every year to teach in a French high school, while a French student is sent to Memphis to teach here. Professor Vest initiated the Maymester in France program, which became an invaluable cultural opportunity for faculty to guide students in exploring the country, and he helped organize a Meeman Center trip to southern France for adult learners interested in French culture.
Vest also coordinated the founding of the Rhodes International House, a living community for students who wished to experience intercultural learning. He taught all levels of French and all levels of the Search course. He created courses in Film Studies, which became a special passion for him, along with several interdisciplinary courses linking music, art and literature. He coordinated the language department’s WLYX radio programs, “World View” and “Colloquy.” He received numerous awards for exceptional teaching and for 20 years coordinated a college-wide faculty forum called Topics in Teaching.
“That program was designed to help fellow professors improve their teaching, and it was always a real thrill,” he says. “We’d discuss all sorts of pedagogical topics and examine trends in teaching. The language dorms we initiated in the late ’80s were also a lot of fun. They eventually had to give way to the townhouses Rhodes built, but we still have corridors devoted to immersion, and they’re important because they afford professors and students the chance to be together for normal conversations in other languages.”
Professor Vest’s wife Nancy has been a willing assistant and official or unofficial collaborator in much of his work. The two have traveled abroad frequently for research, and plan to continue doing so in his retirement. Vest’s recent work includes the recovery and publication of several lost pieces by French poet Maurice de Guérin. He has also published widely on subjects as diverse as the French face of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, European Romanticism and the French influence on the work of Alfred Hitchcock. But he says the best answer to the question, “What do you teach?” remains the response, “I teach students.” He describes himself as a learner among learners, and an enthusiastic scholar among a community of devoted, dedicated scholars.
Throughout his career, Vest says there are three essentials that have remained critical to his teaching.
“Number one is an abiding, evolving passion for the subject matter,” he explains. “The second essential element is a real affection for students, and a desire and ability to find out what the individual student needs. Finally—and this is perhaps the most important point—you have to be willing to grow and learn with your students. I guess this explains why I’ve always enjoyed teaching 101 courses throughout my career. It’s always different and rewarding.”
According to associate professor Shira Malkin, Vest’s colleague in the French department for the past 19 years, Vest is recognized as one of the most upbeat and encouraging professors on campus.
“His highest praise when students try their best is a cheerful ‘bien fait!’ (well done),” she says. “Students love it.”
Vest’s colleague David Sick, associate professor of Greek and Roman studies, echoes those sentiments.
“I will miss Jim’s presence at Rhodes,” he says. “I think his two strongest qualities are his collegiality and his commitment to the liberal arts. In nearly all of my experiences with Jim, he has kept a positive attitude, noted the best qualities of his colleagues, worked to find common ground for consensus and tried to move discussions forward. And Jim has not only taught at a liberal arts institution, but has also modeled the benefits of a liberal arts education. His intellectual interests do not lie solely within French literature. Rather he is a lifelong learner in many fields of the humanities and beyond. The commitment to lifelong learning is a part of the Rhodes vision, and Jim’s broad intellectual investigation provides an example of such a lifelong pursuit.”
Vest has always delighted in staying connected with students and alumni, be it in Europe or the U.S., no matter what the circumstances. As he explains with a laugh, he has been privileged to connect with students at weddings, in Frisbee tossing, in hospitals, in childbirth in France, in worship, in trouble and in joy.
“A defining moment in my teaching experience came during our first Maymester in France,” he says. “One of our alums was there working at the Chamber of Commerce in Paris, and he and his wife were expecting their first child. Back then, we didn’t have housing with families, we all stayed in a student hotel together. Nancy and I were sort of their adoptive parents at that point. The time came for the alum’s wife to deliver, and I can still clearly remember him bounding up the stairs afterward to share the news, all of it in French. That was a very special moment. His wife wrote us recently, in fact, reminiscing about that year. Those are the kinds of memories that connect you across decades.”
Vest’s passion for French cinema has grown during his years at Rhodes, and his knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject will be difficult to replace on campus. “Jim seems to have a mysterious connection with the local film powers that I have never been able to figure out,” says Professor Malkin. “I’ve marveled at the way he always seems to know before everyone else when a good French film will be showing at the Malco. His rallying the troops for the love of French cinema will surely be missed.”
Vest plans to stay busy during retirement, researching, studying and collaborating with Nancy on another book.
“I’m still interested in comparative literature—the Shakespearean connection to French literature, for example—and further research on Hitchcock,” he says. “That area hasn’t been thoroughly explored yet. I ended this year with a Hitchcock-Truffaut course that was just a hoot. I’m also working on some personal projects with Nancy, including a memoir of our time and travels in France. And we hope to visit Quebec, if we can’t make it to France this year.”
The Rhodes community will be happy to know that Professor Vest and his wife aren’t planning to move away. While the Vests found the college to be a perfect fit from the beginning, it’s important to note that Memphis and the Mid-South grew on them, too.
“We have enjoyed exploring the Wolf River and Reelfoot Lake and camping in Arkansas and Mississippi,” Vest explains. “And of course, we’ve made an awful lot of friends. What I will miss the most about Rhodes is the daily contact with the students. It’s time to start fresh, but it’s definitely bittersweet. One of my students told me that we were going to have to have a Search reunion at our house. I said that sounded great. And it was.”
It’s a safe bet that Professor Vest will find a way to remain a presence on the campus he loves, and his students, colleagues and friends will probably have a few ideas of where to look for him when they need him in the future. The mulberry tree near the Charles Place gate would be a good place to start.
"I had professor Vest in the fall of 86. I always enjoyed the energy he brought to class and the stories of his daughter learning French." - Rick Eskildsen