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The outline of a man

When you are very young, it’s hard to appreciate a man’s total worth. You know so little about life, about anything, that comprehending a more completed human is nigh impossible.

I considered my Auburn English professor Charlie Rose to be “cool,” in the vernacular of that simpler day. That’s about all I knew: He was cool. I didn’t know then that he loved fencing, classic movies and jazz piano. I didn’t know he was a Russian linguist during the Korean War. I had enough sense, however, to find him interesting. At the time, that was important.

Charlie Rose held office hours in a booth at Jack’s hamburger restaurant instead of in the high-rise Haley Center that was institutional and beige. I loved that departure. Charlie — at his insistence, we called him Charlie, not Dr. Rose — made himself available where the coffee was black and hot and the cups big enough to hold a little something extra.

He was an engaging teacher, and the creative writing course for which I had him in the 1970s was over too soon. I may be wrong about this — memory can work tricks — but I don’t recall a book assigned for the class. Charlie Rose would read to us, for us, passages from some work that illustrated his point, and we’d listen. Then we wrote. And Charlie Rose reacted. In that way we improved. It was pearls before swine, but he was too fine and kind to consider us swine.

I remember to this day tips he gave me about dialogue. Turns out a lot of dialogue is “understood,” and doesn’t have to be “expressed.” He improved my short stories with a few deft marks of his pen and a quiet suggestion or two. I’d leave that restaurant thinking I might have some kind of future with words, or at least some kind of future. And the ability to give an insecure kid that feeling might be the best definition of teaching that there is.

I learned more about Charlie Rose much later after mentioning in a newspaper column that he and an unforgettable Auburn French professor, Alexander Posniak, were two of my favorite teachers. Charlie Rose responded, with a beautiful letter rife with music references. He played for years in a jazz band, another little something I’d not known.

Mailed along with the letter was an amazing gift — half a dozen paper doll soldiers, elaborately detailed Napoleonic officers Charlie had drawn with pen and ink, then filled in with water color. He had cut them out, mounted them on cardboard and fitted each with a handmade stand. Turns out he had drawn hundreds of the accurate and armed men, most of which were lost in a house fire.

The last time I saw Charlie Rose was at a party, where he walked in supported by a cane and an adoring cadre of former English students. Life had lobbed a few at Charlie, but somehow he remained undiminished. In the decades since I’d learned from Charlie, he had retired after teaching for 34 years, published dozens of short stories in literary quarterlies, written four screenplays, been a Tennessee Williams Scholar at a Sewanee conference and a Hospice Volunteer of the Year. He wrote a book based on his hospice experience.

In his obituary last week, they said Charlie Rose was entertaining nursing-home residents with his jazz piano until he died there at 80.

I think it says something about a man if you admire the outline but are still filling in the details when he dies. He was dimensional, like one of his own cardboard soldiers, and the colors that washed the man were vibrant and true.   

(To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.)