UTA English Obituary: Emory Estes

When I moved into the Chair’s office in the far corner of 203 Carlisle Hall, in 2002, the first person to visit me in my new digs was Emory Estes. I was barricaded behind the Chair’s desk, staring blankly at the blank wall in front of me. “TIM!” said Emory. “I was sitting in that VERY spot when I had my HEART attack!” Thanks, Emory, I thought. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

Many of my conversations with Emory in those years revolved around death, always his own. “I am about to depart,” Emory would tell me. “Soon I will be part of the force that through the green fuse that drives the flower. The noble and virtuous cancer has made an end of me.” (Everything with Emory was “noble and virtuous.”) This was back around the turn of the century, understand. Emory so routinely announced he was dying that I was, naturally, dead certain that he would outlive me. When I saw his death notice in the Star-Telegram, I was sure it was hyperbole.

Emory Estes taught at UTA for fifty years or so – or would have, if it had been called UTA when he got here. It was a two-year school then, one of the jewels of the state junior-college system, and Emory was a young MA with an irrepressible presence and an absolute, lifelong love of teaching. His first office was shared with seven other junior faculty (well, so he said; allowing for Emory, let’s make that two or three). It was most notable for having been repurposed later on into a second-floor women’s restroom in Ransom Hall.

I would be insincere if I extolled Emory as a distinguished “researcher.” He published little in his field of training (19th-century American Literature). He was always going to write the big book about Robert Burns, and we always knew he never would. But you know what? Times change, and we change in them. Emory went back to school, while teaching full-time here, to earn his PhD at TCU. In those days, earning a PhD in itself demonstrated that you had serious scholarly credentials. As it should! Nowadays, junior faculty come aboard with a PhD, six articles, a dissertation under consideration at a university press, and a “second book project” confidently announced. These young teachers aren’t any smarter or more learned than Emory Estes; they’re just living in a different century.

When I became Graduate Advisor in the late 90s, I was struck by how many prospective grad students had become inspired to earn their MAs or PhDs by being students of Emory Estes. And during those years, many, many recommendation letters for successful graduate students came from Emory. I learned to trust his judgment – admittedly based more on his reading of a student’s character and dedication than their adherence to the most recent theoretical shibboleths – as one of the best indicators of prospective academic success.

During my brief term as department Chair, Emory said to me: “Tim, you have to understand about being Chair: you CAN’T have any FRIENDS any more! You have to make decisions about these people’s careers. They can’t like you. You can’t like THEM!” It was good advice about supervisory management, but it was oddly ironic. Emory Estes always had myriad friends. Everybody continued to respect and like him, despite his peccadillos, despite the fact that he’d made tenure-or-nay decisions about so many of us.

Emory had a sharply-defined sense of himself and his perquisites, but he was an extraordinarily generous senior colleague. One of my favorite stories about him can perhaps be left to its teller, but it concerns a research area that one of our faculty subsequently developed into a world-renowned speciality. One day, Emory (the story goes) said to one of our colleagues, “YOU can teach a course on {thus-and-so}, can’t you?” Matter of fact, Emory had the strongest of personal claims on the same course material. But he cheerfully, in fact insistently, consigned it to his junior colleage – and the rest is history.

Emory persists for me in a haze of his inimitable cologne and his proclivity to clutch his male colleagues on the shoulderblades – and to hug and kiss his female ones. Those of us young enough to be his son have long since been trained out of such predilections. But he never meant the slightest harm by it. He was one of those tactile fellow-workers of whom, as the wife of one of my mentors once told me, and I know Dorothy Estes would concur: “I never worried. He never strayed, not in more than half a century.” Physical contact is good for us mammals. I sometimes wish that I could now be half as uninhibited as Emory.

Emory was chair of the English Department at UTA for 12 years, longer than any of us except for the mythical Duncan Robinson. After his heart attack in the line of duty, Emory’s admin not-so-subtly switched out the departmental coffeemaker from caffeinated to non-. Everyone complied meekly, though the quality of our 8am lectures may have suffered for a while. For many years, Emory’s admin just as unsubtly shielded him from irritating decisions. When a faculty member (in those days of paper) submitted a suggestion that his admin didn’t want him to hear about, the admin would impale it on “The Spike,” one of those dangerous office items more typically reserved for obsolete restaurant checks. Emory didn’t know the half of what went on – except of course, he always knew more than one-and-a-half of what was brewing, and acquiesced in his own protection.

Emory retired – well, at least announced his retirement – about ten years ago; he went on to teach on “phased” retirement for several more years, and when at last fully retired, he was literally the “dean” of the UTA faculty, the professor who’d been here before anybody else was.

I never talked with Emory about spirituality; I don’t to this day know what his religion was, if he had any. I do know that for fifty years, he began every class with “Good Morning, Scholars!” and called every test he gave an “Opportunity.” 1960s liberal eyewash, I hear you cry, and perhaps you’re right. But what a wonderful way to accentuate the positive about academic evaluation. So I think of Emory’s death as he taught students to think about difficult passages in their intellectual careers. Wherever you are now, Emory, I am sure you are making the most of this Opportunity.

4 thoughts on “UTA English Obituary: Emory Estes

  1. I see by my father’s old Arlington State College yearbook that Emory was teaching when my dad was studying here. I don’t know whether he taught my father, and I don’t recall that I was in his classes when I was doing an English minor in the early 1980s. But I can tell you that his wife, Dorothy, sent me down to the Waco Tribune-Herald to get my first professional job, so there was good work being done by both sides of the family.

  2. I was in a Poe/Hawthorne lit class taught by Emory. His “Good morning, Scholars!” was a rousing way to start the class. We always knew when he was in the area — his booming voice could be heard reverberating throughout the building.

  3. “Splendid!” That’s the word Emory would use to describe Tim’s essay. My debt to Emory is substantial: in 1971 Emory supported me when more than a few faculty were not so pleased about this 26-year old outsider addition to the department; in 1972 Emory (a tribally enrolled Cherokee) cornered me in front of 201 Carlisle Hall and asked me to teach American Indian literatures; and in 1973 he nominated me for early promotion (initially against my wishes). He had a splendid impact on my career.

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