My Teacher, Mentor and Friend

A Rhodes scholar remembers John Rassias.

I first met John Rassias when he traveled to Bourges, France, with our language study abroad (LSA) group in the spring of 1970. His job, I learned, was to provide general supervision and teach us the French language in the dynamic, total immersion, rapid-fire way that he invented for the Peace Corps and then instituted at Dartmouth. In class John asked us to free ourselves so we might embrace the language and the culture. Somehow, both seemed much easier for all of us in the afternoon class sessions after lunch and wine with our respective host families.

It became readily apparent to all upon meeting him that two of John’s most powerful, endearing and disarming characteristics were his sensitivity to his own humanness and his willingness to not just acknowledge but to actively pursue his connectedness to other people. The force of his personality and his willingness to risk true intimacy caused him to stand head and shoulders above most of those around him. Anyone who knew John knows he focused on and drew out the significance of the seemingly simplest things: a passing glance between—or a brief brush of flesh against flesh by—two total strangers as they pass each other on a crowded street. John perceived, and was always quick to share with others, the essence of these seemingly inconsequential happenings that caused participants to reflect on their possible significance long after their occurrence.

In those Bourges days I fancied myself a budding poet. Indeed, that is how John and I first established the connection. In class one day John pointed at me in the manner prescribed by the Rassias Method and asked, “What is the most refreshing drink you ever tasted?” “Water,” the poet in me responded without missing a beat. The dialogue continued. While the rest of the class sat wondering what the hell was going on, John, in his typical way of handling such things, acted as if my answers were the most wonderful sounds he had ever heard: “Ah, mon Dieu! Bravo! Magnifique! Incroyable!” he yelled as he made a sweeping gesture with outstretched arms to grab his heart as he walked away to re-engage with the rest of the class. 

In addition to further, similar exchanges in class thereafter, John took a real interest in me and started to participate with me in events arranged by my French host family. These totally unanticipated encounters and exchanges were amazingly liberating for—and greatly appreciated by—an intense, shy, wary almost-20-year-old who had come to Dartmouth after spending his last two years of high school in Hanover as a participant in the Dresden A Better Chance Program. They began the transition of our relationship from teacher-student to mentor-protégé and friends. Most significantly, these encounters and exchanges led me to become a member of the wonderful Rassias family, where I felt completely free to just be me!

John came by one day to meet my French parents, M. and Mme. DuPlaix, and their kids, and instantly became one of the family. He returned soon thereafter with his wife, Mary, for dinner and again just before my departure at the end of the program to help me negotiate selling my moped back to M. DuPlaix. John, Mary and their kids were also on hand to celebrate the christening of the DuPlaix’s youngest daughter. In return, John and I invited the Duplaixes to share a truly American event: a barbecue, which we staged on a riverbank in the country.

My assignment was to light the charcoal and cook the meat. I recall my ignorance of the method used to ignite lump charcoal and my inability to accomplish the task in a timely fashion without starter fluid. Finally, I recall everyone’s frustration with the slow pace of the food’s preparation, which led me to put the meat on the grill while the fire was too hot—and scorch it.

John’s ringing words to the group that afternoon were: “Now I know why people put sauce on barbecue: to cover up the burns!” Since I have always loved to cook and had shared this interest with John, I suspect he simply assumed that, being from the South and having talked so much about barbecue, I must surely know how to cook it.

John often said that one’s soul resides in the pursuit that sparks one’s deepest passion. I discovered later that that little excursion into the French countryside had ignited an obsession within me to cook barbecue correctly. I found the soul of which John spoke when I opened the Jesse James Pit Bar B. Q. Restaurant in College Park, Georgia, on December 27, 1995. This wouldn’t have happened without John.

While in Paris during spring break of our LSA program I was offered a job at Haynes Restaurant, a soul food restaurant owned by an uncle of my friend Bill McCurine ’69. Because of my interest in cooking I was inclined to accept it. I mentioned this to John and sought his advice regarding whether I should work at the restaurant or travel Europe on a Eurorail pass. He urged me to travel—great guidance!—and it was a wonderfully enjoyable and enlightening summer.

Peter Maeck ’71, a member of the group that accompanied John to Bourges for his initial teaching assignment there in the spring of 1969, had returned with our group in the spring of 1970 as our drill instructor and resident playwright. Although I had not acted on stage since grade school, John and Peter selected me to play the leading role in Peter’s play, Le Bucheron, a piece we performed for our host families and other members of the community in Bourges and again in a theater-in-the-round setting fashioned by John and Peter in the Choate dorms common room after we returned to Dartmouth in the fall of 1970.

During a heated exchange in one scene with Gunnar Klintberg ’72 back in Hanover, I forgot myself and yelled, “Man!” in response to an argument he was making. “Magnifique!” John yelled from the audience. This misstatement, he later explained, was a marvelous reflection of how engrossed I had become in the role, which was made all the better, he said, because it sounded as if I’d said, “Merde,” a French expletive. 

John continued to mentor and nurture me. He was always available for advice and counsel, no matter the issue: whether to become a student drill instructor in the French department or apply for a Marshall or Rhodes scholarship, how to navigate the scholarship interview process successfully after having applied. I recall, in particular, the marathon sessions with John and the late Anthony Harley ’71 long past sundown during the days just before my scholarship interviews. These mock sessions, while sometimes very frustrating for all involved, served to ensure that the only question asked during the actual interviews that I had not already encountered was: “Why did King Lear’s daughter, Cordelia, die?”

“First, take the time to pause and embrace the question, and then answer,” John would always remind me. “Respond always with candor and complete honesty. If the question is about something you know nothing about, say so up front. You will be dealing with very smart people. Don’t ever try to ‘wing it.’ ” To drive his point home John recounted the unpleasant plight of an interviewee who, in similar circumstances, had claimed to have read a book when he had not. 

“Have you ever read a book titled 100 Years of Art History?” the interviewer asked.

“Yes,” replied the interviewee.

“What’s it about?” the interviewer then asked.

“One hundred years of art history, of course,” the interviewee proffered as his only feeble reply.

“After that, of course, any chance the poor kid had was gone—gone com-plete-ly,” John said as he raised his tie with his right hand as if to hang himself and drew the index finger of his left hand across his throat as if to slit it.

“So sad,” John continued, as he furrowed his brow, released his tie and began rubbing his hands together.

Many years later John called me in Atlanta to ask if it would be okay to use my name in language exercises in a French textbook he was writing. “Of course, John! It would be a great honor, indeed,” I replied immediately. The book’s publisher shot down that idea on the grounds that my name was not “French-sounding” enough to be that of a character in a French language textbook. “ ‘Jes-se’ not French-sounding enough?” John and I wondered. Neither of us ever saw a problem.

John left almost everyone who knew him for any length of time—especially his students—with at least one French quote providing a life-long treasured perspective on themselves or life in general. Many who spoke at the reception after John’s funeral recited their favorites. As they did so I quietly imitated a slightly altered version of John’s poetic dramatization of a passage from Blaise Pascal’s Les Pensees, which roughly translates to, “Man is but a reed, the most feeble (thing) in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself in order to crush him; a vapor, a drop of water, suffices to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would yet be more noble than that which kills him, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.”

Before graduation John gave me a copy of Les Pensees in French, inscribed, “A Jesse, lui aussi a des pensées sublimes” (“To Jesse, he also has sublime thoughts”).

I have long since forgotten much of the French I learned to speak and write while at Dartmouth, but I will never forget the totally affirming love extended to me and the life lessons taught me by John during my time there and since.

While I am very grateful for the many wonderful teachings he offered inside and outside the classroom about the French language and culture—the wonderful insights that he shared with us about Candide’s “best of all possible worlds” worldview, in particular, and the perspectives offered by Pascal, Rousseau and Voltaire in general—I will always be most grateful for the loving way John embraced me as a student, as a young man, as a human being. I always felt that what he offered me was very special: uniquely for me and uniquely mine.

We will all miss John dearly. The one piece of advice he gave me that I now most wish I had followed more diligently was the following: “Take the time to keep a journal,” he said. “Over time, memories fade and you lose the details.”

Jesse Spikes is an attorney in Atlanta, where he ran for mayor in 2009—with the full support of John Rassias.


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