Beloved Professor Connected With, Challenged Students

May 14, 2010

Joe GarrisonEvery now and then college students get the opportunity to learn from a professor who is special. This is a teacher that the student, when looking back on her college career, even 20 or 30 years later, will not only remember vividly, but will still be able to pick up the phone and call. One the student will invite to her wedding or into her home for dinner. These types of teachers are of a rare breed, in the “once in a blue moon, ” variety. Dr. Joseph M. Garrison, Jr. was the epitome of this type of professor.

The professor emeritus not only taught English, but changed lives at Mary Baldwin for 35 years. Fondly known as Joe by many former students and colleagues, Garrison passed away May 9, at age 75. His legacy and his passion for poetry will be remembered for years to come in the English department.

“Joe was amazing; they don’t make ’em like that anymore,” said Molly Petty, assistant professor of English and director of the writing center. “He challenged decades of English majors to read, re-read, think, and re-assess their written interpretations of literature.”

Joe GarrisonMargo Leach, faculty resource coordinator, who was long charged with the duty of deciphering and typing Garrison’s detailed and lively junior and senior English appraisals, remembers Garrison’s time at Mary Baldwin fondly. “He and his wife Sandra mean the world to me and my family,” she said. “I’ll always remember him as a kind and compassionate man.”

While at Mary Baldwin, Garrison taught courses on literature, poetry, and creative writing. He had a reputation as a highly demanding, and for some, even a fearsome teacher. One former student, Abby Peterson ’98, posted on the college’s Facebook page: “To Joe Garrison, who told me, ‘If you perform as everyone else, you’ll get a C. C’s are average. If you excel, a B. If you teach me something I’ve never heard, an A.’ He scrawled ‘Honor Grade’ next to the only B+ he ever gave me, and it remains a cherished triumph in my memory.”

When Garrison retired in 2000, another former student, Ginger Mudd Galvez ’73, organized a surprise lunch party for him. “About two dozen of his students from all over the country came back to Staunton for a party,” she said. “I went to his home and brought him out onto his porch to talk. Every minute or two, a former student would appear up the sidewalk. For the first couple, he would burst with delight at seeing each one, whispering her name in a kind of wonder, amazed that each was standing before him. After a few minutes, he realized this was a set up to delight and surprise him, and we all enjoyed a long lunch filled with toasts, poetry, and songs.” Galvez and other former students also created a special fund to buy poetry volumes marked by a special bookplate honoring Garrison and his long career. The collection now resides in Grafton Library.

Joe Garrison

Garrison was a true renaissance man. In his free time, he played classical guitar and built musical instruments, including Celtic harps, mountain dulcimers, and lyres. He held poetry workshops for teachers, students, and even prison inmates. He published more than 90 poems and essays in journals, anthologies, and books.

Garrison was fond of saying “there’s a poem in there, somewhere,” about just about anything. Looking back at his time at Mary Baldwin and the contributions he made to the college and community, one could certainly find at least one poem in there somewhere, perhaps even two or three.

A celebration of Garrison’s life was held at 1 p.m. May 20 at Covenant Presbyterian Church, in Staunton, Virginia. Contributions in his memory can be made to the poetry collection in Grafton Library. To make an online gift, please use the online giving form, indicating in the comments section on the second page that the gift is for the Garrison Book Fund.

Read tributes to Garrison from students, colleagues, family, and friends below: