Sunday, June 2, 2013

Farewell, my teacher

Unless you count Mim Anne Houk’s Nashville accent and upbringing, which would be a stretch, this post has nothing to do with the Civil War. Consider yourself forewarned.

Mim Anne Houk on June 25, 2011, her 85th birthday.
Mrs. Houk, as I have thought of her since she was my English teacher during senior year of high school, called me Thursday night to tell me she had just entered hospice care. Today her son emailed me that she had died early this morning. She was 86 years old and had been through many trials of old age, but I thought she would live forever. She didn’t want that; she told me on the phone that she was ready to go. The expectation of immortality was my selfish fantasy, one shared by other former students who kept in touch with Mim over the decades.

I am a journalist, so of course the word “hospice” sent me into obituary mode. I have been around long enough to have written many eulogies, and I could not get Mrs. Houk out of my mind anyway.

We first met at Clearwater (Fla.) High School in the fall of 1963, nearly half a century ago. She was 37, I was 17. Her Advanced English course started with Beowulf and marched through Chaucer, Milton, Matthew Arnold, Christina Rossetti  and the Brownings. I think we made it to Dylan Thomas but can’t say for sure because I often daydreamed or nodded off in class. But there was never a doubt that my teacher loved poetry and wanted me to love it, too.

And yet it was not the teacher-student relationship that endeared me to Mrs. Houk. It was the world she and her husband Wes opened up to me.

I grew up a transplanted northerner in the segregated South, whose customs I found restrictive and exclusive. Though honest, responsible, proud and patriotic, my father was a high school dropout – a man who, especially after his heroic service during World War II, preferred not to look far beyond the horizon. My mother was a gem, my moral compass, full of love and understanding. But because my older sister had died in childhood, she watched over me with a tenacity that I came to resent as I entered my teens.

One night in 1964 or '65, I showed up uninvited at Mim’s house. She asked me in, and I immediately began to spill out my troubles, hopes and dreams. A teenage night owl, I went on for hours. I can only guess what she actually thought of my babbling, but she was such a sympathetic listener that I kept coming back, barging in and bending her ear.

Wes and Mim lived in a long, low Florida house with a fenced front yard full of wild subtropical plants and trees. Everywhere on the walls inside hung Wes’s paintings, the work of an artist with a roving creative mind. Wes taught art at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He had graduated from the University of Iowa’s renowned writing program, and he made his art students write, write, write. He loved music and would one day introduce me to the Steve Miller Band and Pavarotti. In 1962, although I did not know this at the time, he was one of the few USF professors to stand up for a colleague accused of homosexuality in a Florida legislative committee’s witch-hunt for campus subversives.

Mim loved to talk about the year she and Wes had lived with their children in Florence. Perhaps it was there that she became interested in film – an interest that blossomed into a passion and, in time, a specialty. I followed her advice and went to see Blowup, Juliet of the Spirits, Dr. Strangelove and The Grapes of Wrath. She also regularly wondered aloud if I had read Wilfred Owen or Emily Dickinson or Thomas Hardy. Like Wes, she spoke of Giotto, Manet and Rembrandt as though they were good friends.
After high school I flunked out of college and got drafted. This seemed like a disaster, possibly even a fatal disaster. Only in retrospect did I discover that it led to the first mature decision of my life: I seized it as a chance to further my education and see the world.

At the time, however, the U.S. Army seemed like prison to me, and I had agreed to a four-year sentence. After the army taught me Russian for a year, I found myself stuck in a remote dorf in West Germany intercepting Soviet military radio communications. My girlfriend had long since sent me a “Dear John” letter, and the main pastime for soldiers was drinking.

Mrs. Houk became my lifeline. She wrote me regularly, and every now and then she sent me a box of literature. I devoured O’Neill’s plays, Owen’s poems, Dostoevsky, Hardy. My letters to her, as I was reminded 25 years later when she kindly returned them to me, were full of whining and self-pity.

I also grew up. I took advantage of being in Europe and visited art museums and historical sites. I learned German well enough to talk my way out of a speeding ticket. Then I learned Flemish and fell in love with a Belgian woman, Monique, now my wife of 43 years.

In 1969, Mim’s husband Wes and their daughter Claudia went out of their way to visit Monique and me and take us out to dinner in Kassel, Germany. It was Monique’s first contact (other than me) with the strange world she would soon inhabit. When we got home as a married couple, one of our first visits was to the Houks. Monique and Mim were buddies ever after.

I made my peace with my old hometown, and we lived there seven years before moving to New Hampshire. When we made winter trips to Clearwater over the years, we always visited the Houks. We saw Mim in March for our usual talk about life, good books and movies, spring training, our children and hers. Her son Tim was coming soon for their annual feast of March Madness.

What a great teacher Mrs. Houk was. She made my life so much better than it would have been without her. She – and Wes, who died a few years ago – showed me how wide the world could be before I knew enough to take its wonders in. That world is smaller without them.


  1. What a wonderful, wonderful story.
    Mrs. Houk was my English teacher too.

  2. Your wonderful story inspired me to share a quote my father wrote to me when I entered college almost 50 years ago. Mrs.Houk truly sounds like a wonderful woman who embraced and lived the spirit of these words.

    Success in Life is not measured in terms of material or financial accomplishments, but by the number of those who have benefited by your Love. Their returned affections are Life's true reward. Know yourself, your talents and your limitations. Make each a factor in the balance of Living. Never stop learning, not for knowledge itself, but for the realization of the magnitude of Life. ALS Jr.

  3. Ellen Moore MartinJune 5, 2013 at 8:53 AM

    What an interesting story. Not only did I learn more about Mrs. Houk, but learned a lot about Mike.
    Some days it seems like we all just graduated from CHS yesterday, but then I think of all the many, varied experiences we all have had since then. Looking forward to our 50th reunion. Hope we have a good turnout!

    Ellen Moore Martin

  4. Thank you, Mike, for this wonderful remembrance of Mim and Wes. You should know that Mim often spoke of you with such joy and respect; I'm sorry that we never met. Mim was a colleague and friend of mine for over 4 decades. We got that same raspy-voiced phone call about her initial encounter with Hospice. And now she is gone. My wife Joyce and I loved Mim--her lemon squares, her Nashville connections, her books, her films, her mind, her delight in our shared 8 hour Mad Men Marathons! Mim and Wes were indeed significant forces in the lives of so many people. -Ben and Joyce Wiley

  5. Dear Mike,
    I never met you, but I always felt I knew you. You were a student of my husband's at SPJC as well as a student of Mim Houk's. They shared a strong friendship and working relationship. I often heard you discussed between the two of them. I took a film class with Mim, and was inspired by the detailed knowledge she had of film production and the development of the industry.

    With Wes working in fine arts at USF and Mim living the broad world of "the arts" they became dear friends of ours and we also shared the growing up years of our children. We enjoyed sharing our arts experiences and I was agog when Wes and Mim took my husband and me to a concert by Luciano Pavarotti. Wes later told me that many great singers focused on one person in the audience and I could be sure he was focusing on me that night.

    There will be a hole in the lives of all of us who knew Mim well.
    She was a pillar of strength to us all.

    Lois Odom

  6. Dear Mike,
    I never met you, but as my mom said, I feel as if I have known you all this time as well. My dad and Mim always spoke very highly of you, and felt you had accomplished way more than either one of them taught you in school. They are probably discussing your many acccomplishments right now. I am certain they will discuss the decline of television, the overuse of special effects and visual trickery in movies nowadays, and many other subjects they discussed in life. Thank you for your wonderful tribute to Mim. She was one of a kind, and we will all miss her very much.

    Melanie Odom

    1. Thanks to you both, Lois and Melanie. My semester at St. Petersburg Junior College in 1965 was lackluster, to put the best face on it, but that was no fault of any teacher I had there. Teachers did their best for me; as a forlorn 19-year-old waiting to be drafted, I did not repay the effort. At that time at least, the doors teachers opened for me and the encouragement they gave me mattered more than anything specific they taught me.