How does one honor the career of a teacher like Dr. Evelyn Romig, who taught English and Literature for 44 years? I was her student four of those years at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, TX. Honestly, she teaches me still. I loved Dr. Romig fiercely when I was a college student. I took every class she offered. She was my adviser and I spent time in her office being advised on academic matters and other things. I often reflect on what her life means to me. My recollections and anecdotes here will be personal, but I do not think they are unique.
I was 18 years old and a freshman when I first met Dr. Romig. I was a Baptist ministerial student, majoring in something from the School of Christianity. She was my British Literature teacher. Because of things I had done in high school and because of how well I tested on the ACT and SAT, I did not have to take the typical Freshman English courses. I had no way of knowing at the time how much this small woman, an English Literature professor and Methodist Sunday School teacher, would influence my life and help me to become more like Jesus Christ.
Dr. Romig first caught my attention, not in class, but through my best friend, Dan. He had her for a Freshman composition class. One of Dan’s assignments was to keep some sort of writer’s journal over a certain period and make regular entries. Of course, he procrastinated and had to make a week’s worth of entries in one day. Along the way he began writing nonsense, thinking there was no way a professor would read every entry in every student’s notebook. Dan wrote in one entry, “I don’t think Dr. Romig even reads all this stuff.” When he received back his graded notebook, there, next to that entry, written in red in Dr. Romig’s handwriting was: “She does!” Dan got an “F.”
Soon after this came a pivotal moment that changed the course of my time at Howard Payne. It was in my British Literature class, a survey course required of all students, and was therefore a large class which met in one of the larger rooms in the Phelps Bible building. We were reading and discussing some of the works of D. H. Lawrence, whose writing many consider to be naughty. If memory serves, Dr. Romig was discussing what made Lawrence so naughty. Why are some words acceptable and others so obviously unacceptable?
“For instance,” Dr. Romig said, “take the word ‘f**k,’ what is it about this word that makes it so offensive?” I believe the question was rhetorical, which is just as well considering it took several seconds for the students to register the fact that our British Lit professor just dropped an F-bomb. In the stunned silence I sat up and looked around. I suppose I was instinctively checking to see if any adult had heard the bad word. After a brief time all the students were roused and Dr. Romig had our attention. What else will she say? I wondered if that particular word had ever been used before in a lecture in that room, in that building, anywhere at any time on that campus?!
At some point my brain began to process her question and consider her point. Why is that word so bad? It is just a word spoken, thought, or written on a page. At some point English speakers invested that word with meaning, and it was our choice to make the word mean something naughty, offensive, and unacceptable. Dr. Romig, who acted like an adult the whole time and had the courtesy to treat us as adults as well, calmly explained that this was the thing that Lawrence fought against through his writing. He challenged our ideas of obscenity. He was a rebel who pushed the boundaries of our thinking at a time when doing so had grave consequences. The more she spoke the more I realized that not only was I listening, I was interested. I had studied D. H. Lawrence before and never found him particularly interesting. But this was different. Dr. Romig had found a way to engage a part of my mind that had rarely been engaged in my education. She challenged me to think, to explore new possibilities, to articulate what I thought and believed.
That was the day I knew I needed to change my major to English and ask Dr. Romig to be my adviser. I sat in her office, a little closet in the education building at that time, and explained to her my desire to change my major. I am afraid I sounded like, “You said the F-word in class. Heh heh. That was cool.” What I hope Dr. Romig heard from me was, “You made me think. I liked it. I want more.” She seemed to be delighted that a Baptist ministerial student wanted to major in English. She was gracious and signed me up right away. I remember she had a twinkle in her eye the whole time. It was like making a deal with Willy Wonka to explore his chocolate factory. Come on in, kid, bring your courage and your imagination. We have so much to see and so little time.
As I said, I took every class with Dr. Romig I could: British Literature, Children’s Literature, Romantic Literature, Victorian Literature, and Modern Poetry. It is difficult for me to put into words here all I learned in those classes. I am not certain I can separate what I learned at the time from what I have understood as the years have passed. I now view literature, both poetry and prose, as a kind of diary of humanity. In words of rhyme and rhythm, in paragraphs both beautiful and confounding, literature reveals those things that have dwelt in the hearts and minds of humans for as long as stories have been told and songs have been sung. Literature expresses our thoughts, feelings, motives, sins, hopes, and dreams as we struggle with the big questions of life, death, meaning, love, identity, suffering, joy, beauty, failure, and more. In literature we encounter people’s stories, and find our stories are similar. We see ourselves. Dr. Romig served as a kind of guide, and I learned to reflect, to listen, to question, to doubt, to challenge, and to consider the possibilities. I was invited to recognize what I felt, what I thought, and to express those thoughts and feelings in a way that others could hear and think and reflect for themselves.
It is meaningful to me that Dr. Romig found ways to express her faith in Christ as we faced together all the raw beauty and ugliness humans have ever committed to words, poetry, and prose. Her approach was hopeful and not cynical. I learned it is possible to look deeply into my own heart, to see all the beauty and horror of which I am capable, and not turn away in disgust or vainglory. I can see it for what it is, I can name it, and accept that whatever I find in my heart at any given time is just one small part of an overall story that is my life. I came to see that God does not turn away from me when He finds me in all my raw humanity. Nor does God draw closer to me when my life produces beauty. God is consistent in his love toward me. It is Jesus that reveals the love and faithfulness of God toward me, a sinner. These things were taught in the Bible classes, I’m sure. But I learned them in my literature classes.
I have flashes of memories as I reflect on Dr. Romig, such as the twinkle in her eyes, and the way she loved to laugh. I learned I could get away with quite a bit in class and on paper if I could make her laugh. I remember the time she had her students to her house at Christmas and we met her young children. I remember her recollection of the burning of Old Main and the personal toll it had on her. Old Main housed her office and she lost all her notes in the fire, all her files. After a time of desperate hopelessness while contemplating how to teach literature without all the tools of her trade, Dr. Romig decided she either knew the material well enough to teach it or she didn’t. She trusted the Lord and went forward, learning and relearning to teach her courses anew as each year passed instead of relying on her previous class notes. I remember the time Dr. Romig audited The Life and Teachings of Jesus taught by Dr. Wallace Roark, a Bible, Theology, and Philosophy professor. It was quite an experience to have her as a student alongside me. I remember the day she was so frustrated at Dr. Roark because he answered her questions with another question. She said, “I want a straight answer!” Good luck lady. You are not the first student to break upon the rocks of Dr. Roark’s teaching style.
The day I graduated from Howard Payne was a warm, sunny day. After the ceremony people gathered outside the Brownwood Coliseum, where graduation was held. I stood in the sun speaking to Dr. Roark when Dr. Romig came to us and said, “I should have known I would find you two together!” The three of us spoke for a few minutes. As we parted Dr. Romig told me that she would follow my career with great interest. I was honored. And she has. She was an encouragement to me when I was struggling to finish my dissertation. She sent words of genuine joy when I completed my doctorate. As I endured the reality of Hurricane Harvey along with my church and community in the fall of 2017, she would send words of encouragement and support. She was always hopeful.
I am certain my experience with Dr. Romig is not uncommon. She was a popular teacher with a reputation for being challenging, but fair. She was something very special in the classroom. She was a teacher that was passionate and hopeful about the possibilities her academic field offered to her students. And she was a teacher who loved her students as Jesus loved his. Dr. Romig challenged me to see myself and all things differently without fear. This is no small thing in a Texas Baptist school in the early 1990s. She showed me things about Jesus and about people no one else was teaching me at that time. I know those teachers were there for other students, but I learned from Dr. Romig. She was fearless and imaginative. Over time she made me trust her. She helped me feel safe while asking questions. In the end, the paths she placed me on, while unconventional, always brought me close to the heart of God and the character of Jesus. I was never led astray.
Thank you, Dr. Romig, for allowing God to use you to shape my life. I was listening, more often than not. Congratulations on your retirement. May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.