Hamblin looks back on 48-year career

Monday, July 22, 2013
Dr. Robert Hamblin sits inside his Cape Girardeau home Wednesday. Hamblin is retiring in August after 48 years as a member of the English department at Southeast Missouri State University. (Laura Simon)

In 1965, before Dr. Robert Hamblin could begin teaching at Southeast Missouri State University, he first had to pass an interview with Southeast president Mark Scully. "He asked me three questions," Hamblin recalled. "Was I married, did I go to church and if I drank or not. I answered yes to the first two questions and no to the last, and those must have been the right answers because I was hired."

With that interview, Hamblin embarked upon a 48-year career in the English Department at Southeast, a career that will officially end Aug 5.

"It's 48 years and two months," he said. "There was a professor and chair of the Art Department, Helen Bedford, who served 48 years. I needed the extra two months to get the faculty record."

But Hamblin's tenure at Southeast was about more than breaking a record. He will leave his teaching duties as an accomplished professor and author with the highest respect from his colleagues.

"I've said that if the English Department had a Hall of Fame, Bob Hamblin would go in on the first ballot," said Dr. Dale Haskell, who serves with Hamblin in the English Department. "That's a good way to describe what Bob means to me and others."

Dr. Robert Hamblin sits inside his Cape Girardeau home Wednesday . Hamblin is retiring in August after 48 years in the English department at Southeast Missouri State University. (Laura Simon)

Courtesy of lectures that at times extended beyond the end of class, Hamblin was dubbed "Ramblin' Hamblin" by his students.

"I was known as 'Ramblin' Hamblin' early on," he said. "I'm sure it wasn't meant as a compliment, but I was never insulted. I always used anecdotes about my family or a personal experience as a tie-in with a lecture. I just never thought literature was worth much unless it was personal."

Hamblin certainly has a wealth of personal experience from which to draw when it comes to lecturing. Born in 1938 in the northeast Mississippi community of Jericho, he recalled going to the cotton fields with his father, a sharecropper at the time.

"I would straddle the tongue of the cultivator driven by mules," he said. "I was too little to work at the time, but I could pick a little cotton."

When Hamblin was 6, his father purchased a general store at nearby Brice's Cross Roads, which also was the site of a Civil War battle.

"The battlefield was a fascinating place," he said. "My friends and I would search for grapeshot and minie balls after a rain. It was also a good place to play baseball if the caretaker didn't chase us away."

Hamblin said that during those formative years, his family didn't have many books for him to sharpen his imagination.

Robert Hamblin as seen in 1966. (submitted)

"We weren't dirt poor, but we were poor," he said. "I didn't grow up with good books. I would read things like 'Tarzan,' 'The Lone Ranger' and western novels. The first great book I read was an abridged version of 'Les Miserables' by Victor Hugo in the seventh grade."

But when Hamblin started high school, he said his grades started to slip.

"I was a great student up through ninth grade," he said. "But I was also pretty good at baseball, and that and getting a car sort of took over."

Hamblin also was distracted by a girl in his class by the name of Kaye, his future wife.

"I was very shy," he said. "It took me forever to ask her out on a date."

When it came time to choose a college, Hamblin said that schools such as Ole Miss and Mississippi State University were financially out of his reach. He enrolled at Northeast Mississippi Community College in Boonville, Miss., where his grades improved and his dreams of becoming a big-league ballplayer fell by the wayside.

"I went home after a St. Louis Cardinals tryout camp and looked in the mirror," he said. "I said, 'Hamblin, you're not good enough.' I just quit playing baseball and started making the grades. Kaye already was at Delta State [in Cleveland, Miss.], and my future in-laws helped me get a partial scholarship there."

It was while he studied at Delta State that Hamblin discovered the literary works of Mississippi native William Faulkner.

"It was the first time I had heard of him," he said. "What drew me to him was his technique, the unusual way he told a story. He never wanted to do the same thing twice."

After receiving his degree in English education from Delta State in 1960, Hamblin and Kaye were married and they took teaching jobs in Baltimore County, Md. Hamblin had his sights set on graduate school, and he received a lucky break courtesy of the Soviet Union.

"When the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, the National Defense Education Act was created," he said. "The act provided federal funds for university science and math departments, but some trickled down to the humanities. At Ole Miss they used the funds to create fellowships for Ph.D. programs in English, and I qualified for a fellowship that was a full ride to a doctorate. It didn't cost me anything."

As part of the fellowship, Hamblin earned his master's degree in 1965, the same year he started teaching at Southeast. He was "ABD" -- all but the dissertation -- but in 1976 he finally was awarded his doctorate in English with a dissertation titled "William Faulkner's Theory of Fiction." Hamblin thought he was finished with Faulkner upon receiving his doctorate, but that was before he met L.D. Brodsky in 1978.

"I met Brodsky and learned he kept a large collection of Faulkner materials in a bank in Farmington [Mo.]," he said. "The question was, what he was going to do with his collection? It was half the size of what it later became."

In 1988, Hamblin was instrumental in Southeast's acquisition of what is now called the Brodsky-Faulkner Collection in the Rare Book Room of Kent Library. The collection is one of the four largest collections of Faulkner material in the world, including more than 2,000 pages of manuscript materials. After the Brodsky acquisition, the university created the Center for Faulkner Studies, naming Hamblin as director. Hamblin has presented Faulkner seminars and lectures in England, the Netherlands, Japan, China and Romania, as well as throughout the United States. In 2005, he led the online discussion of "As I Lay Dying" for the Oprah Book Club during Oprah Winfrey's "Summer of Faulkner."

In addition to his Faulkner work, Hamblin has published several volumes of his poetry; two personal memoirs, "Bless You, My Father" in 2006 and "This House, This Town: One Couple's Love Affair with An Old House and a Historic Town" in 2010; and a sports biography, "Win or Win: A Season with Ron Shumate" in 1993. He also has received numerous honors and awards, including a Governor's Award for Excellence in Teaching, the PRIDE award from Southeast and the Halsell Prize from the Mississippi Historical Society.

Hamblin said he plans to continue working at the Center for Faulkner Studies for two more years before he leaves the university for good.

"I have no regrets about coming here and choosing this school," he said. "Even in the years when we didn't have the money and didn't get raises, I've never felt like I've made the wrong career choice. I'd do it again in a minute."

klewis@semissourian.com

388-3635

Pertinent address:

Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Map of pertinent addresses

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