Chronicle of Higher Education, May 26, 2000
The Lessons of a Lost Career
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The Lessons of a Lost Career--1
To honor its dead, Charleston Southern University puts together a slide show. But the colleagues and friends who gathered in Lightsey Chapel last October to remember Harold J. Overton, a linguist who died suddenly of cancer after teaching there for 27 years, had to squint to see the handful of images thrown up on a screen in a corner of the stage. There weren't enough photos in the university's P.R. files to fill the time, so they ran in a repeating loop.
Somehow this was appropriate, for even after so many years, Mr. Overton remained a blurry presence on this Baptist campus. Shy, courtly, and eager to please, he was appreciated for his steady loyalty. Many in the audience didn't know that he was an ordained minister and a one-time missionary, that he was an antiques dealer and had a passion for Norse sagas.
The various speakers praised Mr. Overton for his courtesy and kindness, the endearing way he would make a friend's excitements into his own. "Each time during the years when the university was able to provide an increase in salary," said President Jairy C. Hunter Jr., "Harold would always send me a little note expressing thanks."
And who else, asked Lisette Luton, an assistant professor of French, could -- or would -- speak so passionately about obscure distinctions in Old French? Only Harold, who wryly described himself as the "tall, skinny, bald guy" when arranging their first meeting at the Charleston airport.
Then, as the event wound down, Robert Rhodes Crout, an associate professor of history, strode to the podium. A fellow Southerner, he had been Mr. Overton's closest friend on campus. If the assembled expected another run-of-the-mill tribute, they were to be sorely disappointed. "Harold Overton was a shy and private man who lived a shy and private life, and wanted his dying days to have that same quiet and private dignity," Mr. Crout began. "I honored that wish.
"Now that he is dead," he continued, "I can speak." And so he did, stunning the audience with a 20-minute recitation of Mr. Overton's money worries and fears about the future. "Harold's sense of propriety never wavered," Mr. Crout said. Yet privately, the late professor was wounded by a university that paid him miserably and wouldn't offer the other rewards, like promotion to full professor, that come with long service.
The mood inside the room stiffened. After so many similar appraisals of a courteous Southern gentleman, this speaker had breathed life into Harold Overton, conjuring up a man betrayed: a 62-year-old tenured professor who did all that was asked of him, who taught more than his course load, who played by the book, both the official policies and the unwritten rules of how to stay in favor, only to find himself, after 27 years, humiliated and trapped.
It was a shocking and perhaps ill-timed message. All of Professor Overton's long-time colleagues, and even some of his other close friends, think he would have shuddered at Mr. Crout's outburst. Yet both Mr. Crout and President Hunter touched on the same onerous fact of life for Harold Overton, and for many professors like him: money. In nearly three decades at Charleston Southern, despite a promotion and a department chairmanship, "Harold was still making substantially under $40,000 a year at the time of his death," Mr. Crout announced.
Mr. Overton took on plenty of overtime work. He sold antiques for extra money. Still, he feared he wouldn't be able to meet the payments on his house, and worried about his retirement.
"What would be a fitting memorial for Harold Overton?" Mr. Crout asked at the service. "This is what I think Harold would say if he could speak from the grave to this assembly today: 'Just show the simple loyalty to these folks that they have been showing to this institution for years. ... Just do these folks right, and I'll be content. In fact, if my death led to those changes, it would give me a world of satisfaction.'"
Two weeks later, the university dismissed Mr. Crout. "You have irrevocably broken the collegial bond that joins us and have separated yourself from our fellowship," the president's letter read. The American Association of University Professors is investigating the case as a potential violation of academic freedom.
In death, as he never had in life, Harold Overton had made news.
Every campus has its familiar types. The inveterate complainers, like Mr. Crout, get noticed, for better or worse. The loyal citizens, like Mr. Overton, toil largely in silence. Whether they like or loathe their jobs, the Overtons, unsung and underpaid, are legion in academe. They often arrive with strong credentials -- Mr. Overton studied 10 languages, from classical Latin to Swahili -- yet may end up on a campus where no one really speaks their language. They teach so much that research becomes difficult to imagine, and a better job impossible to obtain.
They don't blow up, or snap. But one day, they come to realize that a job that once held such promise now feels like doing time.
Institutions like Charleston Southern prove especially harsh. "Because of their religious vocation, they can tend to think their faculty are the equivalent of clergy, and can be paid accordingly," says Mary Burgan, the general secretary of the A.A.U.P. At the same time, "faculty are expected to be more humble, more modest, and thereby have less freedom to express themselves."
Mr. Crout had no such humility. Yet in shaming Charleston Southern, he inevitably overlooked the nuances of Harold Overton's life, his career, and his strategies for coping. While Mr. Overton did grow increasingly frustrated, looking for a job elsewhere as recently as 1995, the university was still home. Colleagues became a surrogate family; other professors -- Mr. Crout; Ms. Luton; George Niketas, his former department chairman -- were there for him at the end. On them, his life -- and death -- left a profound mark.
Someone else will teach the history of the English language, and phonetics, and world literature in translation, just a few of the courses Mr. Overton handled as an associate professor of English. Someone else will oversee the language and visual arts department, which he ran -- and protected -- for the last 10 years. Someone else already has his faculty office. Were it not for the eulogy, Harold Overton might have been forgotten by now at Charleston Southern.
His is the story of a bargain broken: the disintegration of an informal pact between colleges and generations of academics. The professors knew they would not get rich. But they expected to feel that the life of the mind was indeed valued, that their compensations -- financial and otherwise -- would sustain them.
The Lessons of a Lost Career--2
A bachelor professor dies and what's left are books.
Scores of boxes, the science-fiction paperbacks Harold Overton devoured, dictionaries of the ancient languages he studied, books on linguistics, the fat fantasy sagas he'd lend to friends and receive back, untouched.
What's left are collectibles. The statue of St. Augustine that greeted visitors to his suburban home; the carved wooden walking stick he'd brought back from Kenya; the page of a medieval manuscript he'd found at a local flea market, cleaned up and framed, and tried to sell for a profit at his own antiques stall in Myrtle Beach.
What's left are pets -- three dogs and four cats, the constant companions he loved so dearly and would talk about too much. A job candidate would come to Charleston Southern, and Mr. Overton would break the ice: "So," he'd ask, "do you have dogs?"
In time, the things get sorted and dispersed, sent back to Greenville, Miss., to his mother, Myrtis, and aunt, Kat, packed in shoeboxes or thrown away. Nearly 900 books were donated to the university library. The ornately tooled piece of leather from Thailand went to Lisette Luton. He never told her he was dying -- though she knew, of course -- but quietly tried to discern which of his treasures she might want after he was gone. Friends of friends adopted the Lhasa apso and the Pekingese. And the big dog, Charlemagne, who lived outside in a fenced-in doghouse worthy of canine royalty -- he's being looked after by George Niketas, Mr. Overton's oldest friend and the former English department chairman at Charleston Southern.
In 1994, after 25 years there, Mr. Niketas took early retirement, weary, he says, of the politics and hypocrisy. His days are spent on gardening and home improvements, or monitoring the stock market on television. Sunshine pours through the gazebo behind his home, but a cloud crosses Mr. Niketas's face when the subject of the university and its administrators comes up. His thick hands press against his temples. "The place is a breeding ground for the worst kind of self-centeredness," he says. "For all that Christian baloney they hand you, the real question is 'What's in it for me?'"
Over the years, Mr. Niketas fought for his fellow professors. Yet he can't help feeling that the battle has been lost. Their salaries have inched up, while President Hunter's annual pay has climbed to $143,000, plus $30,000 in benefits.
For Mr. Overton and other unattached professors at Charleston Southern, George and Elaine Niketas's house became a home away from home. Holidays were a given, and once or twice a week Mr. Overton would invite himself over to gab. The phone would ring at 9 on Sunday night, and Harold, who always stayed up late, would be on the other end. "You up for an Overton visit?" he'd ask Elaine. "Put the coffee on."
The Niketases were with Harold Overton right to the end, witnessing the will he scratched out days before he died. Plenty of the late professor's belongings are stacked up in a corner of their garage. Seven months have passed. Yet Mr. Niketas is still struggling to recall a younger, more hopeful Harold Overton. The recent memories are closer by: Mr. Overton forwarding an e-mail message from a student who liked his lecture that day. A telephone call to share the nice note another student included on a term paper. "There was a hunger there," Mr. Niketas says, "a grasping for straws."
When Lisette Luton remembers Harold Overton, it's at the Continental Corner, the Greek restaurant 10 minutes from campus, where she, Mr. Crout, and Mr. Overton made up a regular Friday-night dinner club. She can still smell the smoke. Of the group, only Harold smoked, but if you were going out with Harold, you were sitting in the smoking section.
And you were sitting more than 10 feet from the bar. He still had the Baptist in him.
Though she looks young enough to be mistaken for an undergraduate, Ms. Luton hardly seems so carefree. She doesn't part easily with a smile. Mr. Overton's influence, his death, and its aftermath have shaped an already rocky time at Charleston Southern.
In 1997, after 10 years in graduate school at the University of Virginia, Ms. Luton, then 31, was glad to get a permanent job. If anything, Harold Overton was even happier. By then a department chairman, he had landed a promising young scholar who could help to revive a French program that had been on life support. Like an uncle protecting a favorite niece, he did his best to make his new charge comfortable.
"I've always wondered," he said earnestly, driving her to campus for a job interview, "how that vowel sound -- eu -- entered the French language?"
Even after she accepted the post, he worried she wouldn't show up. On the August day she arrived, his was the first friendly face she saw on campus.
"He had the biggest grin," Ms. Luton says.
Harold Overton must have seen a little of himself, as he had been two decades earlier, in Lisette Luton. Both from research universities, both with humanities Ph.D.'s marginal to Charleston Southern's pre-professional bent.
His cause became helping her to survive, if not thrive, at this Baptist teaching college. He explained to her the ways of a small school, how important it was to attract students to her classes, how the administration measured effectiveness by the numbers.
And he gave her a social life, inviting her out with other faculty members for their regular dinners. Friday night was a sure thing. But then there'd be Sunday night, too, and sometimes Tuesday as well.
"What little world he had," she says, "he kind of pulled me into it."
They'd argue over what time to meet, who had to drive the farthest, whether to try a new restaurant or to stick with an old favorite. The Greek place, owned and run by Mr. Niketas's brother-in-law, was a good compromise.
The three professors, all unmarried, had a nice little routine. "We need separate checks please," Mr. Overton, always formal, would remind the waitress.
After that, he'd sit back and let Mr. Crout dominate the table. As a chairman out with a professor in his department, Mr. Overton tried to keep the mood cheerful. Still, like workers everywhere, they gossiped about their jobs. "Once someone said, 'Let's talk about something that isn't C.S.U.' " Ms. Luton recalls. "And we looked at each other and said, 'What else is there, but work?'"
Today, Ms. Luton can't stop talking about Charleston Southern, but it's really Mr. Overton she won't let go. Once, she says, she stepped into the Continental Corner, peered into the smoking section, and began to cry. In her mind's eye, there he was, poring over the newspaper, a curl of cigarette smoke drifting up from the table, waiting for the other professors to arrive.
Then she remembered -- Harold was gone -- and headed back to the clear air in the other part of the restaurant.
"He so quickly disappeared," she says.
The Lessons of a Lost Career--3
So much about Harold Overton, his big dreams and staunch modesty, was already evident in a little article in the Greenville High School student newspaper celebrating the Class of 1955 graduation. "He says nothing has ever happened to him," it reads. "Not much it hasn't."
The article painted in his accomplishments: Latin club, debate team, homecoming escort. Photos from the time show a young man with a full head of dark hair and a sweet, somewhat nervous smile. After high school, he told the newspaper, he'd be going to Mississippi College, to major in foreign languages or political science.
"He always was a bookworm," says his favorite aunt, Katherine Kilby, flipping through old snapshots in the living room of the Overton family home. "He worked in a library when he was coming up. He was always studying."
The only child of a gas-truck driver and a carpet mill worker, Harold realized that books could take him places. Yet one book -- the Good Book -- loomed largest of all. He had to decide between teaching or the ministry.
For years, he kept both options open. At Mississippi College, he majored in classical (Greek and Latin) and modern (Spanish and German) languages. In 1956, the pastor of Greenville's Second Baptist Church licensed him to begin studies for the ministry. Later, he would tell friends that family pressure led him into the religious life. But his college roommate, Bill Stewart, saw no sign of that. "He was very committed, very rooted in Scripture, very stable and strong in his faith," says Reverend Stewart, now a pastor in Eupora, Mississippi.
Mr. Overton's family remembers those years as the time when he had his heart broken. He had met and gotten engaged to a Chilean girl also studying for her degree. After graduation, both planned to do missionary work and the young woman returned to Chile. While there, she wrote and asked Mr. Overton for $1,000 so she could return to the United States. He wired the money, and went to the airport in Jackson to meet her flight.
She never showed up. Several years later, recalls his aunt, a "foreign-looking" man approached Mr. Overton at the pulpit of a church where he was preaching. "I was the man she ended up marrying" back in Chile, he said, and handed over the $1,000 in repayment. "He never did go with another girl after that," his aunt says.
After college, Mr. Overton taught for several years in a nearby high school for boys with discipline problems. Then, the ministry firmly in sight, he entered the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, from which he received a bachelor of divinity in 1964.
He was fascinated by texts in ancient Greek and Hebrew. But his time as a pastor didn't go well. Southern Baptist preachers have to "pound the pulpit" every now and then, says his aunt. Harold didn't have a showy streak, nor the taste for congregation politics. "He found that he was called more to teach than to preach," she adds.
Graduate school beckoned, and Mr. Overton entered the linguistics program at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, specializing in the history of language. He did his master's thesis in 1966 on the evolution of two verbs in Old Spanish. This love of language dovetailed with his desire to serve. While at Louisiana State, Mr. Overton taught in summer programs for Baptist missionaries who needed to get up to speed quickly on new languages. He did his own missionary work in Kenya. The experience made its way into his Ph.D. dissertation, a grammar of the Kikuyu dialect, which he completed in 1972.
At 35, he was older than many aspiring professors. Yet his learning was wide-ranging and impressive. He had studied three Bantu languages, classical and late Latin, classical Hebrew, Old Provencal, Old Icelandic, and Koine Greek, not to mention Old, Middle, and Modern English and German.
Mr. Overton kept various versions of his c.v. on his computer. The languages he had studied used to appear on the first page. This was something to be proud of, to tell the world. By the close of his teaching career, they were left off completely -- expertise, he came to realize, that had very little use at a place like Charleston Southern University.
The Lessons of a Lost Career--4
It was called the Baptist College at Charleston in 1972, when Harold Overton reluctantly accepted a job there. He figured he'd stay a year or two, then move on. He had too much education, he told his family, and that scared away some of the colleges where he'd applied for jobs. With a mission to promote "academic excellence in a Christian environment," Baptist College was proud to add an ordained minister to its faculty roster. But Mr. Overton didn't exactly plant deep roots. Though the college expected every faculty member to be active in a local church, he never joined a nearby Baptist congregation.
"For some reason, he didn't step foot inside a church the whole time I knew him, unless it was for a wedding or a funeral," says George Niketas. Dying in the hospital, Mr. Overton was asked by a colleague whether there was a clergyman he wanted to ask in for comfort. He smiled weakly and confessed that he wasn't an active churchgoer.
"Now you know my secret," he said.
Like many religious institutions that sprang up in the late 1960's, Baptist College was built more on devotion than on a solid financial footing. Parishioners at the First Baptist Church in downtown Charleston banded together to realize the dream of their minister, the Rev. John A. Hamrick, who called on the faithful to build a religious college in the lowcountry. The dream became reality, but slowly. Officially chartered in 1964, with Mr. Hamrick as its president, the college held its first classes in a church, with more than a hundred students housed in the St. John Hotel downtown.
By 1972, the college was growing into its campus, a brightly scrubbed oasis of pale yellow buildings built low to the ground, perched at the intersection of two highways 17 miles north of the city. Almost 2,000 students were enrolled, and more professors were needed to teach them.
Mr. Overton was hired by the English department, which wanted a professor to teach the history of the language and other basic linguistics courses. Housed in the basement of the library, the department was young and sociable. Professors ate together almost every day, sometimes bringing a favorite poem to share and discuss. "It seemed that Harold was the perfect faculty member," says Josephine Humphreys, who taught in the department in the 1970's, before leaving to write novels. "He was credentialed, he was highly articulate, and he was Baptist."
Colleagues describe him, then and now, as unfailingly polite and considerate. "He was careful about everything," says Ms. Humphreys. "He never left an empty cup in the faculty room."
He was there, but not there; in 1973, his first appearance in the college yearbook, he's misnamed as Dr. Howard Overton. "He was always in the background at events," says Margaret T. Gilmore, one of the college's founders and its former public-relations director.
His close friends say the professor was looking to leave from the start. For a while, at least, he might have had a chance. Linguistics was a thriving field when Mr. Overton got his doctorate in 1972, and his dissertation touched on exciting new work. Noam Chomsky and his Massachusetts Institute of Technology acolytes were shaking up one department after another.
But Mr. Overton got his Ph.D. from L.S.U., not M.I.T., and his research interests were scattered. He talked about continuing his dissertation work, but never quite got started. Then, in 1975, the job market crashed. Leading departments wrote letters of warning to aspiring doctoral students, urging them to think twice before entering graduate school.
Harold Overton was never on the fast track. But the Baptist College was an especially tough place for a linguist to have landed. Knee deep in teaching four courses a semester, not to mention 12 office hours per week, his work on faculty committees, and the college's insistence that professors attend religious convocations, he missed the moment. It's a familiar story to Walt Wolfram, the president-elect of the Linguistic Society of America, who never met Mr. Overton but knows many professors in similar straits. "It sounds like he got caught in a conspiracy of all the wrong things at all the wrong times -- where he went to school, what he did his research on, where he got his first job," says Mr. Wolfram.
At the end of his life, Mr. Overton would still talk about a job offer from Montclair State College that he had turned down in those early years. By then, with retirement looming, he had become obsessed by his low salary. Today, the average annual salary of a full-time linguistics professor at Montclair State is $59,000; a professor of Mr. Overton's seniority could pull down as much as $80,000.
The Lessons of a Lost Career--5
By staying in Charleston, Mr. Overton stepped aboard the Baptist College's fiscal roller coaster. He became subject to the whims of an academic culture where personal loyalty is all-important, and popularity with students counts. Instead of an up-or-out tenure-and-promotion system, the college advances some people quickly, while others languish for years, turned down but not turned out.
It's the worst of both worlds, says Tunis Romein, a veteran professor of English. "You have the insecurity that comes without tenure," he explains. Yet professors often stay on indefinitely, frozen in titles -- instructor, assistant professor -- that fit more comfortably on colleagues half their age.
As a humanities professor with an obscure specialty, Mr. Overton was already hamstrung.
He was required to teach literature and composition courses out of his field. The courses he wanted to teach didn't draw many students. And a professor's status with the administration depended heavily on student evaluations. "Evaluations were used as a club, to keep someone from advancing," says Mr. Niketas.
Over the years, Mr. Overton taught composition, literature, and public speaking, as well as subjects closer to his field: phonetics, semantics, history of the English language. Between semesters, he taught short courses that interested him, including science-fiction writing and the Norse saga.
Still, many students found him an indifferent teacher, a fact that Mr. Overton had a hard time accepting. In the classroom, "his love for language transported him into another realm," says Pamela Peek, an associate professor of Spanish. "He could get all caught up and not notice that it wasn't reaching the students." When students did show interest, and talent, Mr. Overton would pounce, buttonholing them for chats in the hallway, or bringing in brochures to encourage graduate school.
But most undergraduates had little interest in the fields he cared about. The last time he taught a class in early-English literature, only three students signed up. Meanwhile, faculty colleagues who reviewed his courses didn't like what they saw. "Every course turned out to be a linguistics course," says Carol J. Drowota, who succeeded Mr. Niketas as chairman of the English department.
Mr. Overton would bristle when other professors questioned his course content. But he was not a complainer. He did his work and tried, it seems vainly, to get noticed. And every once in a while, Mr. Overton's skills and the school's needs meshed nicely, creating a meaningful new opportunity for him on campus.
In 1979, Mr. Overton was asked to head up an English Language Institute, allowing the college to recruit foreign students whose English skills were weak. It was a good deal for everybody. The college enrolled tuition-paying students, and Mr. Overton applied his expertise in second-language acquisition, skills that weren't being utilized in freshman composition courses. He was excited to work again with international students, after his time in Africa. Many of the students were Iranian, and he took them sightseeing to downtown Charleston. Over time, though, the fundamentalist revolution put a crimp in things. Thousands of miles from home, Iranian students sympathetic to the Shah were battling Khomeini supporters -- in the middle of South Carolina, in Harold Overton's program.
The professor tried to play mediator, scheduling classes at different times so the factions met as little as possible. But administrators say the effort was for naught. "My recollection," says A. Kennerley Bonnette, the provost, "is he probably thought it was time to do a flush" -- he signals a toilet flushing -- "and start again." The program was discontinued in 1986. Friends say Mr. Overton quietly pressed for another go, to no avail.
Meanwhile, he wasn't getting rich. According to the records he meticulously kept on his computer, the professor earned $11,500 in his first year.
His salary went up $460 a year after that, and raises teetered between 4 and 5 percent a year for much of the high-inflation 1970's. Then, in 1977, he got no raise. The college made up for it the next year, boosting his base salary 9 percent, then 7 percent, to $16,165.
Then, in 1980, no raise. In 1982 and 1983, no raise. In 1985, the year Mr. Overton got tenure, professors had to take a 10-percent pay cut when the college declared a financial crisis. (Salaries were restored later in the year.)
The 1980's were a bleak time at the Baptist College. Whispers of mismanagement mingled with rumors of the college's demise. "We were all looking for jobs," says Mr. Romein, the English professor. Mr. Overton was among them, and he applied wherever there were openings. In 1986, he asked Mr. Niketas to write him recommendations for jobs at Swarthmore College and at the Spartanburg campus of the University of South Carolina.
About this time, Mr. Overton tried to establish a sideline as an antiques dealer. A regular at Charleston's monthly flea markets, he always took special pleasure in spotting a valuable piece amid the cheap doodads. Hoping to make money off a good eye and diligent research, he began ambitiously, with a booth in a shop downtown, on King Street. That proved too competitive. He shifted his stock to an an-tiques mall in Myrtle Beach, which he looked after, but visited infrequently, for the next 13 years.
Meanwhile, the college retrenched, paring away programs that did not put students into seats. As a linguist, Mr. Overton might have feared for his own job. Yet when several small departments were eliminated, the professor came to the rescue, agreeing in 1989 to head the new language and visual arts department. It was less a power base than an orphanage, composed of stray assistant professors and instructors in art, drama, foreign languages, and speech.
By 1990, when Baptist College evolved into Charleston Southern University, the professor was earning $29,760 a year. Being chairman got him no more pay, but his four-class-a-term teaching load was lightened by one per semester. Still, if enough students wanted to take a class and there was no faculty member available, it fell on Mr. Overton as chairman to take on the overload.
It didn't matter how large the classes got, especially in the summer, when the university scrambled for instructors. Today, teaching an extra course earns a professor between $1,650 and $2,500.
The bigger picture was even more depressing for Mr. Overton and his humanities colleagues. The university was adding professional and graduate programs. New business professors, fresh out of school, were earning as much or more than long-serving English professors.
In 1995, the last recorded year in Mr. Overton's computer files, and 23 years after he began teaching at the Baptist College, Harold Overton was earning $34,154. The university won't disclose further salary details. But no one has denied Mr. Crout's assertion that at his death Mr. Overton was earning less than $40,000 a year.
He was still only an associate professor. "He believed that if he did a good job, eventually he would be told by superiors that it was the time to apply for the promotion he hoped for," Mr. Crout said at the memorial service, the president and provost sitting nearby. "But the word never came down."
In spring 1999, his last full semester, Mr. Overton taught five courses, including a two-course overload. Then he taught each of the two summer sessions. He was slated to teach four classes last fall -- one more than was required of him, as chairman -- but fell ill before the semester began.
Administrators say that Charleston Southern is now doing as much as possible to raise professors' salaries. This includes using a new group of peer institutions as the benchmarks for comparison. "We've been intentional at this school about raising faculty salaries over the last 15 years," says President Hunter. "Our records will show that."
Indeed, A.A.U.P. statistics show that salaries are going up. Yet many professors say they're not at Charleston Southern for the money. "This isn't just a paycheck -- we're concerned with changing our students' lives," says Charles Smedley, an associate professor of sociology. "Our faculty tend to be very active in their churches. They do volunteer work. They tend to think about their jobs as an extension of that."
Mr. Romein, the veteran English professor, says he's pressed the administration to deal with salary compression, and that lately progress has been made on that front. While he calls Mr. Overton's salary "unconscionably low," he insists the professor rarely expressed frustration over his pay.
"Instead of complaining about what was going on in school," says Mr. Romein, "Harold would talk about issues. He was very interested in the world around him. He was not locked up in himself."
The rare time that Harold Overton made his anger known, everyone noticed.
He was still a professor then, called with his English-department colleagues into the Gold Room, on the second floor of the Strom Thurmond Student Center, to meet with a former business professor turned administrator. The purpose was to encourage departments to recruit and retain more students. When words like "deadwood" and "faculty freeloader" began creeping into the administrator's remarks, Professor Overton had had enough. He stood straight up -- he was among the tallest people there -- and marched out of the room. When he left, the door sprang back and slammed shut with a bang. Heads turned.
Mr. Overton later confessed he had been mortified by the disturbance his unintentionally noisy exit caused. He wanted to make a point, he said, but not that loudly.
The Lessons of a Lost Career--6
Robert Crout, by contrast, was never shy about making his opinions known. Charleston Southern doesn't take to such personalities, and Mr. Crout has fought an uphill battle for acceptance all along. He came to the university in 1989 after research stints at Cornell, Princeton, and the University of Virginia, as well as teaching posts at Oregon State and the University of South Carolina at Aiken. He has won several notable research fellowships for a long-in-the-works biography of the Marquis de Lafayette. At Charleston Southern, it hasn't counted for enough. Turned down twice for promotion to full professor, he says he's been tagged, mistakenly, as a troublemaking Ivy League elitist, when in fact he wholeheartedly believes in this college's mission.
"If you brought in a president who had a genuine religious interest and a scholarly background, then this place can be what the founders intended," he says. He's not the only one who faults the current administration for putting dollar signs first. "It's an academic strip-mining operation," says A.J. Conyers III, the former chairman of the religion department, who now teaches at Baylor University. "Administrators are making quite a good living. And the faculty are not benefiting from it."
There were other professors to take up such causes. Mr. Overton tried instead to protect and expand his tiny department. Publicly, he remained polite and optimistic. But he told friends he was protesting silently. He stopped wearing a tie, then a sport jacket, to campus. He attended convocation only intermittently.
In 1995, after 23 years at Charleston Southern, he applied for the chairmanship of the English department at Trident Technical College, a two-year school nearby. His salary could have climbed as high as $58,000 a year, but he didn't even get an interview. According to Mr. Crout, Professor Overton finally realized he wasn't going to teach anywhere else.
By then, the burgeoning Internet had become a ticket to a wider world. He was among the first Charleston Southern professors to have a home computer, and he became well-known for staying up deep into the night, roaming across Web sites on medieval literature and linguistics, listening in on the kinds of conversations he couldn't have on campus.
Mostly, he lurked. In the quiet of his living room, he'd download images and maps that he could use in class. But as often as he could, he'd try to find something, a tidbit or a lead, that someone else would find interesting.
"Lisette, this is a really great site!" he wrote to Ms. Luton, the French professor. "You can hear the lines from The Song of Roland read in Old French."
He began to plan for his retirement, talking with Mr. Crout about an Internet business that could bring him extra income. Still, there were indignities to surmount. After missing an important faculty meeting, Mr. Overton got a note from an administrator that questioned his dedication, according to Mr. Crout. "This was a shock to his very fiber, and an insult to everything he stood for," he said at the memorial service.
On campus, Mr. Overton pressed, in small ways, for professors to be treated more equitably. He asked the head of the Faculty Senate to push for salary increases for professors who teach large classes. In regular meetings of department chairmen, he spoke up about the salary inequities between new and senior professors. Without raising his voice, the polite Southern gentleman had begun to make himself heard. "This," Mr. Crout says, "was not the Harold Overton I knew when I first came to Charleston Southern."
Hiring Ms. Luton to teach French was his last accomplishment. From the start, he looked after her like a mother hen, encouraging her every move to revive a badly withered program, fighting to keep offering French courses that didn't draw many students. In his 1998-99 year-end chairman's report, Mr. Overton noted her successes. As for his own achievements, there just wasn't much to say. He had organized a luncheon for recent graduates from the department, at which he surprised another long-term professor with a tribute and a corsage. Under "special honors or recognition," he wrote: "Dr. Overton redirected the course, General Semantics, this year to emphasize critical thinking. He introduced the practice of writing in e-prime as a helpful method to make one think more originally as he writes."
What was he thinking as he ground out the required report, yet another chronicle of the everyday and the banal? That he kept to himself.
But when good fortune smiled on his friends, Mr. Overton smiled along. He was there at the Continental Corner in 1998, saying farewell to Rose Bigler, a criminal-justice professor who was leaving for a job in Illinois after four years in Charleston. "He whispered in my ear to be happy," Ms. Bigler recalls. "He told me I'd fallen into the honey pot.
"Harold said, 'This would never happen to me,' " she adds. "He was resigned to that."
The Lessons of a Lost Career--7
His feet swollen to twice their size, his skin jaundiced an otherworldly yellow, Harold Overton spent his final weeks in and out of Roper Hospital in downtown Charleston.
Early that September, the drained professor missed the second day of a faculty retreat that preceded the fall semester. He dragged himself in for a checkup, the first time he had been to a doctor in 17 years. Soon afterwards, he sent a message to his dean and told her he couldn't teach his classes that semester. He had liver cancer.
Way back when, Mr. Overton would host an occasional party at his home, but that had stopped years before. For the first time in a long time, visitors from the campus came by to see how he was doing; they were shocked by what they found. Years of cats and dogs and cigarette smoke and closed windows had left an overpowering smell. Somehow, in the last few months -- or was it longer? -- Harold Overton had begun to live like a shut-in.
He led most people on the campus to believe the cancer was treatable. For his close friends, he put on a brave face, or changed the subject. "Two days before he died," Ms. Luton says, "he told me he had decided to retire from teaching."
The day after that conversation, a package arrived in her mailbox. After a moment, she realized what was inside: The first copy of her first book, a study of a French children's author, adapted from her dissertation.
In her short time at Charleston Southern, Mr. Overton had always made sure to ask about its progress to publication. "Here it was," she says. "I was so excited to be able to show it to him."
She met Mr. Crout at the campus and they drove together to the hospital. Inside Mr. Overton's room, Elaine Niketas sat with his grief-stricken aunt, who had been called in from Mississippi.
Ms. Luton showed off the book to Harold. Long before, he had confided to Mr. Crout that he, too, once hoped to turn his dissertation into a book, only to discover that another scholar had published on the same topic.
When it was time to leave, Mr. Overton wanly reminded Ms. Luton not to leave her book behind.
"When does summer school end?" he asked as the two professors prepared to go. They looked at each other, confused. "Harold," one said, "it's October." Early the next morning, October 5, 1999, he died.
The Lessons of a Lost Career--8
Robert Crout does not apologize for speaking out on behalf of his close friend Harold Overton. For as long as he's been there, Charleston Southern's leaders "have pretty much buried their ghosts," he says today. "And they were ready to bury Overton and hope this episode, too, would go away."
As he fights for his job, Mr. Crout has collected letters from former colleagues who corroborate his version of Mr. Overton's last years. But Mr. Bonnette, the provost, says he never heard Mr. Overton express these complaints. Neither the professor's salary nor his working conditions were out of line for a religious college, like Charleston Southern, that grew into a university, the provost adds. "I found him to be well suited for the environment here, comfortable with his life here," he says.
"I hope you do Dr. Overton justice," says President Hunter, "because all the stuff you're getting blown in your ear does not represent Dr. Overton."
No one, not even his friends, can fully answer certain questions. Why did Harold Overton leave the church? Why didn't he ask to be promoted to full professor?
Then there is the question that can only be answered with another question.
Why did he stay?
Did he have a choice?
The academic world seemed more expansive when Harold Overton began teaching, in 1972. Today, the market calls the tune, and everybody dances to it. The distance between the haves and the have-nots is widening throughout higher education, not just at Charleston Southern University. Accounting professors at private institutions average $67,000 a year, their colleagues in communications about $20,000 less. Assistant professors of English start at $37,000, on average; in classical languages, $39,000. Meanwhile, a new assistant professor of management earns $61,000, his colleague in finance $77,000.
This big economic picture is cold comfort to professors like Harold Overton, who spend year after year in their own classrooms, teaching the young. For them, money is a flawed but convenient way to measure the value of their work to the world at large. Respect, after all, is much harder to tabulate.
The Rev. Al Zadig Jr., the assistant to the rector at St. Michael's Episcopal Church, visited and prayed with Mr. Overton several times as he lay dying in Roper Hospital. Mr. Crout, a member of the church, had asked the minister to look in on his friend. "You talk to some people," Mr. Zadig remembers, "and they'll have a kind of vigor: 'Let me tell you a story. This is what I've done.'"
Harold Overton never described his accomplishments that way. "He talked about his career somewhat mournfully," Mr. Zadig says. "It was, 'Well, this is the way it was.' Or, 'This is how it happened.' He was grieving over what could have been."