I remember my first Literary Illness class, a curiously named component of Xavier’s graduate program in English. What immediately caught—and apparently too long held—my attention that evening was not so much the course’s content, but the physical state of my professor’s eyeglasses. I had never seen a pair of glasses so worn, so tattered, so … bent.
The earpieces were, I assume, once parallel. But time and unusually rugged wear gave them the appearance of antique rabbit-ear television antennae as they dangled mercilessly from the professor’s thick fingers. The lenses, large and rounded with thin gold rims, distorted the images behind them, giving the professor’s eyes, his curly black hair, the tabletop or any other object a slightly cartoonish quality. But as I recall, those glasses served a function more akin to a conductor’s baton than their intended ocular purpose, waving wildly about as he recited literary passages or commented on authorial intent.
This was the manner in which I spent many classes under the tutelage of Ernie Fontana, professor of English, conductor of interpretive commentary and passionate enthusiast of the literary arts.
Four years after graduating, I found myself mired in a fit of premature career burnout, looking to improve my writing abilities and hoping to broaden my professional opportunities. The solution, I decided, was to pursue post-graduate studies. I was looking for more than a degree, however. What I craved was an intellectually stimulating environment that would challenge me, help me expand my vision of our world and become a more open thinker and communicator.
Goodbye cranial sludge. Ernie Fontana was on the case.
While all of my graduate professors provided challenging, well-informed perspectives on their subjects, Fontana stood out as a fervent purveyor of all things literary and a person with a passion for the moment. He knew his craft and was intent on opening our minds to its lessons. His lectures were high-octane dialogue that mixed equal parts humor, seriousness and insight. Arms flailed, voice boomed and spittle shot from his lips like a sprinkler.
And those glasses. In an instant, they flew from table to nose, only to be ripped away and flung around in a 180-degree swath as he poured his soul into his work. He spoke loudly. His eyes squinted as he contemplated his delivery. His was a lecture that was as much physical as intellectual. It had qualities of a political rally, a sermon or perhaps an apolitical march. It was as much energy as information. While Fontana’s passion for teaching struck a chord with some, I know that just as many were less than entertained by his full-contact lectures. His style had an effect not unlike a jalapeno pepper—it either invigorated the senses or lingered painfully.
But to me, he was an example of someone with the ability to inject humor and passion into everyday life. If Fontana could get me pumped up about Edgar Allan Poe’s literary use of madness, why couldn’t I show that same excitement for the details of my own life? If he could pique my interest in John Updike’s adolescent struggles with a skin disease, why couldn’t I show greater appreciation for those with whom I come in contact? Passion, energy, fun and a flair for things out of the norm were what I was after—and what I found.
I was a firsthand witness to something dynamic. Here was a man who put everything into his craft. Appreciate it or not, his teaching approach grabbed his students’ attention and transformed traditional learning into an intellectual sporting event. It was just the kick I needed to shift my neutral frame of mind into high gear. I had made the mistake of taking life too seriously.
I had fallen into the trap of limiting my interests to all things professional, all things profitable, all things that took the place of life’s aesthetic qualities. Fontana helped me realize that passion could be part of my work, my family, my friendships.
And when I think back on those twisted glasses tenuously straddling his nose, I’m reminded of the potential we all have to positively shape the lives of those around us. Timothy J. Condron has his own marketing communications firm in Cincinnati.
Xavier magazine is assembling a package of stories about “The professor who changed my life.” If you have a story, please send it to Jessica Yerega at firstname.lastname@example.org.