Department Chair, Business and Social Sciences, Clarkston Campus of GPC
I first met Carl Griffin in 1977 at a meeting in Clarkston for joint enrollment instructors at the old DeKalb Community College. Carl, Dr. Jim Fisher, and some others were there at a meeting called by Ms. Syliva Wygoda. My first impression of Carl was: here is the kindest, most genteel of Southern gentlemen, with such courtly manners. That opinion of mine has not changed in the twenty-seven years I have known him.
For years now, I’ve counted Carl as one of my very best friends. He has always fascinated me. Indeed, I would love to be his Boswell. One summer at my request we took a trip to his hometown of Rome, Georgia. I saw where Carl and his sister Betty Van grew up, and the famous Darlington school, where he was a day student. (His roots are deep in that Rome soil, and Carl still maintains friendship with some of his Darlington classmates.) He was a scholar even in those days, and was admitted to the University of North Carolina, enrolling in the days before there were SAT tests. Indeed, Carl Griffin is old school and, at least in that sense, totally unredeemed.
Carl went to graduate school at the University of Florida, and somewhere between his studies he did many interesting things. Like many southern intellectuals, he defected to New York City for a time. He spent a memorable year or so absorbing the many cultural things that great metropolis has to offer. The year 1968 found him at the Chicago Democratic Convention as a supporter of Eugene McCarthy.
Carl has always loved politics. He may have gotten it from his father, Mr. Carl, who was a prominent attorney in Rome but whose real passions were history and politics. An early hero was Adlai Stevenson. And if it is not apparent by now, our Carl, who was also known by some in Rome as Mr. Carl, is southern to the core. In Georgia, a hero of his was Ellis Arnall. Somewhere along the line Carl left the Democratic Party and became a staunch Ronald Reagan supporter. We used to have some arguments on that one!
I think Carl’s best career years began when he met Dr. Ron Swofford. They worked so well together, and that’s the time Carl became Department Chair of Humanities at the North Campus of DeKalb Community College. There was a year of preparation at the old Sexton Woods School in Chamblee and in 1979, Carl, Ron, and others opened a new campus. I was a lowly adjunct instructor but I was never treated that way.
In the old style of academia, Carl was an intellectual leader of his Department. And what a great Department it was! In the early 1980s it came into full bloom with a striking group of teacher-scholars, fostering the Honors Program and giving birth to the Symposium, one Carl’s great intellectual legacies to what is now Georgia Perimeter College. I’ll never forget one of the earliest ones, perhaps the first. The theme was “The Changing South: From Rural to Urban.” Participation was invited among all faculty members, and I did a little session on “The Talmadge Dynasty in Georgia Politics.” It was to be the first talk I would do for community presentations, which I’ve enjoyed ever since.
Indeed, knowing Carl was, and is, always a great opportunity for self-development. He is great in the art of conversation. I don’t believe I’ve ever talked with him at length without learning something. He is a teacher among teachers. The Symposium on the Agrarians was one of those life-changing things for me. I had never read I’ll Take My Stand until then. Carl even arranged for us to meet Andrew Lytle at a dinner party, an evening I’ll never forget.
When I finally found full-time employment at Oglethorpe University, I lost contact for some years with Carl. One night I ran over to North Campus, went to the administrative office, and Carl was there, pulling night duty. Often I would visit him at night, and one could see the strain of the 12-15 hour days on him. But it was so great to renew our friendship. Carl adopted Oglethorpe as his second school and became an influential member of the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art. He taught Southern literature at Oglethorpe. When I started publishing articles, Carl read every one. He has always been so generous with his time. And when I finally finished the Ph.D., Carl was there in the audience to support me, as he had for years.
As the years passed, Carl became a kind of Mr. Chips. The students loved him. He was also a public scholar, giving community talks, speaking at book circles, doing interviews on CNN. His trip to India was pivotal for Carl, and it seemed to bring into focus all the thought and reading he had done on World Religions over the years. He brought that great course into our curriculum. I’ll never forget one memorable interview on the Nicene Creed he gave The Atlanta Journal Constitution one Easter. I was amazed at the depth of his knowledge. Indeed, Carl is the most educated man I know.
But when the College went to the five and five workload, it was never the same for Carl. He saw great irony in it, for he had started his academic career at Shorter College in Rome, with the same demanding workload. He longed for retirement as his employer, Georgia Perimeter College, became more and more bureaucratic. Although he couldn’t quite understand why I would want to leave Oglethorpe for GPC, he encouraged me and counseled me when I needed it. Indeed, Carl has always supported me in any endeavor I have done. And I will never understand how Carl lasted for fourteen years as a Department Chair! Indeed, his motto seemed to me to be the same as James Oglethorpe and the early founders of Georgia: “Not for self, but others.”
In those heavy times for me of transition in 2002, Carl and I took a trip to Amsterdam and to Paris. We had a great time. With Carl, as you could imagine, I had a great cultural orientation in every great cathedral and museum that we visited.
I’ll end with one of the enduring images I have of Carl from that trip, one I’ve never told him. We took a day trip to Chartres. Carl was in a kind of cultural heaven. We were all blown away, but nobody more than Carl. Finally, it was time to leave. The bus was full. But I just couldn’t get Carl to leave. I cajoled and herded him, and finally we were leaving. I forged ahead to the bus. But when I turned around, Carl was not there. So I went back to the Cathedral. And there I saw Carl. He was gazing at the façade and I really believe, with his historical and cultural imagination, he had tranced out into total Alpha—he was living in the Middle Ages, in some kind of fourth dimension. If not that, he was certainly in some kind of genuine mystical state.
And then Carl, who was absolutely motionless, slowly cocked his head. That was his only movement. He remained standing before that magnificent façade. I could feel that he was enveloped in reverence, love, and awe, in a kind of cultural transfiguration. I tried to feel his emotions and though I could not, I surely understood and sympathized them. Despite the urgency at the tour bus, I waited a full five minutes before I gently touched Carl on the arm.
“We must go, my friend,” I said gently to Carl, and he silently nodded in that sage way of his, for he understood. We went to the bus and, amid glares from the tour guide and some irate tourists, we took our seats. Carl did not even notice them. I did not mind at all because to me he is worth it. Carl was just being Carl. And again I was greatly impressed.
And so Carl, for many reasons we honor you. Thank you for your friendship; may your retirement at long last free you from the mundane worries of Georgia Perimeter College and start a whole new wonderful chapter in your life. God bless you, Carl!