Legendary Teacher Left Legacy
by Jim Amidon
July 7, 2016
A legendary teacher and administrator whom Wabash alumni described as “one-of-a-kind” and “a perfect gentleman” has died. The College is saddened to report the passing of P. Donald Herring, Collett Professor of Rhetoric and Dean of the College, Emeritus. He was 79.
a memorial service will be held in the Pioneer Chapel at Wabash College at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 11. Arrangements are in the care of Hunt and Son Funeral Home in Crawfordsville. Online condolences may be made through the funeral home.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorials be directed to Wabash College (c/o Advancement Office), the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum, or the Sampson County History Museum in Clinton, NC.
Herring taught English literature and composition to generations of Wabash men, while also serving as Chair of the English Department, Chair of the Humanities and Fine Arts Division, and Dean of the College.
A native of Clinton, North Carolina, he earned his undergraduate degree in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1959. He earned a master’s degree and PhD with honors from the University of Chicago. He began his teaching career at Chicago, where he counted former Wabash President Patrick White as one of his students.
“Don was my teacher at Chicago and he was an amazing teacher, an influence on my entire life, and a great friend during my time at Wabash,” said White, who is now president at Millikin University. “He was a delightful man even at his most cynical and sardonic. I will miss him.”
He received a prestigious Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship at Chicago and a Fulbright Fellowship for study at the University of Edinburgh. He twice won Quantrell Fellowships for Improvement of Teaching from the University of Chicago.
He came to Wabash in 1971 as Chair of the English Department and was promoted to full professor in 1980. He was a fine administrator, guiding the Wabash English Department for nearly two full decades, during which he “returned composition courses to a prominent place in student studies” and “developed a college-wide commitment to good writing,” said former Dean Paul C. McKinney.
Herring served as Dean of the College at Wabash from 1993 through 1999. He also served as president of the Indiana Association of Departments of English, and was an active leader in the Indiana Committee for the Humanities and the National Council of Teachers of English. In 1984, he gave the fifth LaFollette Lecture in the Humanities, and he received the McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Excellence in Teaching Award in 1986. In 1987, he was honored when he became the first holder of the Collett Chair in Rhetoric.
The National Association of Wabash Men elected him as an Honorary Alumnus, and he chose the Class of 1984 to call his own.
At the time of his retirement in 2007, Herring was showered with honors, but given his quick wit and cynical sense of humor, there was a roast-like feel for much of the celebration. Writing for Wabash Magazine, English major Tim Padgett ’84, then a Time magazine journalist, reflected on Herring’s love of literature, his playful sense of humor, and candor in bringing out the best in his students.
“For me and countless other Wabash English majors, Don’s style as a teacher is simply a reflection of his engaging way as a person,” Padgett wrote. “He’s the kind of avuncular figure Hoosier kids are glad to know in college. One moment he exudes the Victorian erudition and manners they all see as a classic model of liberal learning—the collector of leather-bound first editions who plays the cello and studies Turner paintings. The next moment he’s the Faulknerian relative they all feel at home with—the whimsical Carolinian who bites his rolled-up necktie and stops a lecture to shout, ‘Y’all know what Matthew Arnold should have been doin’ on his honeymoon, but instead he wrote this damn poem. It’s enough to make me go outta my mind!’”
Perhaps what made Herring so loved by all of his students was that they were always his students. His interest in Wabash men and their lives extended decades beyond graduation, and he was particularly interested to know what alumni were reading. As Padgett wrote, he took the perspectives of the alumni right back into the classroom to better inform his teaching.
In 1999, the Indianapolis Association of Wabash Men named Herring its Man of the Year. His citation read, in part, “Literature is only the scratchings of lamblack on crushed plants. You gave us a lens to see beyond the lifeless medium. You gave the words life, and we could see that the future was sometimes on the far side of the past. Your lamp lit the corridors to the poet’s soul. And as we walked along the corridors, in the dim reflections of the pictures hung there, we recognized shadows of ourselves.”
He is survived by his wife, Johanna Raper Herring of Fayetteville, NC; two children, Paul Edgerton Herring of Newport News, VA and Johanna Herring Curl of Longview, TX; three grandchildren, Paul Levi Herring of Denver, CO, Marvin Lee Curl III, and Megan Elisabeth Curl; and three great grandchildren.
Also surviving are Mrs. Elbert N. Herring, Myrtle Beach; Miles Herring, wife Tammy and children Miles, Ayden, Ella Neal, and Jackson, Murrell's Inlet; Ashley and Ted Farley and children Cameron and Ned Farley, Richmond Virginia.
Herring was preceded in death by his brother, Elbert Herring.