Requiem for an English Teacher: Richard James Cima, 1932-2012

Summer in the Russell household. Hot weather. Baseball on the flat-screen. Dachshund sleeping, belly up, on the sofa. Around the 7th inning, I reach for the iPod and check my email.

Last night there were five messages… Yes. Uh-huh. Okay…  And then, while I was reading, a new one popped up. The subject heading was “Dick Cima,” and I knew it was going to be sad news.

Those of you who read the Author’s Note at the end of Dreamers of the Day may recall that the narrator’s name was chosen to honor the memory of Agnes Shanklin, who taught Freshman English at Glenbard East High School, in Lombard, Illinois, back in the 1960s. Miss Shanklin spent the first few weeks of the semester teaching her class to diagram sentences. I loved every minute.

Diagramming is a sort of linguistic algebra that promotes clarity of thought and expression. It is a dying art, as evidenced by many public displays of inanity. (Yes, I know what “Library Parking Only” is supposed to mean, but Miss Shanklin made sure her students appreciated the unintentional humor when we read signs like that.) The real Agnes Shanklin laid the foundation for everything I’ve written since 1964, and I am grateful, but despite her tutelage — not to mention the efforts of a number of copy editors, both amateur and professional — I am still capable of screwing up a sentence that makes it into published work.

Which brings me to Mr. Cima, who taught Senior English, Honors, the year I graduated from Glenbard East.

(That’s a sentence fragment, but as an element of style used to make blog entries seem informal and friendly, it is permitted. Trust me on this. I am a professional.)

After The Sparrow was published, I went back to Glenbard to find out if any of my English teachers were still there. Agnes Shanklin had died long since, but Mr. Cima had only recently retired after serving as head of the English Department for many years. Patricia Myers — his successor in the post, and his good friend — offered to phone him and ask if he’d like to meet with me. I was both thrilled and terrified to learn that he had already read The Sparrow, and that he wanted to take me to dinner the next evening.

Okay, now, remember: I was 47 years old at the time, a grownup by any standard. Nearly 30 years had passed since I was in Mr. Cima’s class. I had a special reason for wanting to contact him about The Sparrow, and yet… Well, I don’t know if it’s still true today, but in the 1960s, teachers seemed like alien beings who existed in a separate dimension and manifested themselves only within school buildings. I was completely intimidated by the very idea of having dinner with Mr. Cima because it seemed so out of bounds, and because his opinion of The Sparrow mattered so much to me.

I had no idea what he’d look like after all those years, but I spotted him as soon as I walked into the restaurant. Gray hair aside, he was just as I remembered him. Small-boned and neatly-made. Still handsome, with the kind of Renaissance face that ages beautifully. (Think Jeremy Irons in The Borgias, except… short.) Well-dressed and well-tailored, Mr. Cima was the sort of self-possessed and slightly formal gentleman for whom the word dapper is required. To this picture, add a wicked glint in the eye and a grin that flickers across the face, showing itself only briefly before hiding again behind ersatz gravitas. That was Mr. Cima.

He rose when he saw me, and pulled out my chair.

“Admit it,” I commanded as I sat down. “You were dazzled by my bravura display of advanced punctuation.”

The quick grin. The face made serious. The glint in the eye. “You are far too fond of commas,” he said, “but I am proud of you … in spite of the dangling participle on page 77.”

He pulled out his copy of the book and pointed to this: “Most of the stones, heartbreakingly, were only a few steps from where he stood to throw them.”

Much gravitas, and then it was, “Mary. What does heartbreakingly modify?”

The dinner was wonderful. And I found a moment to tell him that a chance remark of his became the world I named Rahkat. In 1968, he mentioned in class that he’d taught English as a second language for five years in Southeast Asia. One of the guys in class asked, out of the blue, “Do they have music over there?” Mr. Cima looked totally boggled by the question, but finally replied, “I can no more imagine a world without music than I can imagine a world without flowers.”

It was such an unexpected combination of ideas that it stuck with me. Decades later, Rakhat became a world of music and of flowers.

We promised to keep in touch and exchanged email addresses. I wrote to thank him for dinner, but there was no reply. A few months later, however, I finally saw “Richard Cima” in my Inbox and actually phoned my husband to tell him that. I swear to you: I was more excited to hear from Mr. Cima than I was when I got email from Arthur C. Clarke.

Mr. Cima’s notes were brief, often wryly funny, always a thrill to receive. He signed them “Dick,” but I could never call him that. He was always Mr. Cima to me.

Rather than wait for him to nail me for errors in the published books, I drummed up the nerve to ask if he’d be willing to read manuscripts before they went to the publisher, and he very kindly agreed to do so. About Doc, he wrote:

“It is a pleasure to see your writing continue to improve. If this isn’t your best, and I think it is, it is certainly your most readable.  Readable prose is no mean achievement.  Characters are well-drawn and interesting,  The priest is an unexpected pleasure.  Doc, of course, but Morgan is a real bonus. And Kate, who doesn’t end up the whore with a heart of gold.” He added, “In your past work there were occasional, brief passages that sounded borderline amateurish.  No such passages here!” He ended, “Enough of the compliments,” and followed up with a number of corrections, comments and suggestions for improving the novel. I acted on all of them. When Doc was published, he sent another email, with “Brava!” in the subject line. “I just finished “Doc” and am really impressed.  Fine writing and I enjoyed every bit of it, including the jacket. I found the passage concerning Doc’s last illness moving.”

Doc’s last illness…

Mr. Cima himself appeared frail when I saw him two years ago. While reading the manuscript of Doc, he sent an email headed “Delay,” and wrote, “I am running behind thanks to unexpected and unwelcome interruptions, but I hope to have unlimited time next week.  I have gotten as far as the end of Johnnie’s wake and found it very good, especially the dialog.” I suspect now that the “unwelcome interruptions” had to do with the fact that he was dying.

Last night, Patricia Myers emailed to tell me this:

“Dick died peacefully in his sleep on June 11. He had entered hospice about two weeks prior to his death. Dick declined any hospitalization, but probably had lung cancer. He was too weak for the doctor to do a biopsy. Dave and I were with him for about half an hour on the evening of June 10; we had a glass of wine and a good conversation interspersed with laughs. In hospice he was taking morphine, so he was mellow during our time with him…”

For a while, I just sat there, trying to take in the way he had died. There was an almost Roman austerity about him — a classical Stoicism. When I told my husband Don, he said, “That’s how you do it. He went on his own terms. He died in character.”

Once, I asked Mr. Cima where exactly he’d taught English as a second language. “Were you in the Peace Corps?” I asked. He replied that he’d spent “4 years in Cambodia and 1 in Laos, on the Asian version of a Fulbright program.”

I shot back, “Five years in Southeast Asia, teaching ESL. Yeah. Right. I bet that’s what all the CIA spooks say.”

And he replied, “Even my mother thought I was CIA.” So I was not the only one who found him mysterious.

I think he lived alone in Geneva, Illinois. He never spoke of a marriage or a companion. Children or the lack thereof were never mentioned. He had a cat. He loved opera. He traveled a good deal. He had a nephew, who accompanied him on what turned out to be his last trip to Italy, and who was with him at the end.

This morning, I searched the internet for an obituary that would tell me more about Mr. Cima than the very little he had revealed to me himself, but he had kept his private life completely private — no mean feat in a world where just about everything about just about everybody is public, thanks to Facebook and Twitter and Google.

Well, Mr. Cima, your perfect anonymity is spoiled now, but I had to say goodbye.


16 thoughts on “Requiem for an English Teacher: Richard James Cima, 1932-2012”

  1. I had an English teacher in Grade 12 who told us all, in a “Writer’s Craft” course to “tell the truth”, and urged us always to show him our best work. “Do good work”, he would say. It’s been a lot of years since then. Every day, in whatever I do, I try to do “good work”. Writing is one part of life where Quality (as Robert Pirsig would talk of it), and The Good (in a more or less Platonic sense) intersect with real life. To all human beings who try to be good, and to do good, and for whom doing good work included showing others the way to go, including Mr Cima, the world owes very much.
    I’ll always remember my best teachers, and I know that a life spent in striving to help others is always richly rewarding, both here, and in the world to come.


  2. I’m sure that this tribute would have meant more to Mr. Cima than any obituary that a local newspaper might have run, if the latter had been published and were he able to read them both.

    You bring back fond and grateful memories of my high school English teachers at Norfolk Academy, Mr. MacConochie and Mr. Babcock.

  3. Definitely the words any teacher would hope to hear. We hope to have a lasting influence not only on grammar and punctuation but also on the character of our students. You certainly reflect that which Mr. Cima had upon you. I remain indebted to your openness to share your development of The Sparrow, which remains a favorite of many of my former students, and the joy of meeting a living, breathing approachable author when we came to your local book promos here in the Dayton area. My sympathies for your loss of a person who was influential in your growth as a person and writer and my thanks for the acknowledgement of the worth of a teacher’s efforts.

  4. This is a beautiful tribute with touches of humor. That makes it all the more rare.
    Thank you.

  5. Mary,
    Sometimes a message arrives in an improbably appropriate moment. I’m attending my thirtieth high school reunion this weekend and many of us have been discussing the teachers that left a mark on us (sometimes literally haha). Universally we agree on our favorites, among them two English teachers that have kept me from embarrassing myself on a daily basis.
    Even then they were pretty old, and wrangled teenagers in a kindly but severe sort of way. I also remember relating to them in a much more formal manner than my kids do to their own teachers. The high schools in our area have grown so much since I attended, my children will graduate in classes roughly triple the size of my own. Maybe that accounts for the informality that seems to pervade their relations with the faculty.
    Also, growing up as part of a generation accustomed to congratulations for the slightest show of competency (who am I kidding, they just need to be breathing somewhere near the campus and a gold star comes in the mail), they can’t imagine feeling inordinately pleased to get a small nod of approval from Mr. Berglund or to have Mrs. Oak read their work aloud.
    Here’s to the teachers!Hey, maybe we should be paying them more!

  6. A beautiful tribute. As a teacher, he made a huge impact on you and you acknowledged that. That must have meant so much to him. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Thank you for sharing this very touching story, Mary, and for reminding us of those who have influenced us for the better. I had a high school English teacher whom I loved – she died, too young, of cancer a couple of years ago and is buried right across the street. (They opened up a new section of the cemetery that we live near – the section is right across the street from our home!) Her daughter married one of my cousins, so she was family, of sorts. I learned so much from her and miss her to this day. God bless all those who are so influential in our lives, and in my case, that includes YOU! 🙂

  8. Thank you Mary for a very well written and articulate note about Dick Cima. It was only through your words that I learned more about Dick especially that he was a teacher. As an Egyptian college girl I knew him as the leader of 12 American girls and boys who visited Egypt in 1964. I was among the lucky ones who hosted our American friends. It was my first encounter with Americans. Dick stood high as a very elegant typically reserved leader. Now that I am much older globe trotter and after reading your words about him many memories come back to my mind much clearer and better defined. He will be always remembered as a great elegant Italian Gentleman. By the way There is a strong bond between Italians and Egyptians. Ambassador Moushira Khattab (PH D)former Minister of Family and Population

  9. Thanks, Mary, for this wonderful remembrance of Dick. His combination of toughness and tenderness (invariably veiled), not to mention his wit, were at the heart of what made him a great teacher and a wonderful friend. All of us who knew him well were made better by him and learned to love him. He understood a great deal, but was always able to learn more from another, if one was willing to stick to the intellectual or literary struggle with him. We are having a difficult time accepting that the world goes on without Dick in it.

  10. Dick was my uncle. I was just thinking about him, and stumbled upon your wonderful story about him. I am sad to say that I never knew him very well, but your description of him was exactly as I remember.

  11. What a lovely remembrance. I am writing this YEARS after you posted it, due to a recent lunch with Howard and Juanita Spanogle (yes! Glenbard East Echo!) in Asheville. NC. I had Mr. Cima and Miss Shanklin as English teachers; plus the incomparable Mrs. Chester. I’m sending this link on to my sisters, both Mr. Cima veterans (and Mr. Span veterans as well).

    Best regards,

Leave a Comment