Lentz House Right around the CornerGAMBIER, Ohio (February 27, 2008) The name of Perry Lentz is now fixed on the roll call of Kenyon's iconic English teachers.
The new house for the Department of English will bear the name of Lentz, thanks to gifts totaling more than $1 million from friends and former students. The list of contributors who wish to honor Lentz '64, P '88, Charles P. McIlvaine Professor of English, continues to grow for the project, expected to break ground next month northwest of Cromwell Cottage.
The two-story building of about 6,800 square feet will include faculty offices and classroom space and is expected to open in early 2009.
The honor, Lentz said, is overwhelming. He described himself as a continuing learner as much as a teacher. In seeking perspective on the accolade, Lentz surveyed his deeply rooted history in the Department of English, the spirits of his mentors, and the moments of startling insight conveyed by his students.
"Having offered instruction in Ben Franklin for forty years, I am as capable of false modesty as anyone," he said. "But it still seems to me that there is just something mistaken about this extraordinary honor.
"I have come to realize that I've been in the grip of an illusion that I am still a very junior member of the department. One of the reasons is that my great mentors … still furnish my mind. I still have the feeling that I will turn a corner in Ascension and find myself back in the southwestern classroom on the third floor on a springtime morning, with sparrows rustling in the ivy outside the window, and there will be Denham Sutcliffe."
That link with Kenyon's storied English past and the related approach to teaching is part of what makes Lentz a department treasure, said colleague Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, professor of English. "He's a legendary figure at Kenyon," Lobanov-Rostovsky said. "Nobody in the department is more deserving of having a building named after him.
"He really does believe that literature is the highest endeavor of the human spirit," Lobanov-Rostovsky said. "He brings that into the classroom. It's an inspiring thing for students."
Lentz is the author of the novels The Falling Hills and It Must Be Now the Kingdom Coming and a scholarly study of literature, war, and history, Private Fleming at Chancellorsville. He joined the faculty in 1969. Lentz has served as department chair and as director of the Exeter Program, which he helped establish in 1974.
Lentz praised his colleagues for their help in fostering intellectual commitment and "general humanity," singling out several who steered him through an intervention that rescued him from alcoholism.
"My wife, Jane, my daughters and sons-in-law and my grandchildren continue to educate me in the profoundest and most necessary ways," Lentz said. "And the students … give far more to me than I to them."
Examples span his career.
In a 1971 lecture on American literature, a student's response during a discussion on Thoreau's optimism called the class's attention to the last line of Walden, and, Lentz said, it made him "look at that sentence with new eyes." The sentence ("The sun is but a morning star.") has become a touchstone for him.
And he recalled a paper he received just last semester, in his course on Shakespeare's history plays. "The student pointed out that we find it incredible that John of Gaunt refuses to take action against King Richard II for murder, because Gaunt believes that the king is God's appointed minister on earth. So if England is no longer a 'demi-Paradise,' it is not because of Richard. We are the ones who have disenfranchised God." Lentz could not find this in literature about the plays, and he said it prompted him to view the work in a new light.
"More often than not, in class and even amidst grading a pile of papers, I've had the feeling that I shouldn't be paid to be doing this. I ought to be paying," he said. "It seems unjust, then, to be so extravagantly rewarded for the privilege of doing something over these long years, which has been its own reward.
"But I will, needless to say, accept it."
Ted Mason, professor of English and department chair, said Lentz combines the qualities identified with the teaching of English at Kenyon: Lentz is an extraordinary teacher, a scholar, and a novelist.
"He is conscious of the need to retain the virtues of the past while being open to the promise of the future," Mason said.
P.F. Kluge '64, writer in residence, described his long friendship and amiable rivalry with Lentz in his book Alma Mater. "It's good to know that my old friend and classmate will have his name on an English department building," Kluge said. "I hope the building serves us half as well, and with half the distinction, that Lentz has brought to this place."