This week I re-watched the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day, because I wanted to see my former teacher, Lucy Gabbard, the woman who had such an effect on me when I was first an undergraduate and then a graduate student at Eastern Illinois University. She’s billed as “Flat Tire Lady” in this film because she’s one of the women in need of assistance when a tire goes flat and Bill Murray comes to the rescue. She has a line of dialogue in a later scene when she thanks Murray at a community gathering. Just to see her sweet smile and to hear her kind voice (Lucy died in 2006) reminded me of the unexpected grace that can come to us when we need it most.
I was nineteen years old when I transferred from a community college to Eastern. In those days—1975—students registered for classes by going to the women’s gymnasium where each department had a table manned by faculty members. If you wanted to sign up for a class, you had to get a card from the appropriate department. Lucy happened to be at the English table when I arrived. In her advisory role, she asked me what interested me. I remember it was hot in that unair-conditioned gym, and who knows how long Lucy had been sitting at that table, but she greeted me with a smile and from the get-go took a genuine interest in me. I told her I loved the plays of Eugene O’Neill. “Oh, you should take my class,” she said. Actually it was a team-taught class in Modern Drama. Lucy, you see, happened to be married to the Director of the Theatre Department, and they taught a course that examined plays as works of literature while also casting, blocking, rehearsing, and performing scenes from those plays. At this point, I’d acted in a handful of community theatre productions. I walked away from English Department table that day, genuinely excited about taking this class with Lucy and her husband, Gabby.
I thought I could write. Lucy, in her kind way, showed me that I couldn’t. In many cases this would be the end of the story. I’d be a devastated nineteen year-old—a kid from a town of a thousand people in the southeastern part of the state, a kid from a graduating class of twenty-six in a working class community, a kid many would have considered disadvantaged, a kid on his way back to where he came from and the working class life that waited for him there. This could have easily been the scenario, but in the end it wasn’t, thanks to Lucy.
Day by day, I sat with her in her office and she went over my poorly crafted papers and taught me how to write. She didn’t have to do this, but she took the time, and she was patient, and I learned. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the skills. I just hadn’t had the proper preparation. Lucy gave that to me, and yet I was prone to wasting too much time playing pinball in the student union instead of attending class. Lucy and Gabby’s class was the only one I never missed. I took that Autumn Semester class, and in the spring I signed up for the next course in the sequence, the one that focused on the Theatre of the Absurd. By the end of the year, I’d received A’s in both of those courses, but had dropped other classes or taken the bad grades I’d earned. It was clear that I’d have to leave school, which I did. “I hope you’ll be back,” Lucy said to me. It took only a few weeks of working in the press room at a tire manufacturing plant to convince me that I had to find a way back to school, and this time I’d fully apply myself.
Which is exactly what happened. After a year and half in the tire manufacturing plant, I’d saved enough money to go back to Eastern, and, as the fates would have it, Lucy was the first teacher in the English Department I saw. I was in the hallway at Coleman Hall, waiting for my first class, and suddenly there was Lucy. She smiled when she saw me. “You came back,” she said. “I’m so glad.”
As was I. I’m still glad to this day. I received my bachelor’s degree with a respectable GPA and went on to earn my master’s degree with a perfect 4.0 average. Lucy directed my thesis. In a few years, I’d go on to earn my MFA, and then ten years later, my Ph.D. So many years have passed since I was Lucy’s student, but I owe everything to her. She had such faith in me. I wanted to do well so she wouldn’t think the time she took with me a waste. Some years after I left Eastern, Lucy retired, and she and Gabby moved to Chicago where they both began acting. Lucy played Grandma Joad in Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of The Grapes of Wrath, a show that won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1990. This led to small roles in a number of films, roles like Flat Tire Lady. To me, though, she’ll always be the teacher who cared, the one who took the time to bring me up to speed, the one who believed in me, and the one I wanted to please. She set the bar for me, and I took up her challenge. She did it with kindness and encouragement and plain talk. I’d be nothing without her.