If There Be Any Virtue

Finally brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

I am not someone who typically pulls up Biblical quotes, but I have loved those words from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians ever since I first read them, and today they remind me of Jack Phreaner, a wonderful teacher and gentle man who passed away on September 10. Here’s a link to his obituary as it appeared in a local paper.

A familiar and always welcome face at Summer Institutes, Renewals, and other Writing Project gatherings, Jack had been co-director of the South Coast Writing Project since its inception more than thirty years ago, and he embraced the program and all of its participants as a part of his life and his heart. He was a distinguished and well-loved English teacher for decades until his retirement, supervised student teachers in UCSB’s Teacher Education program, and co-directed the Literature for Teachers Program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. A presenter at conferences, seminars, and in-services too numerous to list, Jack’s unfaltering dedication to SCWriP and to his students and colleagues remains an inspiration to us all. We will be forever grateful to Jack for his steadying presence, his sanguine perspective, and the constancy of his friendship.

Jack Phreaner was certainly not naive, but he was sort of wide-eyed: life genuinely amazed him. Well into his later years, he remained fascinated, engaged, and exuberant, as well as kind, good-humored, and optimistic. Jack saw the best in all of us, and because he did, we wanted to be better.

He was also someone who honored the past and cherished memories and stories, his own and those of others. I remember that when SCWriP moved out of the old building that housed our offices, it was Jack who rescued our collection of framed photo collages and drove around with them in the trunk of his car for months. He knew they were important and that someone would eventually realize it too.  Over the course of the last few days, I have been compiling some of his writings for an anthology, and I am struck again and again by his gentle sharing of childhood recollections and family stories…the way he honors these…as well as his heartwarming observations on teaching and life, and his unfailing tenderness and humor. I can hear his voice, and I am enjoying his company.

During Summer Institutes, Jack had the habit of collecting little quotes and snippets of conversation from participants, putting them all together in a finished piece that made each individual feel valued and witty. Whether gathered at his park, his home, or the classroom, he made folks feel they were  a part of something meaningful, and that their contributions mattered. He respected the input and uniqueness of everyone around him, and sought always to create a sense of community. He shared his wisdom without fanfare, listening respectfully to the ideas of others far less experienced, leaving it to someone else to discover with astonishment the breadth and scope of  his own accomplishments, not at all concerned if they never did. And I can’t even begin to estimate how many young people he introduced to the joys of theater, literature, and teaching.

Jack wondered aloud if his life would matter, if he had made a dent, and what might endure in the wake of his little boat after he sailed away. I can tell you this: there’s a large crowd standing at the shore now, thinking on these things, hearts filled with gratitude and love.


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