An eerie quiet at St. John Fisher College

An eerie quiet at St. John Fisher College

4/25/20. St. John Fisher College. Photos: David Kramer

Recently, I’ve made excursions to six mostly deserted educational campuses: a high school, a two-year college, two four-year colleges, a university and an institute. [SEE SERIES AT END]

Last Saturday, at St. John Fisher College, my luck ran out. A security officer politely and understandably explained that campus was closed to the public, and I could only take pictures from a distance on the outer sidewalks or a few nearby at the entrance and parking lot.

Outside and inside the Joseph S. Skalny Welcome Center

Nonetheless, on a sparkling spring afternoon, even if from afar, I enjoyed the vista of the 164 park-like acres: the gothic architectural style of buildings like Kearney Hall, the steeple’s cross reaching over 85 feet above the ground of the Hermance Family Chapel, 27 modern buildings on expansive lawns with signature Fisher brick everywhere.


Outside of two or three security officers in vans, I saw exactly two people on the campus grounds. By my fifth excursion the impressions become familiar: the pleasure of a campus walk with flowers, steeples, statues, sculptures, the architecture range from gothic to postmodern leavened by that eerie quiet and the surreal sense — especially during the work week when the schools are in full session– that all around me the virtual cloud is humming with intellectual activity I can only imagine but not see.

I am pretty confident that to some degree campuses will reopen in the Fall. At the same time, my solitary tours feel a little like glimpses into a possible future, a future when Zoomlearning has proved so efficient and cost-effective and perhaps so inclusive (a good thing) that ivy-laden campuses become relics or historical re-recreation sites like the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island or Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Or a future when a small, still active campus may be like what the post office will become: fewer and fewer locations, doing less and less, its carriers replaced by drones. Or when spotting a campus will be like coming across one of of those rare birds: the pay telephone booth.

Of the five campuses, I frequent SJF the least. SJF has occasionally appeared in Talker, and vice versa.

George Cassidy Payne is a SJF alum, class of 2000. For Burned Over: on the search for some of Rochester’s most sacred Christian sites, George visited his alma mater.

Saint John Fisher College. Photo: George Cassidy Payne SJF ’00 from Burned Over: on the search for some of Rochester’s most sacred Christian sites

St. John Fisher, gift of the Class of 1965. Photo: George Cassidy Payne SJF ’00 from Burned Over: on the search for some of Rochester’s most sacred Christian sites

Much of my recent interaction with the SJF campus involves the Buffalo Bills training camp where the Buffalo Jills signed my old football. As described in the 2015 Vivid memories of the four year Super Bowl run:

Eleven years ago, I took my old Wisconsin Badger football to the Bills Camp at St. John Fisher College to be autographed. The lines were too long, so instead, noticing that the Buffalo Jills cheerleaders were signing items in the activity tent, I had the young women inscribe the ball. Almost every year since, I have repeated the ritual.

(left) from Vivid memories of the four year Super Bowl run; (right) Buffalo Bills WR Terrell Owens signs autographs for fans at training camp. 7-27-2009, St. John Fisher College, Pittsford, NY ( You can see why I avoid the “regular” signing sessions.

In ’06, Nicole offered, Cheers! In ’10, Hannah, XOXO.  In ’07, Sarah Michelle wrote to my middle aged friend, Dean, Your the future bills quarterback! In ’12, Julie beckoned to my elderly father and his elderly friend, See you boys at the Game!  That same year, I was pleased that Meghan went one further, Dave, see you after the game!  

My favorite is *Kelly, Buffalo Jills, Rochester, NY 8/26/04. For years now, I have held the now deflated Rawlings triumphantly, telling any one who will listen; “See, I went to Bills Camp and I got KELLY  [Jim Kelly was the Bills quarterback during the run] to sign my ball!” And it is true. Photographs don’t lie.

“Project College Bound” connects St John Fisher and Rochester Early College describes a 2013 partnership between SJF and Rochester Early College International High School, including a tour of Lavery Library and lectures and interviews with faculty, administrators and students.

(above) Apr 25, 2020, Growney Stadium in background; (below) Nov 07, 2013 from “Project College Bound” connects St John Fisher and Rochester Early College

In “When one goes down, ten go up”and restorative justice, I met and communicated with SJF President Gerard Rooney who attended the 12/21/18 re-dedication of a new statue of Frederick Douglass created by Olivia Kim.

(left) Olivia Kim; (right) David Kramer with SJF President Gerard Rooney from “When one goes down, ten go up”and restorative justice

Recently, in An eerie quiet at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Brighton, I learned about Thomas Urban Way, graduate of McQuaid and SJF, killed in Vietnam, September 9th, 1967.

(left) Thomas Urban Way SJF ’66 [Photo: DANIEL COGNÉ]; (right) Way’s bollard on the Walk of Honor in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester in Highland Park from An eerie quiet at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Brighton

In Fall 2007, I taught Emergence of American Literature.

In late summer 2007, I was asked to fill a maternity leave position for Emergence of American LiteratureThe class went well and the impressive students were engaged. Like most instructors, I reflect back on what I could have done differently. As the course was essential a survey class, as the semester progressed the structure and trajectory became somewhat too amorphous. While we covered much material — religious and political writings, poetry and fiction — I could have maintained tighter thematic focus.

One unalloyed success was a visit from an outside guest speaker. In class, we read some writings of Frederick Douglass, including What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?, delivered by Douglass on July 5th, 1852 at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall. I knew Douglass scholar and re-creator Nazareth College’s Dr. David Anderson who recently celebrated his 90th birthday, and invited him to join us for an evening.

From the start, I had a clear idea what I hoped to accomplish. Dr. Anderson and I reviewed the material the class had covered to which he tailored his presentation/re-creation. The students submitted questions gleaned from our readings.

(left) 1/21/19 at the the eighth annual Coexistence Dinner. “Frederick Douglass reenactor Dr. David Anderson gave a featured portrayal as part of Fisher’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Day.” (Photo by William Maskrey)  “Fisher community gathers to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” (Cardinal Courier 1/24/19); (right) “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” from The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume One, Second Edition, 1994 [David Kramer’s collection]¹

The students were enthralled, attentive and maybe inspired. I was more than pleased to give Dr. Anderson his $150 honorarium. As reported in “Fisher community gathers to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” (Cardinal Courier 1/24/19):

Pharmacy student Justin Kuriyilel described the presentation of Douglass’s life as “passionate.”  Elbania Mitchell, also a pharmacy student, stated, “I haven’t seen anything like that before.”

12 years later, Dr. Anderson still has his mojo going.


My second outside speaker was more ambitious but not quite as successful. While preparing for the class, I remembered that Professor Jason Richards had recently published “Melville’s (inter)national burlesque: whiteface, blackface, and ‘Benito Cereno.” in the University of Rhode Island’s American Transcendental Quarterly, a journal for which I worked in graduate school. I also learned that Jason then taught at SUNY’s The College at Brockport, and lived in Rochester. I invited Jason to the class to discuss Melville’s novella Benito Cereno (1855).

(left) Richards, Jason “Melville’s (inter)national burlesque: whiteface, blackface, and ‘Benito Cereno.” ATQ: 19th century American literature and culture, vol. 21, no. 2, 2007 [Held at the University of Rochester]; (right) Eric J. Sundquist, “Suspense and Tautology in ‘Benito Cereno,'” Ideology and Classic American Literature, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen, 1987

For our Melville unit, we read Benito Cereno and listened to portions of its audio book.

Benito Cereno by Herman Melville, read by John Chatty, Digitally Mastered, ℗1980 by Rimcin Recordings, Originally published in 1855, United States, All rights reserved, (2037), Three 1½ hour cassettes [David Kramer’s collection]

A complex work for sure, Benito Cereno is Melville’s a fictionalized account about the 1805 revolt on a Spanish slave ship captained by Don Benito Cereno. In the story, the American captain Amasa Delano of the sealer and merchant ship Bachelor’s Delight visits the San Dominick, a Spanish slave ship apparently in distress. At first, Delano — and the reader — have no reason to think that Cereno is not fully in command. As the narrative progresses, we — perhaps sooner than Delano — discover the slave Babo has led a revolt and kidnapped Cereno. For a long time, Babo fools Delano, by pretending to be a servant while he has really become the ship’s captain. The ruse is uncovered and the American sailors recapture the vessel.

Beginning in the mid to late 1980s, Melville’s novella became a canonical staple of the then-rising literary methodology New Historicism. In graduate school, I read Eric J. Sundquist’s “Suspense and Tautology in ‘Benito Cereno,'” from that New Historicist ur-text, Ideology and Classic American Literature (1987) in which Sundquist persuasively shows how the novella is imprinted by what could be called an imperial epistemology, one that Melville critiques. Benito Cereno criticism can be hard for graduate students, and more so for undergraduates who often lack a deep historical understanding of Melville’s period.

In “Melville’s (inter)national burlesque: whiteface, blackface, and ‘Benito Cereno.”, Jason situates the work within the discourse of blacklace and its companion, whiteface. For example, while we may easily see the slave Babo using the manipulative mask of black face, Jason intriguingly claims that Captain Delano’s unwitting wearing of white face is really the ideological pivot upon which Benito Cereno pivots.

Not surprisingly, the students found the essay to be a tough slog. While they liked the concept of white face, they understandable found dense, theoretically informed monographs — in this case, Jason’s version of New Historicism — to be difficult. I was reminded of my graduate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Thomas Schaub, who told us that when teaching Moby Dick to undergraduates he talks about myths of American individualism, while for graduate students, he brings out 19th century nautical maps of ports and whaling lanes in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

From The Seafarers: The Whalers by A.B.C Whipple and the editors of the Time-Life Books (1979). Front and back end papers: Drawing by Peter McGinn. [Originally owned by the Kesequa High School’s library (Dalton-Nunda Central School District), now part of David Kramer’s collection]

I was not quite sure what I wanted the class to take from Jason’s presentation and discussion. We enjoyed his mini-lecture on 19th century burlesque, minstrelsy, cake walking, black face and white face, illuminated with caricatured images of gawking white southerners and subservient black chattel slaves. In the discussion, however, I sensed the class had trouble “getting” Jason’s connections between 19th century cultural phenomena and Melville’s text itself.  At the end — that voice again —  I wondered if I could have prepared the class differently for Jason’s visit.

In the vast academic scheme of things, I think Justin’s visit was worthwhile. Having to leave Jason empty handed, I just wished I had not spent my whole honorarium budget on Dr. Anderson.


¹ My friend Joseph Volpe, Esq. wrote me a stern letter on his firm stationery expressing keen displeasure at what he characterized as my misleading attribution as to who hand wrote the in-text and marginalia annotation notes on the 1994 Heath edition of  “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Those scribblings — nay critical gems — are, in fact, Joseph Volpe’s from when he taught Early American Literature at the University of Rhode Island. To be technical, I wrote than I owned the Heath anthology with no mention of the author of the notes: neither Dr. David Kramer, Joseph Volpe, Esq. nor any personage living or deceased.

When Mr. Volpe and I lived lived in Providence, RI’s Armory District, Joseph — literary scholar-cum-barrister — gave me the volume in exchange for walking his dog Pace in nearby Dexter Park when Joe was out gallavanting with his girlfriend in Boston.

When reviewing the anthology, I noticed Joe marked another of Melville’s fictions, “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” (1853).

“Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” from The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume One, Second Edition, 1994 [David Kramer’s collection] In-text and marginalia annotation notes by Joseph Volpe, Esq.

Unfortunately, Joe did not annotate Melville’s Benito Cereno. Had he done so, his perspicacious commentary would have been an invaluable resource for Emergence of American Literature.

The campuses 

An eerie quiet at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Brighton

An eerie quiet at Nazareth College

An Eerie Quiet at Nazareth College, Part Two, by Ian Richard Schaefer

An eerie quiet at the University of Rochester

An eerie quiet at Rochester Institute of Technology

An eerie quiet at Monroe Community College

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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