My first college teaching job was in West Virginia. I wanted out (and maybe my dean wanted me gone too) when one of the many applications I sent out struck fire. I had an interview in North Dakota. It was already late summer, and the school was 1,200 miles away. But there was no question that we would go to the interview. We made arrangements to drop our son and dog off at my wife's sister's where she lived near Chicago, about a 12 hour drive to North Dakota.
The drive north and west was neat. It had been our dream to live in the north, albeit the woodsy north, and it became clear as we drove west and north of Minneapolis, we were moving away from the woods. But, with some differences, it reminded us of Illinois when we were very young. The land was flat, and between the little, clean towns, there were prosperous looking farms with big red barns. We made good time, and instead of registering at the Holiday Inn, we decided to drive the 30 miles to the town the school was in. There was plenty of daylight left to check it out.
It was immediately clear that we did not need to go back. We found a motel that would lodge us for $8 instead of the $20 or $25 that the Holiday Inn would have charged, and a good, inexpensive place to eat for the evening, and a diner for the morning that baked its own sweet rolls. We were impressed.
I was really impressed with the school. It was a residential campus, with many buildings from different eras, with lawns and mature trees—it looked like a college. The interview itself was, well, another thing.
The dean was a small man, apparently totally dedicated to the school. He lived nearby and, for after hours and weekends, had a school phone extension that rang in his home office. When the tour stopped and the interview started, he invited my wife into his inner office with us, and included her in the conversation. Odd, I thought. What he had to say was typical for the day. Two year schools had a special mission, a failure of a student is like a failure of the school itself. I was of course nervous, and I can't remember my responses, but things seemed to be going well. Then the phone rang, and the dean, a little short, reminded his clerk that he was not supposed to get calls, and...and then he said “Oh,” and excused himself with apologies. It was a very important call.
He did not, however, punch the hold button on his phone and hang up. Rather, he placed the receiver right on his desk and went to the outer office to talk. With a little straining, we could hear both sides of the conversation, and we learned that there was only one other candidate for the job I was applying for, and that the fellow on the line was he. Oh, man. I have no exact memory of the dialogue between the two, except that we could hear it all fairly clearly. If the exact words are wrong, they reflect what I think I heard:
“University of Colorado at Boulder? I undergraded there. “
“I thought maybe that was true. When I told Professor Gould that there was an opening there, and gave your name, he said maybe he knew you...”
“George Gould? He was my mentor. I don't know if I'd have made it through...”
And my heart sinks. Let's see, we've already driven 24 hours out of the last 48, and by 1 PM, we'll be on the road again for the 12 hours back to Chicago...
“As long as we are dealing with coincidences, your last name is Aldrich...”
“You know my dad? He thought maybe it was you when he saw your name in the announcement.”
“Well, small world. You'll be here tomorrow, then...”
And I stopped listening. Maybe the part about being the son of a long lost friend is a trick of my memory, but it could have been, judging by how I felt. He came back into the office with a smile, and got back to his business at hand. Did he notice that we were a little down? I don't know what happened next except that, finally, we shook hands, and the head of the English department met up with me for a chat, and told me to ignore the stuff about not failing students. I remember nothing more. Even the drive home was glum. First to Chicago, then to West Virginia.
And in West Virginia, I heard nothing. A week passed, and I called North Dakota. It seemed like no one had heard of the dean, until I finally got a hold of the English Department head. “No,” he said, “you're the guy. Both Vernon and I wanted you. I don't know what the problem is.”
I couldn't quit a job and pack up and go to North Dakota on that slim hope, and I stayed another 2 years where I was. I found out that I had won the job, but that the dean got ill, was rushed to the Mayo Clinic, and in the meantime, the college president put a hold on hiring.