For a Friend: University dedicates “reading nook” to the late Prof. Satterfield

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”

That’s what one of the new bronze plaques just north of Old Main reads. It’s a strange inscription to choose to memorialize someone. Unless that someone is the late Professor Emeritus of English Leon Satterfield, whose teaching career at Nebraska Wesleyan stretched from 1960 to 2000.

The quote, familiar to thousands of Satterfield’s students, comes from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Some context: Huck faced a dilemma in helping Jim escape from slavery. While freeing Jim appears inarguably right to us, the issue wasn’t so clear-cut to Huck.

[S]omething inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you, there, that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”

It made me shiver.

Huck resolved to get right by God and wrote a letter to Jim’s owner, letting her know where she could find him. Then he was plagued by warm memories of Jim and their adventures.

It was a close place. I took [the letter] up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.

This was simply something Huck had to do for a friend.

Likewise, the plaques quoting Satterfield’s favorite authors, the reading benches, the hydrangea and the nearly 300 tulip bulbs that together comprise the “Satterfield Reading Nook” between Smith-Curtis and Old Main are simply things Satterfield’s friends had to do for him.

On April 12, 2012—exactly one year after his death from Alzheimer’s disease, his colleagues and friends gathered to dedicate the nook in his memory.

Speaking with poignancy and humor at the event was Satterfield’s daughter, Amy Satterfield (‘83). You can read her remarks in their entirety below:

My dad thought the Nebraska Wesleyan University campus was an extension of his backyard. My whole family felt at home here, but I’m not sure if Dad actually knew where his house stopped and the campus began.

Here is where Dad worked and played; it’s a tossup which he enjoyed more. Besides making a living here, he ran here, attended sporting events here, went to plays and heard speakers, made lifelong friends or lured them here, and socialized here. He brought out-of-town relatives here like other people might take theirs to the top of the capitol building or to a nice restaurant. And he and Mom, with one dog or another, walked here every night to end their day.

He took great joy in [the landscaping work done on campus], as you would if people did wonderful things to your backyard without being asked and at no expense to you.

 

Dad knew the physical campus with the detail that he knew his organic garden and compost pile behind our garage. He knew of every tree as it got planted, every new flowering bush, every inspired botanical upgrade that his friend, Twyla Hansen, made to the Wesleyan landscape in the ’80s and ’90s, and he took great joy in them, as you would if people did wonderful things to your backyard without being asked and at no expense to you.

Dad enjoyed the beauty of the campus year-round, and it often caused him to wax poetic. In the fall, dad recited Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Margaret, Are You Grieving over Golden Groves Unleaving?” In the winter, he sang Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to the tune of “Oh, Christmas Tree.” And in spring, his favorite season here, his walk home through campus might elicit Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” as well as an explanation of what the heck this had to with Abraham Lincoln. And in the summer? Aah, there was no summer reference because Dad led a very good life and didn’t work from June to August.

It says something about the holistic charm of a university when a man works here, plays here, communes here, likes it here, is inspired to write here, then walks home and recites poetry about here, and ultimately, at the end of the day, brings his dogs back here so they can poop.

Dad loved Wesleyan, and my family is enormously grateful that it loved him back. We want to say thank you not only for this lovely space you are dedicating in his honor, but also for the opportunities you gave him to teach, write and research, for his “treehouse” office you gave him in the library when he retired, and for the welcoming and safe environment you gave him when he grew ill with Alzheimer’s but could still find his way here. Thank you for appreciating Dad at all stages of his life.

This space would have made Dad really happy, not because you’re dedicating it to him – that would have given him, in his words or Mark Twain’s (I get them mixed up), the fantods — but because it’s charming and inspirational and adds to the already great quality of life at Wesleyan. Thank you for making this happen; my family looks forward to visiting this space and feeling Dad’s spirit here, and we hope students, faculty, friends and other visitors can feel inspired to create or relax here, too.