Friday, May 16, 2008

Folklorist Henry Glassie retires

Glassie: ‘Look at the overlooked’

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Professor of Folklore Henry Glassie stands outside Bear's Place Monday afternoon. Glassie will be retiring this year after serving IU for nearly three decades.
Ryan Dorgan • IDS
After more than 40 years of teaching folklore and showing more than 100 doctoral students what he learned in his studies, IU professor Henry Glassie is retiring.

Although the 67-year-old professor will no longer be teaching, his brown eyes still light up with excitement when he explains what he learned during his travels to more than 12 countries while observing everyday people.

“All (countries) offer the same thing,” he said. “I want to make people more aware of how big the world is.”

Glassie was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Virginia. Listening to his grandmother tell stories about her past and watching his grandfather’s carpentry work fascinated Glassie at an early age.

“I was thrilled with what (my grandfather) could make,” he said. “It’s interesting to think about how people can turn plants into food and mud into pottery.”

Determined to learn how other people from around the country and the world shaped their environments, Glassie received his Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught at IU from 1967 to 1976. He then continued his teachings at the University of Pennsylvania until 1988, after which he returned to IU, where he stayed ever since.

“IU has the best folklore department in the U.S.,” Glassie said. “It does a good job at bringing the world to IU.”

Glassie’s recent struggle with kidney failure earlier in the school year caused him to make the decision to retire. Glassie said he never went to a hospital until he experienced serious pain. Glassie’s wife, Pravina Shukla, also an IU folklore professor, recalled the horror of seeing her husband undergo the experience.

“It was the worst day of my life,” she said.

IU journalism professor Michael Evans is one of Glassie’s friends and former students. Evans recalled being concerned about Glassie’s condition but knew he would be OK in the end.

“We were quite concerned for him, but we also knew he was quite strong,” he said.

Glassie is now in stable condition, but after losing the time he could have spent traveling, he made the decision to retire from teaching in order to continue to travel and write. Glassie said if the kidney failure hadn’t happened, he would have continued to teach.

“Some of my students are already retired,” Glassie said with a chuckle.

Because Glassie never learned to type, he wrote out all of his works longhand, even a 1,000-page book, Shukla said. His devotion to his work was one characteristic that attracted her to Glassie when the couple first met in 2000 while they both taught folklore at IU.

“I owe the fact that I am a folklorist to Henry,” she said. “We’ve gone around the world together with a similar eye. Our ideas are compatible.”

Along with being a lovable husband, Evans said Glassie is very devoted to everyone around him.

“Henry is the single most important influence in my life,” he said. “I love him dearly.”

With only pens and paper, Glassie has written more than 20 books on the art, culture and architecture of many countries. He has won countless awards in his writings on Ireland, Bangladesh and Turkey. He won the Award for Superior Service by the Turkish Ministry for his book, “Turkish Traditional Art Today.”

Glassie recalls experiencing nothing but hospitality and kindness in Turkey and “amazing richness” in the culture. He was determined to break the negative stereotypes that are sometimes associated with the highly populated

Muslim country.

“Muslims were the enemy, according to the (U.S.) government,” Glassie said. “I wanted others to understand how Muslims really are.”

Glassie also broke negative stereotypes associated with Bangladesh in his book “Art and Life in Bangladesh.” The book won the Certificate of Honor from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs of Bangladesh.

Glassie recalls feeling anger when former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called the country a “bottomless basket” in the 1970s. Glassie said he encountered lovable and happy people in Bangladesh, which makes the country wealthy in his point of view.

“What some people call ‘poor’ is rich in my mind,”

he said.

In all of his travels, Glassie discovered that countries he traveled to were not so different from one another, yet each country shaped its own uniqueness.

“People who are alike transform something to make it theirs,” he said.

Another thing that makes countries similar and different is the experiences from colonialism, Glassie said, as he noted similarities between Ireland and Bangladesh. Glassie said colonialism has a terrible history that still haunts countries today, and he dismisses all claims he said some make about the benefits of it.

“You don’t need railroads,” he said. “You need self-esteem.”

Glassie was determined to teach all of his students to be compassionate in their studies and to have the same love for different cultures as he has.

“I want my international students to know how important their own cultures are and not to be intimidated by the U.S.,” he said. “I hope my U.S. students bring back important info that the world needs.”

Glassie and Shukla plan to spend time in Nigeria, studying a famous modern painter and prince named Twins Seven-Seven. Although Glassie will no longer teach, he hopes he can learn more and write more books.

“It’s important to look at the overlooked,” he said, “look for what was left out of

the records.”
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