Which in the case of the multi-faceted Dr. Peter Whelan, is saying quite a lot
In his six-plus decades on earth, Peter Whelan has served in the British Army, learned to speak more than a half dozen languages (including a few that barely exist anymore), taught English to Spaniards and Spanish to Americans, lectured Jordanian on the British novel, served as a translators between prisoners and their lawyers, and taught every imaginable facet of world literature to a generation of students at Francis Marion University.
And the list just goes on from there.
Looking back on it all early this spring, as he neared retirement after 23 years as a full-time professor in FMU’s Department of English, Whelan waxed wistful, but with a touch of British irony.
“When I stop to think about it,” he says, “it appears that what I’ve done is make a career of being a dilettante.”
Briticisims aside, Dr. Whelan’s career is a bit more substantial than that. He is an accomplished scholar and linguistic, and he is a superb teacher. But, as he rides off into the sunset (he’s also an avid cyclist) it is fair to say that he will be followed by fewer regrets than most. Peter Whelan has packed a lot into a lifetime, while both indulging his interests and accepting new challenges just about every time they have appeared.
“The best way to describe Peter Whelan,” says Dr. Jon Tuttle, Whelan’s long-time next-door neighbor in the FMU English Department, “is that he’s an interesting bunch of guys. He’s done things no one person should have been able to do.”
The Cold Warrior
Whelan was a mediocre student while growing up in England. The only subjects he really found interesting were languages – first French, then Latin. They were unique among his studies in that, “I actually put myself out for them,” he says.
Whelan contemplated going into the law, but his lackluster grade school scholasticism led to an unusual initial posting for a future academician: the British Army. Whelan attended Sandhurst, the legendary British military academy, where he studied the military arts … and Russian. The latter seemed appropriate to his trainers, his service coming as it did in the heart of the Cold War. Whelan liked it just fine. It was another language to decode and one that came with strange letters.
It would not surprise anyone who knows Whelan now that he was not as enthused about army life. He gave up his commission several months shy of his initial service commitment of four years. The army let him out early because he was planning to go back to school at the University of Durham for more language work.
Whelan studied Arabic at Durham and pondered heading to the Middle East to “bury myself in my studies.”
Still searching a bit after earning his diploma, he instead went to the University of London where he earned a post-graduate degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. As he was completing that degree, he was posted – it was sort of a student teaching job – to an all-girls school in Spain.
The experience was idyllic for a still-young man with a sense of adventure and a bent for Romance languages, but more importantly it put Whelan in touch – it was more or less an accident — with a career turning point.
After the short teaching practice assignment, he landed a job at a university in Oviedo, Spain. Several years into his English language work there, the head of his department asked him to prepare a “literary lecture of some kind” for an end-of-the-year program. Whelan dug around in some high school and college notes and came with a bit on “The macabre in Keats.” When the same task was assigned the next year, he dissected contemporary British poet Ted Hughes and then, the year after that, D.H. Lawrence.
“It was all fun to me,” says Whelan, “and in all that I found that what I really wanted to do – what I really, really wanted to do – was teaching literature.
“It was Lawrence, really,” says Whelan. “That study, reading him, I was finding the answers to questions I could not find in (text) books, and even discovered that I was finding questions I did not know I needed to ask. It was a revelation.”
Whelan had to act, even though it meant yet another career change … and more school.
Whelan went to Exeter University for his doctorate (his PhD. Thesis was on Lawrence) then to Kenyon College in Ohio, USA for a visiting professor gig that was as much as an escape from the higher ed funding woes of the Thatcher revolution as a particular desire to be stateside. But once again an unexpected turn led in a life-changing direction. Whelan met his future wife, Roberta, at the Ohio school. She was working the Kenyon campus bookstore.
Whelan was a guy who liked a good book. One thing led to another.
Whelan started married life as a professor without a secure job, a tenuous position then as now. After Kenyon, he taught for a year as an adjunct at his doctoral alma mater, then landed a position at Mu’tah University in Jordan. The position satisfied both Whelan, the former Arabic scholar, and his wife, who was of Lebanese descent, at least for awhile.
Whelan got to teach literature, some English courses, and even a few literary history courses; and the newlyweds enjoyed a blissful life exploring archaeological sites and taking holidays along the Red Sea. They spent four years at Mu’Tah U. Both their children were born in Jordan.
The natal events suggested a more permanent career trajectory was in order, so when a fellow Lawrence scholar at an international conference offered Whelan a job at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, Whelan jumped at it even though it was another temporary, visiting professor gig.
“We were never going to be anything but foreigners in Jordan,” says Whelan, “and it had become obvious that something more stable was in order. It wasn’t easy to get a full-time position then, but the prospects were infinitely better (in the U.S.) than in England. I took the (UNCG) job because it put me in the United States.”
And, although the Whelans didn’t know it at the time, it put them on the path to Francis Marion.
Peter Whelan applied for an open position at FMU in the winter of 1991, just as a visiting professor job was running out. He came down for an interview visit on a miserable, late winter/early spring day when the weather was still cold. A low bank of clouds filled the sky, and the pungent odor from the old paper mill near campus filled the air.
“It has never smelled that strong again,” says Whelan. “I can still remember it to this day. That alone almost kept me from coming.”
But, in the end, it didn’t. He found a connection at FMU, and in the English Department, on his very first visit. The professors he met cared about their field and they seemed to care for each other and their students. The place felt right, even if it didn’t smell too good.
Twenty-three years, Whelan says that feeling proved to be dead on.
“The absolute best thing about FMU has been teaching among my colleagues, being part of enterprise with people whom I respect and admire,” says Whelan. “I’m still proud to have my name mentioned in same sentence with so many of them. It’s a strong department and always has been.”
Whelan, of course, has made it stronger. His absolute love of literature, and all that it can mean and do has made a forceful and creative teacher. And his general curiosity – what he might call his dilettante streak – has made him a valuable employee. He’s taught a wide range of courses, many that he dreamed up himself, and as befits a linguist, hasn’t always taught in English.
He’s filled in a few Spanish sections from time to time over the years as the need presented itself.
Dr. Christopher Johnson, chair of the English Department at the end of Whelan’s tenure, says Whelan’s mix of skill and enthusiasm were a tremendous asset.
“I’ve always admired Peter’s commitment to his students,” says Johnson. “Even as a senior full professor, he taught freshmen every semester and brought to his first-year courses abundant energy and enthusiasm. His courses were always ingeniously designed to promote participation and active learning, and our graduating seniors frequently identified his courses as among the best in the department.”
Dr. Meredith Love, another colleague, continues to marvel at Whelan’s many talents.
“Peter is a wonder,” Love says. “What can’t the man do? Cycling, parenting, translating, writing, teaching–he’s good at all of them. And he does it all with tenderness, generosity, and a wicked sense of humor.”
Penguin and Occitan
Among Whelan’s many gifts, few stand out more than his aptitude for languages. Tuttle, his long-time pal, says Whelan is “conversant,” in an “impossible mixture” of literatures and languages, including, possibly, “Navajo and penguin.”
Whelan, a stickler, says that in truth, Spanish, which he learned as a young man during his tenure on Oviedo, is the only language in which he is truly fluent. But he can speak, read and/or write nearly a dozen others. As Tuttle noted, his multilingualism does arc across a diverse group of languages. He’s formally studied Spanish, Arabic and Russian, but he’s still pretty good at French, Latin and Italian. He’s “had brushes” with Greek, both ancient and modern, and knows a little Turkish though “not to any really useful degree.”
Whelan’s self grading aside, he is a linguistic wonder, a man who can puzzle out the meaning of new languages in an intuitive way.
As the academic host of a wide-ranging school tour in the Mediterranean a number of years ago, Whelan found himself pressed into the role of “interpreter” whether he actually knew the language he was to interpret or not. No probleme. He figured it out.
Similarly, when he met his Spanish students in coffee houses around Oviedo to talk politics (mostly so he could improve his conversational Spanish), the students were amazed that he knew some Catalan, the ancient tongue of northeastern Spain, and parts of France and Andorra. Whelan did not actually “know” Catalan, but he made “educated guesses” based on context, construction and sounds, and obviously got it right often enough to fool some natives.
Years later he pieced together language and conjugation rules for ancient Greek, and taught himself to understand Occitan, an obscure language of southern France and parts of Italy and Spain (it’s related to Catalan). The Greek helped Whelan’s study of mythology. The Occitan allowed him to read the songs of the troubadour – that’s where the literary idea of real romance began – in the original.
“I’ve had an affinity for, and some ability in languages ever since … well, forever,” says Whelan. “It’s just something I like.”
The diverse set of interests that keep Whelan occupied and ever-changing during his professional life will likely – pardon the phrase – translate well in retirement. For beginners, he really doesn’t plan to stay away. Whelan says he plans to come the university for regular lunches, and to ring up his old friends to “go for a pint” as often they can. And, he hopes to teach a course or two, here and there. The elimination of his classroom time will be a loss.
“Having that captive audience of students to whom I can communicate my latest readings – now I will miss that,” says Whelan. “Frankly, I could go on teaching World Lit and Mythology until my limbs fell off. … but the weekends of nothing but grading papers. That’s what I’m retiring from, really. It’s just getting a bit harder for me to be enthusiastic about that.”
Whelan says he will remain active in some other pursuits, which for a man who has always stretched himself in many directions, will be no small task. While at FMU, Whelan has done research, but he’s also performed an assortment of community-based services, all related to his scholarly interests. He’s worked for the South Carolina Federal Public Defender’s office as a translator for attorneys working with Hispanic prisoners, has translated an astonishing variety of official documents into English (marriage licenses, driver’s licenses, an assort of documents pertaining to genealogy), told folktales to elementary school students and helped local community theater players get their European accents down just right.
Speaking of the last, which is also among his latest ventures, Whelan says he was approached about the job, thought it sounded like fun and decided “to give it a whirl.”
It was not the first time.
And, it probably won’t be the last.