Between the Lines: November-December 2004

November 30, 2004

Since being named president, Richard H. Brodhead has reveled in all things Duke. He's the eager student, the committed scholar, with this new campus as his text. And so he is working enthusiastically to understand the characters, to explore the rhythms--the poetry and prose--of this place, before he sets about writing his own chapters.

Before Duke, it was a long Yale story for Brodhead. Among the characters in that story was Tom Ferraro. Now an associate professor of English at Duke, he began as a graduate student at Yale in 1979.

Ferraro was in Brodhead's American-literature survey course. He recalls that students "turned out in massive numbers" to hear Brodhead, who "could lecture as well as anybody I have seen in my entire life." Later, Brodhead helped inspire and direct Ferraro's dissertation, which looked at how immigrant literature has been received.

As he was finishing the dissertation, Ferraro found himself turning to Brodhead about a potential job teaching in Geneva. "Nothing in my education terrorized me more than French," he says. Brodhead impressed on him the value of intellectual risk-taking. "And, he said, wouldn't an English department want to hire an American who had lived outside the United States? Wouldn't I be a more interesting hire for an English department?"

Indeed he was. Duke hired him in 1989. As he recalls, there were 600 applicants for the position. Brodhead, of course, wrote him a recommendation.

When Brodhead received tenure at Yale, Ferraro recalls, the graduate students "took it as a victory for everybody." They threw him a big party and gave him a first edition of Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady.

Ferraro found a more recent cause for Brodhead-inspired celebration. Early one December day, he stepped outside for his newspaper and saw the headline announcing Duke's new president. "And right there, at five o'clock or so in the morning, I did one of those Snoopy dances from A Charlie Brown Christmas. I was rejoicing for the university."