William James Alatis – Georgetown Graduate

Georgetown University Remembrances – April 27th, 2015

William James Alatis – Georgetown Graduate, son of J E Alatis

(Aside to speakers and audience – )

My dad used to sometimes open with this mock disclaimer – “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…” funny, because he gave so many speeches.  In my case, though, it’s true.  And speaking after you now,  feels like going up on stage after the Rolling Stones.

(laughter)

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Thank you all for being here, thanks to all of you who prepared and shared your moving words with all of us.  You should all know, that the individual, warm relationships Jim Alatis had with each of you gave him great pleasure.

Even with our wonderful mother to help him, it wasn’t a picnic raising 3 boys. But when one or more of us was being a pain, he had the considerable pleasure of his personal and professional relationships with each of you, to offset some of the frustrations of fatherhood.

Beyond your individual friendships, which he cherished, I know that if he were here, he would want to thank each of you for your own individual missions and work. Not only have you honored him, but rest assured that hearing of your accomplishments gave him great satisfaction — that remained with him all his life.

You all know the story that my father, growing up, found that by knowing two languages, he was able to bridge gaps between two cultures, and help to find common ground between them.  Yet early on he understood that there were millions of people – who could not understand – millions of other people.

Western cultures even needed the Old Testament to explain how in God’s world,  this entire extended family of human beings came to be scattered across the world — and cursed to misunderstand each other.

Thinking globally, he thought that if human beings could overcome the barriers posed by diverse languages and cultures, they could find enough similarities to reach that common ground, before things got out of hand.  And maybe even avoid fatal misunderstandings – avoid killing each other, even help avoid waging war against each other.

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Reading and rereading Nicole Coomber’s dissertation,  that also served as my dad’s biography, I began to see how far off base I was, how clueless really, about what my dad had done for a living.

After he’d come from federal government work to Georgetown, and I was then a teenager lucky enough to come here as an undergraduate.

Life was simple.  Languages and music for me were fun, and fascinating, and in my imagination, I had a simplistic, heroic idea of my dad’s career.

The challenges of language differences presented a great big, entangled KNOT of a problem.

I liked to think that being Greek, he naturally thought of Alexander the Great, who when confronted with a huge knot, didn’t even try to unravel it strand by strand.

He cut right through it with his sharp sword.

Bold, decisive action.

I imagined that the sword or instrument my father learned to wield or use, was forged from two powerful elements.

Big Government’s funding   —  and Education.

The US Government in his lifetime had employed hundreds of thousands of men in projects which helped to turn around the Great Depression. Government had funded the effort to eliminate great evils during World War II.  It was the government that had trained thousands of GIs to speak other languages, and after the war, had devoted billions of tax dollars, through the GI bill, to bringing higher education to millions of ex-servicemen and at least hundreds of thousands of service women.

By contrast, many of their parents, like his own mother and father, had never graduated high school, much less college.

Because my father believed that the enlightened, educated pen really was mightier than the sword, in my imagination, Education was the other element he chose, to cut to the quick of the problem.  Education in the USA was entrusted to the separate hodge-podge of public and private schools, colleges and universities.  And the single strand which unified them all was that they all sought government subsidies of one kind or another.

(As I said, this impression of mine was simplistic.)

By the time his brief intensive training in the federal government had ended, he had read hundreds of grant proposals for the government. He had learned first-hand what it took for grant proposals to be accepted.

He went on to dedicate his career to supporting programs which forwarded his vision, first by getting them funded by Federal grants. One of his principal missions was to train language teachers …

… on the one hand to teach English to millions of people around the world

… and on the other, to support the teaching of other languages, especially to insulated American English speakers.

And we all know that beyond just language itself, which he considered a great starting point, a key to it all, he went further and supported all forms of cross- cultural communication.

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But one thing he could not overcome was the Perception that teachers, especially  in the USA, were simply not highly valued.  Not when it came to dollars and cents.

One political cartoon hung in the SLL office for months, (one has to think, with the tacit approval of my father). The cartoon was a man telling his son,  “Edu-CA-tion pays, boy!  Unless of course, you decide to beCOME … an Educator, yourself.”

Another wry joke he used to favor was, the accountant on staff at the university who said, “This institution could always be in the black, we’d be downright profitable, if we could only get rid of these two big line items on the cost side.  If we could just eliminate the students and the professors, we’d be golden, literally.”

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Back to being serious, the one thing he confided in me, when I was teaching EFL here at Georgetown, was that he felt his hands were tied.

He had just reluctantly signed off on the Budget and salaries for the coming academic year.

“I feel dirty, Bill,” he told me, “I can’t even get my instructors the same salaries as public school teachers, and I still have to ask them to sign this annual contract. “

No one was at fault, for this condition.

No one was to blame.

It was just the way that it was.

Because he could not fight that overriding perception in the Marketplace, that educators don’t need to be paid very much. That maybe like Peace Corps volunteers or really more like priests, they essentially had to take lifelong vows of poverty.  To sacrifice the ability to support families in exchange for the admitted privilege of teaching.

Today, Forbes reports that 46% of all new teachers leave the profession within five years. Incidentally, I’d read that quote in an article by a high-school SENIOR  (“Teaching-America’s Most Undervalued Profession“), whose own mother, a 5th-grade teacher, had advised her NOT to become a teacher, herself.

Although her mother derived some great gratification from teaching, she said, she just didn’t want that kind of LIFE for her daughter.

What… a…  tragedy.

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But I digress…

Yes, my father had a dream that IF human beings could solve the challenges and barriers of language, AND IF we could foster that spirit of cooperation that HE embraced, we might even be able to help bring about peace on earth, and humanity itself might be saved.

Now in retrospect, there is a great innocence, or naivety about that notion.

It was, to be sure, a child’s dream.

But you’ve got to admit, it was a heck of a start.  And you just know, that that vision came from a noble and sincere heart.

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Now that his time here on earth has ended, we who remain can agree that my dad did a magnificent job of helping us all get this far.

But I believe his legacy really amounts to the way he applied his whole being to going after that original childlike vision.

And what he has left behind is different for to each of us.  Whether you think of it as just passing a baton to us, for our leg of a relay race, or a passing down of a mantle, like one prophet to those who follow, or if you think of it more like a gauntlet, leaving us with a challenge, as in a warrior facing a Goliath of an opponent.

That legacy might just be the courage for each of us to apply ourselves towards realizing our individual visions, all hopefully aligned with a bigger one – of a peaceful world that works for everyone in it, with no one being left out.

I would think then, that it remains for us to keep thinking of ways to bridge that gap in public perception – between the benefits of education we enjoy, and the value of the profession of education.

May his legacy be everlasting, in us.

(end spoken address)

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(Personal notes – original ending version:)

I hope we all can find ways to demonstrate how we bring even more value to the marketplace, nationally and globally, so educators can then demonstrate that they can command more compensation and thus a better life, in today’s economy.

My dad wanted for his children, and the children of his faculty and students, what every US immigrant parent wants for his or her children.  A better, more prosperous, healthier life than he had, growing up.

My father gave his sons that, and I thank my father,  every single day.

As the Greeks say at funerals, “may his memory be eternal.”  Or, “may it be everlasting.”

The fruits of his labor and vision, as carried forward by each of you – by each of us – certainly will be.

Thank you all once again for being here, and for your individual missions and work, every one of which honored and gave him great solace, and actual satisfaction that remained with him all his life.

May his legacy then, be everlasting, in each of us.

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