Eastern Mennonite University

Spring 2007

Fifty years of Inspired Teaching

Jay Landis on eve of retirement

Jay B. Landis
Jay B. Landis.
Asked how he met his wife of 46 years, Peggy Heatwole ’61, Jay B. Landis readily says he met her in the first class he ever taught – 12th-grade English at Eastern Mennonite School in 1956.

Jay was 23, fresh from graduate school and alternative service at a Cleveland hospital during the Korean War. He had earned a BA from Eastern Mennonite College (EMC) in 1954.

Jay recalls Peggy as an A-student. Another A-student in that class, June Bontrager Schrock, today muses that she never noticed sparks between Jay and Peggy.

That’s because “there was nothing going on,” Jay states, eager to clarify this point.

Jay and Peggy became more than teacher and student the following summer when they worked together on organizing a Mennonite Youth Fellowship conference. They married the month Peggy graduated from college.

Anyone who walks past or into a Jay B. Landis class today will see a man bursting with energy – urging, prodding, inspiring his students to do better than they think they can. He speaks with intensity.

His shifting facial expressions and choppy body movements are more reminiscent of a squirmy schoolboy than of a 74-year-old sage who has seen about half of EMU’s students in one of his classes over the last 50 years.

Jay is sharply articulate. He would be adept at lobbing zingers at people – the way some TV commentators do – but he is too kind to use his smarts that way.

Jay B. Landis
Above, Landis is backed by three generations of Schrock women whom he has taught - (from left) Carmen taught in the 1970s, Grace in his classroom today, and June taught in the 1950s.

Grace Schrock-Hurst, the 18-year-old granddaughter of the Schrock woman in that first high school class, is now taking public speaking from Jay.

(For readers outside of the EMU community, it is customary for Mennonites to refer to each other without honorary titles, so Dr. Landis is indeed “Jay B.” or “Jay” to his five decades of students…no disrespect intended.)

“Jay B. is energetic and really makes the class at ease,” says Grace. “He tries to get to know each student. By the second class, he knew all of our 25 or something names.”

Grace is the third generation in her family to be taught by Jay. Her mother, Carmen, recalls that Jay led her through “Beowulf” and works by Chaucer. The three women gathered recently in Jay’s current classroom for photographs to accompany this article.

“He has this amazing memory,” says June.

Jay mentions playing a recording of “Macbeth” to that class.

Jay also reminds Carmen that he read all her journals during 1978-79 when she did voluntary service in San Francisco.

“You remember those?” Carmen says with a chuckle. “I felt guilty that I was letting you down. I went to the city and became convicted that I should solve urban poverty instead of pursuing English.” Carmen ended up majoring in social work.

Jay B. Landis
Jay and his wife, Peggy.

Jay laments the passing of a curriculum in which he team-taught “experiencing the humanities” and “freedom and order” with four other colleagues.

“I hate to tell you this,” Carmen says with a smile. “But nobody liked those courses.”

Jay looks unperturbed. “I know that, but they made you well-rounded.”

Carmen nods. “You were required to take them and everyone sat around and complained, but it got everyone exposed to the basics of art and culture, and a lot of students needed that.”

Jay got his masters degree in English from Case-Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1958 and his doctorate in interdisciplinary study, specializing in English, from Idaho State University in 1976.

In the 1970s, Jay became the first faculty member to direct plays at the college level, having previously done so at Eastern Mennonite High School.

“Attitudes toward drama were cool [meaning ‘unenthusiastic’] when I first came to EMC,” he said. “You could read plays, but you couldn’t perform them.

“There was the feeling that theater is the ‘willing suspension of disbelief,’ and to some people that was deceitful.”

Then-president Myron Augsburger did not agree, said Jay. Augsburger felt that humans had a natural urge toward dramatic expression, and he encouraged Jay to help students to explore this urge.

Jay B. Landis
In his young adult years, Jay B. Landis wore traditional "plain clothing" but over the years his dress became more contemporary, with the tie optional (below).
Photos courtesy Jay B. Landis
Jay B. Landis

Active in faculty decision-making, Jay helped usher in major curriculum changes in the early 1980s. Cross-cultural studies became required – EMU was one of the first colleges in the nation to institute this requirement (only now are other colleges doing so).

An interdisciplinary sequence of courses, known as “IDS” and covering the scope of civilization, became required for all students. By the late 1990s, this last requirement had fallen by the wayside, replaced by more electives for freshmen and sophomores.

Jay laments this change. “I think it was important that the students knew something about civilization from ancient Egypt through the Enlightenment to the 20 th Century.” It was a way of making sure that every graduate from EMU had more than a passing acquaintance with literature, history, philosophy, music, drama, and the fine arts.

Jay realizes that students and times change, and he doesn’t mind that. He has lived through and undergone many changes himself. “But I still value the idea that every person needs a common foundation of general knowledge, before they specialize.

“I used to hear students say, ‘But I’m going to be a nurse. Why do I have to know about Dante?’ Yet this may be the only time in their lives when they will be exposed to Dante, Shakespeare and other great thinkers and artists. If not while in college, then when?”

Few professors today would be willing or ready to teach the range of courses that Jay does.

The bookshelves in Jay’s office are arranged so that one full shelf is devoted to each of the topics he teaches: writing, Shakespeare, modern poetry, literature, drama, speech, humanities.

This year – his last as a full-time professor – Jay is teaching speech to six classes of sophomores and freshmen (one of the few absolute requirements for all EMU undergraduates), a Shakespeare class, and an introduction to drama class.

By reasonable estimate, more than half of EMU’s alumni over the last 50 years has passed through a Jay B. Landis classroom.

Above all else Jay taught them to speak and write clearly, as many of EMU’s employees will attest. He’s taught 15 of them.

“I was thrilled when I returned to work here – 24 years after graduating with a degree in English – to find that one of my favorite teachers, Jay B. Landis, was still going strong,” says Kirk Shisler ’81, vice president for advancement. “Jay’s great teaching and mentoring have enriched countless students, including me.”

Jay b. Landis retires from full-time employment in May 2007. If you wish to send him a message, he can be reached at .

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