Campus & Community

Essay: Alumnus remembers the final prayer of his beloved English professor

By Mel Livatino (MA '68)

April 11, 2024

Two men wearing coats stand on a porch with white railing in front of a painted sign that reads

For four months in the spring of 1973, I sat in a Lewis Towers classroom with a man whose abiding purpose in life was to bring the most goodness possible into this world. The course was a graduate seminar in the novels of Dickens and George Eliot, and that good man was Professor Jim Barry. Jim required us to read seven Dickens novels—only one less than 500 pages—and three Eliot novels (collectively more than 5,000 pages) and to write seven short papers and one major research paper. I spent more than 60 hours each week fulfilling those requirements.

Jim sat with the 12 of us in a circle quietly asking questions and nudging us to notice our way deeply into those worlds of Dickens and Eliot. On a rotating basis one of us acted as secretary, recording our discoveries each week. Jim cleverly called our seven short papers “journal entries,” freeing us to put our very lives as human beings and readers into those entries. It was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me in a classroom.

But Jim’s greatest work that semester was to nudge us with his questions and insights—but most of all through his own quiet goodness—to find the moral centers in Dickens and Eliot and take them into our own lives. He was silently asking us not merely to learn our literature—but to live it.

"Our whole business in this life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen."

— St. Augustine

Because I had read and written so intensely and personally and had witnessed Jim’s quietly radiant goodness so closely during those four months—because I had been seared with the goodness of Dickens, Eliot, and Jim Barry—in the decades after that course, Jim took up life as a moral mentor inside me, a shining presence only I could see.

My clearest glimpse of Jim’s moral mentoring came 40 years after the course was over and nine years after I had retired from my own teaching. It was 2013, and I knew I finally had to write an essay about Jim. So for the first time in all those years I opened the thick folder of notes and papers from that course.

It was a moment movies love.

One by one, I reread my passionate journal entries, then my research paper on David Copperfield’s eight-stage hero’s journey, then the records of all those sessions in which we sat with Jim looking into the light of those writers whose words still shine inside me.

But the thing from that folder that most gripped me was a single mimeographed sheet of paper Jim handed us without comment on the last day of class.

On it were four quotations which I realized for the first time were as subtle and grand a prayer as I had ever encountered. Two passages from literary critics of Dickens, a passage on the nature of the Resurrection, and finally a passage from Psalms led to a single conclusion: that the only goodness that will come to be in this world depends upon us: we readers, we human beings: our acts of love and sacrifice.

Written on Barry’s single sheet of paper was a prayer that we internalize the good characters of Dickens and Eliot and behave with love “to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen.”  Jim’s final act in that course was so subtle it took 40 years for me to get it—and then I saw it was the wisest, most loving act I had ever witnessed in a classroom.

When Jim, who later become a vice president of the university, died of cancer at 63 in 1990, the closing words of Eliot’s Middlemarch came back to me: “But the effect of [his] being on those around [him] was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”


Mel Livatino (MA ’68) is a writer and former English professor from Chicago. You can listen to his reading of this story on The Valley Talking News podcast.