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Jim Hale

Jim Hale

I grew up in Union County, NJ.  After a stint in the Navy I began studying literature at Ramapo, where I had three great mentors: Denis Murphy, who taught American literature and first encouraged me to think about grad school; the late Bob Christopher, who taught the first Shakespeare course I ever took and gave me an enduring love for the history plays; and Anthony Padovano, whose influence has extended beyond my academic and intellectual life and whose ideas continue to color my own way of thinking to this day.  I talk a little about one particular experience at Ramapo in a little personal essay I published recently in our local paper, the Juneau Empire:

More than thirty years ago, I was a young atheist at college in the Ramapo Mountains of northern New Jersey, when a Catholic friend invited me to a special Christmas Mass, in Latin with choir singing Gregorian Chants, at the Catholic seminary down the road.  At the last minute my friend couldn’t go, but I was looking forward to hearing some good music so I went without him.  I remember the delightful walk up the long driveway to the hilltop where the seminary chapel sat perched overlooking Ramapo Valley.  Exams were over.  Christmas was a week away. The mountains were covered in fresh snow, and the sky had cleared to the deep blue of winter dusk.  I had no Latin, had virtually no knowledge of the Catholic liturgy, and what I knew of Christianity came from Sunday School at the Southern Baptist church my sister and I attended as children with our grandmother.  Now, as a student in the Humanities, I thought I was just going to a good concert. I had my love of poetry and music to carry me.

And carry me they did—farther than I’d ever imagined.  The rituals of the Mass—the incense, the rhythms of the liturgy, the mysterious strains of Latin, the plainsong chants—all of it had the same effect on me as the greatest poetry, and I could hear the rhythms of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Yeats—Yeats especially, though an Irish Protestant, in whose strains seem to echo the Latin liturgy:

The wind is old and still at play
While I must hurry upon my way

For I am running to Paradise.

After the Mass, walking down the long drive, I looked out at the lights scattered across the Ramapo Valley, and things seemed different: more reasonable, more coherent, more beautiful.  In a word, good.  That night began ten years of reading, reflecting, and talking about faith that culminated in my becoming a Catholic.

After Ramapo, I was accepted into the doctoral program in English at Rutgers-New Brunswick with a full fellowship, and four years later I was awarded a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship. After taking my M.A. and M.Phil. degrees at Rutgers, I moved west to take a job as a professor of early English lit and critical theory at Central Washington University.

In 1995, I left full-time teaching to take a position as a writer for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration in Juneau, Alaska.  I returned to teaching full-time in 2001 at the University of Alaska Southeast, until NOAA lured me back with an offer I couldn’t refuse.  In my current position with NOAA, I work with scientists and marine resource managers to write and edit environmental assessments.

About six years ago, I started my own business giving writing seminars to scientists, engineers, environmental managers, and other professionals, and so far I have given the seminar to staffs of various governmental agencies, private businesses, and international organizations across Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and Hawaii.  As a volunteer, I also teach writing to inmates at a nearby prison.

I continue to write on whatever topic happens to take my fancy.  My most recent publication, an essay called “Lost in Ghent,” explores the Augustinian theology behind Jan van Eyck’s fifteenth-century Ghent Altarpiece (Imaginatio et RatioA Journal of Theology and the Arts, Spring 2012).   Currently, I am writing about the early 18th-century Dutch painter, Adriaen van der Werff, in an essay I call “The Painting at the End of Verisimilitude.”