Retired professor continues to mentor students

By Yueqin Yang

Every Wednesday and Friday at around 2:15 p.m., a silky-haired old man, accompanied by a woman in her 50s, teeters into the conference room at the Center for International Studies on the second floor of W. R. Poage Legislative Library.

Usually, a few students have gathered in the lounge, waiting for their arrival. It is 2:30 p.m. The meeting begins around a table capable of seating 10. This is a non-credit class, and any international students could attend with no payment.

J.R. LeMaster, emeritus professor of English, retired in 2006 after 47 years of teaching. The woman is his daughter, DeNae, born to his first wife. The students are a group of international students from China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan and Mexico.

LeMaster suffers from severe degenerative arthritis of the spine as well as other infirmities. He cannot drive, and his daughter drives him to campus from the other side of Waco twice a week.

Since early 2009, LeMaster has volunteered his time, energy and effort helping international students with their English speaking and writing. He coaches them, encourages them, and more importantly, tells them about life. Group members make presentations or deliver speeches, which he and the others critique, offering suggestions to make them stronger.

“I was afraid of delivering a speech because I forgot everything before my classes,” Sunny Gao, a senior from Shanxi, China, said.

“But now I feel better. I have learned a lot from his classes, especially confidence.”

LeMaster also tells them about his childhood, his teachers, his students and his wife.

LeMaster, 76, is a professor, a poet, a writer and an editor. He has published 21 books, written hundreds of poems, taught innumerable classes and assisted countless students.

His only son died suddenly last year. Wanda, his wife of 43 years, passed away more recently.

“I enjoy being in his classes, and I have learned a lot, not only knowledge, but a way of life,” Rui Zhang, a graduate student in economics from Henan, China, said.

Born in Pike County, Ohio, LeMaster earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Defiance College. After finishing his master’s and doctorate degrees at Bowling Green State University, he came to Baylor in 1977.

“Baylor provided me the opportunity to decide what I would teach and how to teach it,” LeMaster said. “I retired four years ago. I miss teaching.”

DeNae said LeMaster and Wanda had different personalities.

“They were totally different persons,” daughter DeNae said. “She was very outgoing and sociable.”

When asked the most valuable thing his late wife taught him, LeMaster failed to fight back his tears. “Pride,” he said, tears trickling down his cheeks. “Always try your best to do a thing and be proud of it.”

LeMaster almost collapsed when his wife died. His back bent more and his figure became more emaciated.

He likes to sit in a reclining chair looking out a window at his wife’s flower garden, looking, always looking closely.

“Only teaching can distract him from deep sorrow,” DeNae said, looking at her father.

LeMaster lived and taught in China on a number of occasions and brought many international students to Baylor in the 1980s and 90s.

“I found working with international students rewarding,” LeMaster said.

He said he will return to Baylor to offer his advice to students, even if only one student needs him. He will come until the day he can no longer walk.

To him teaching is life. It has never been merely a job. It is and has always been a way of living.