Sunday’s Sermon: Professor Douwe Stuurman

historyRemembering Stuurman

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy: they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” – Marcel Proust

RUSSELL: Douwe Stuurman?

HARDIN: Well, he’s one of a kind. He was one of the spearheads of the movement to keep this [UCSB] a small liberal arts campus. He was, as you know, at Oxford–a Rhodes Scholar–and very much a lover of humanities in a traditional sense. I don’t know how one could summarize him. You know plenty about him anyway. He’s quite unusual.

It is appropriate at this time of year to think back on the year and all of the years that have slipped by so quickly, and it is appropriate to begin with a Proust quote, for the subject of this remembrance was a great Proust student: Douwe Stuurman. University of California Professor Stuurman. My MA advisor for my degree in English. A man who influenced generations of students in his long teaching career. A mentor, teacher, friend.

I wrote of him in my first book:

     After a few years in public schools and four years in the United States Marine Corps, I learned about sex and violence in more direct ways, and stopped reading the Bible until I was in university. At the University of California in Santa Barbara I was assigned as a teaching assistant to Professor Douwe Stuurman, who taught a course on the Bible. His classes were always full of interesting people. In the front row were the nuns, who, he said, were there to spy on him. Then came the middle-aged students looking for therapy, the literature and philosophy students, and the atheists who sat in the back. I tried to sit in a different part of the room each time. Stuurman had a Freudian, Eastern, Calvinist, Proustian background and the ability to mesmerize an audience. Above all he opened up the text for me. I read it with fresh eyes. These stories were marvellous works of art! Stuurman’s lectures were inspiring (I used to call them “Stuurman on the mount”) and unlike my Lutheran pastor, he asked questions all the time. When not at the university I spent my time cleaning the Unitarian Church in Santa Barbara, which meant that I had the opportunity to talk with Lex Crane, who was ministering there then. His background in literature was extensive and we used to have long talks about “meaning” while I should have been cleaning the toilets. I flirted with the idea of becoming a Unitarian minister, but never got the “call.” Because of this and more, I believe the Bible is worth reading and studying, not as moribund scripture but as living literature. [Source]

Another of his students writes,

Douwe Stuurman, a professor I had at UCSB, used to tell his students to “live vulnerably.” I’ll never forget this lesson; it’s the best way to approach new experiences and combat ”the boring routine.”

And another:

The late professor Douwe Stuurman, for whom I was a reader at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the late 1970s, once asked the 500 students in a lecture hall how many of them wanted to be writers. About two-thirds held up their hands. Then he asked how many were actually writing and most of those hands went down. “A writer is someone who writes,” he said. “The rest of you are just dreamers.” [Source]

Jerry Knoll and I were TAs for Stuurman in his continental literature class back in the 60s. We were walking with him back to the department after he had lectured on Camus’s The Stranger. Stuurman had closed the lecture at the end of Book One by saying, “Repressed emotion will eventually explode.” Walking along talking about the lecture and the book Knoll said, “That was a powerful ending.” I said, “I wish I had said that.”

Stuurman looked at me and said, “You will.”

And of course I did.

Our daughter visited Stuurman once in Santa Barbara. When she knocked on the door he put down the phone and welcomed her, apologized,  and told her he would be finished with the call in a moment. She discovered he was talking to Peter DeVries. She was impressed. Later he drove to Nanaimo in his VW Beetle to attend her wedding.

Stuurman taught some of the most popular courses in UCSB history: Continental Literature, The Bible as Literature, Existentialism, and he also always taught a continuing education course. He was good. He was a quiet lecturer – people would be sitting forward on their seats within two minutes of the start not wanting to miss a word. He rarely used notes, delivering what he called “a private report” to a rapt audience.

My friend John Marshall and I visited him just before he died. He took us to Solvang and bought John a small gift. When we got back to Canada John wrote a poem for him as a return gift.

The Traveller

for Douwe Stuurmandouwe_john

Santa Barbara sirens run the aqueduct

from the dam to the mission,

the sign reads the Indians

built it under supervision

At the Botanical Gardens

We take turns talking to trees.

At a double redwood trunk

He quotes a man of virtue

Out of the blue. Frail,

He’s near aerial –

            what you will love most

is to walk

on the earth


and he makes you drive

to meadows

to walk. To where

the wild meadows were.

He wants you to see everything.

Sitting, he’s near silent

but up and about you get Reed in the thirties

Huxley, Krishnamurti,

What Solvang was like before the tourist machine.

His near-anonymous report

Of one man’s half-century

Reading Proust.

And if one of your stories is well told

the praise is in saying

it sounds like you’ve begun

to love to know.

And when you leave

he presses a cloth bag

of wildflower seeds

in your other hand.

He’d gone into the Gift Shop

this day you thought you were waiting

while he had a piss.

Now you remember the way you felt,

Your stepfather slipping you

an extra twenty

to help you on your way

when it was time to leave.

And how they left their hands in ours

that split second longer

gave us all we needed.

© John Marshall, From Beforehand: Poems by John Marshall, 1998


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10 thoughts on “Sunday’s Sermon: Professor Douwe Stuurman

  1. I knew Douwe Stuurman from the time I was a very small child. He was a good friend of my father’s, Professor Paul Kelly in the mathematics department at UCSB. My mother used to save her magazines for him. Although I was a science major at UCSB I did take his “Bible as Literature” class and enjoyed it very much.

    Here are some of the things that I remember about Douwe Stuurman.

    These were the days before remote controls. If we were watching TV, he would get up at the beginning of any commercial and turn the sound down to nothing. When the commercial ended, he would get up and turn the sound up again.

    He had to stop wearing one of those self-winding watches, because there were times when he would sit still for so long, just thinking, that the watch would wind down and stop.

    He once told me that if a person is suffering from depression and low self-esteem, the best thing he/she can do is to get a couple of cats to take care of, because cats will never show you any gratitude for what you do for them. That’s a pretty deep one – it kept me thinking for weeks.

    He said the reason that the number three is so popular is because it is a very sturdy number – just like a triangle (a 3-sided figure) which is extremely hard to topple. He said it takes a very strong, confident person to have the number four as their favorite number because a cube (4-sided figure) can easily be tipped over. This made me feel very smug as 4 has always been my favorite number – but then he tempered this by saying “unless you have had the number 4 as your favorite ever since you were a child and are just attached to it”. Rats.

    He was very fluent in German, and was one of the first people sent in to do reconnaisance work after the fall of Hitler. He ended up with Hitler’s stamp collection (which was extensive and probably worth millions), but he gave it away because he wasn’t interested in stamp collecting. (Our entire family collected stamps and we groaned at this! Wish we had known him earlier!) I do not know that this is actually true, but I didn’t know Douwe to tell lies, and this is what he said.

    He was one of my favorite people to visit when I was a kid. He had a little wood shack right next to the cliffside in what later became Isla Vista. My brother and I used to call him the ‘puny superman’ because he was so thin, but so strong.

    I miss him.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a beautiful tribute to a man I never knew…but, your stories and memories of him stir up some wonderful statements about LIFE for all of us….

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Stuurman, Douwe. A Rhodes Scholar’s View of Nazi Germany. Oral history conducted by David E. Russell, Santa Barbara: Davidson Library Oral History Program, 1982. 300 pages. [OH 13] As a student at the University of Kiel, Professor Douwe Stuurman recalls his experiences in Nazi Germany and how Hitler’s programs compromised the academic integrity of the university. He describes his military assignments during World War II, which led to his discovery of the Chancellery Papers and Hitler’s personal library.


  4. A few years ago I was interviewed for a book on Stuurman: It was Stuurman’s brilliance as a teacher that launched me on my own career. He became a friend of the family and visited us in Canada after we moved here. He was an existentialist who constantly reminded us to live in the moment to the best of our ability – “life is a scene; not a plot,” he would say. As a graduate student I did a directed studies course with him on Camus. It was excellent: read Camus’s books in English and write a paper on each. It was actually fun to do!

    Stuurman on Platonism: Plato was the worst thing that ever happened to the world of ideas. Plato’s other-worldly make-believe had directed our attention away from the world of reality, the world of the senses, the natural world; and his world of Forms had done terrible damage to the human condition.
    S on history: the modern age starts with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky. The Christian/neo-Platonic world view was a hangover filled with dreams and hopes but philosophically not valid.
    S. on morality: there are no absolutes. “Weeds are flowers that we do not like.”
    On religion: Atheist. Made fun of organized religion and its practices. Used a rich vocabulary from religion (the elect, redemption, sacrifice, etc) but only to contrast it to an atheistic existentialist attitude. He gave a lecture (at my invitation) at the Unitarian Church in Santa Barbara to a rapt audience about the early stories in the Hebrew Bible. He had dismissed Calvinism by the time I studied with him and spoke of it as a silly belief system spawned by an up-tight death fearing leader. Religions were all merely fictional attempts by death fearing individuals to assuage their fears.
    When I was his TA for the two years at UCSB he taught large lectures and had his TAs hold the seminars. He met with us every week to go over the material to be covered and to discuss ideas about how to teach. I remember a student evaluation of his Continental Lit course. I lectured in it on several occasions and the evaluations indicated that students liked the “team teaching” we provided. S provided the BIG picture and I insisted on close analysis of the text.
    S and I talked a lot about the early days at UCSB after I had come to a new college here in Canada. Yes, in the early days he was trying to keep USBC more like Reed College and less like UCLA. Hardin was a friend and colleague, as was Kelly in math, and an artist and a historian. They used to play golf and hold discussions every fortnight. S believed that art was the highest achievement we humans are capable of and that reading, particularly Proust, was the only salvation available to us. Interestingly though he was also a capable carpenter who, when he visited us once, remodeled (minor but difficult) our living room to open it up to light. He also went for long walks on Gabriola Island and purchased a miter box (still have it) so he could make some picture frames for some of our pieces.
    S talked about escaping from the CRC and from Calvin.
    I have a copy of S’s reminiscences for the student newspaper when he retired from UCSB and there he writes about the importance of teaching and being honest (‘authentic’) in the craft of teaching – reading books and talking about them. He was a great influence on me. I last saw him when the devils of Shy-Drager had attacked his body. He had to be helped to walk.
    I miss him still. We talked on the phone, exchanged a few letters, and to this day I can hear him Stuurmanizing from time to time as I “walk toward my grave”.

    Cheers to Stuurman on the mount!!


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