Award-Winning Professor, Wife Teach as a Team

Times Staff Writer

David Laird leaped from his chair, waved his arms, twisted sideways to scribble something illegible on a chalkboard, and bellowed at his class: "You write a sentence like that and you can die!"

An instant later, Helen Laird's voice filled the room at Cal State Los Angeles, and 20 students taking Introduction to Literature heard a taped reading by the other half of an unusual husband-and-wife team.

In this instance, the Lairds, who live in San Gabriel, were discussing a short story by Eudora Welty. He was reacting in his usual colorful classroom style to a beautifully crafted sentence by the Southern author, and she was reading the story aloud as a professional actress might.

They collaborate in other ways. When Helen was writing her recently published biography of an obscure Southwest painter, David served as a sounding board and "helped me have the eyes to see," she said.

Now Helen is receiving critical praise for her book, "Carl Oscar Borg and the Magic Region," and David has just been named one of four Outstanding Professors of the Year at Cal State, nominated by faculty, students and alumni for their teaching, scholarship, research and professional achievement.

"Yes, this is a good time for us," he said.

College spokesmen said David Laird's students consistently rate him as "superb," making such comments as "Finest instructor I have ever had" and "He makes you yearn for the knowledge he possesses."

During the session when Eudora Welty's story was discussed, Laird's energy and enthusiasm had him leaping, waving, scrawling words and phrases, and drawing analytical thoughts from an attentive class. Several students said he "makes us see things in literature that we've never seen before."

Laird's excitement springs from his love of literature, and it belies his concern about trends that indicate declining appreciation of the classics.

"We look to literature for sources of meaning, for direction, guidance and values," he said. "There is so much now that tends to trivialize the richness of life. So much is going on that demeans the human enterprise."

Teaching, Laird said, gives him an opportunity to "see the development of critical skills" in his students. "I enjoy it, and the day I don't enjoy, I'll quit. I get a kick out of teaching--I'm an exhibitionist and somewhat of a charlatan."

Began in 1958

He began teaching English and literature at Cal State Los Angeles in 1958, when the school was new.

That was three years after he met and married Helen, who was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin when he was working there for his doctorate in English. She taught French for 12 years at the Westridge School in Pasadena while their daughter, Vanessa, was growing up.

When Vanessa went off to college--she is now 26 and studying at Stanford University Law School--the Lairds began traveling on exchange and scholarship programs.

They spent a year in Tunisia, where he was a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Tunis; a year in France, where he taught at the University of Clermont-Ferrand near Auvergne, and a year in Canada, where he was a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa.

In between, they traveled the Southwest, buying regional and American Indian sculpture, paintings and drawings that line the walls of their home.

Long ago, they came across a painting by Borg, a Swedish immigrant who rose to fame in the Southwest for his paintings and drawings of the "magic region" of Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico. He died in 1947 and was almost forgotten.

"He had a mystical quality that early artists felt about this region, as opposed to the intellectual approach of other influential authors of his time," Helen Laird said.

With the gift of Borg's writings, all in Swedish, from his widow in Santa Barbara, Helen spent seven years translating, researching, tracking down Borg's paintings and writing his biography.

"I had no intention of writing a book," she said. "But when I got this material, and saw something special in Borg, my destiny was set. That was the beginning of seven years of work."

The thick book, published by Peregrine Smith, contains many color reproductions of Borg's paintings.

'Timely, Important'

A review in the San Francisco Chronicle states: "Laird's illuminating biography offers a timely and important retrospective of a crucial turning point in both the art and the legacy of the American West."

UPI's Broadcast Book Corner called it "a noble and enduring book, providing a keen insight into the life and times of this under-appreciated artist."

The Lairds spend much of their time doing research at the Huntington Library. They offer no predictions about their future work. David Laird said only that he would like to return someday to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D. C., where he has been a fellow.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World