Love of Reading Transforms Hillbilly Into Professor
Robert Allen reads Homer’s “Iliad” for fun before flipping on a rerun of “The Beverly Hillbillies” and tackling a stack of freshman English papers.
Twenty years ago, he lived in a shack in rural West Tennessee and upholstered couches and chairs for a living. His front teeth were missing and his clothes were tattered. Townsfolk assumed he was retarded.
Today, at 50, he has a Ph.D. and teaches English literature at the University of Tennessee-Martin. He is a published author and an aspiring playwright. “It has been an interesting journey,” he muses.
Though Allen prefers an unassuming life, he is an unmistakable presence on campus, with unkempt red hair, lilting voice, affinity for bad puns and passion for classical literature.
Phillip Miller, who heads the English department, calls him a “free-spirited teacher who came from a background of cultural retardation.”
“He’s kind of a strange, weird guy, but I say that in a positive way.”
Reared by elderly relatives who kept him out of school, Allen had only books for playmates. He devoured most every volume at the library in nearby Huntingdon.
In his late 20s--an age when most people are working and starting families--Allen had never ridden a bike or gone to a movie. His only social interaction came at yard sales, where he rifled through boxes of still more books.
At 30, his upholstery business hit by recession, Allen took a high school equivalency test with aspirations of a steadier job. He scored so well that he decided to “give education a fling.” He aced the entrance exam at Bethel College in McKenzie, Tenn., and skipped freshman year.
Convinced that his classmates were smarter, Allen was surprised when many dropped out with bad grades. He recalls launching a conversation on the theology of John Milton, author of “Paradise Lost.” “Milton who?” the other sophomore responded.
“I just assumed everyone else had read the book too,” Allen recalls.
Professors called Allen a genius. When he graduated summa cum laude, the faculty bought him his first suit and paid to replace his front teeth.
Allen pursued graduate work at Vanderbilt. His first question upon arriving on the Nashville campus: “Where’s the library?”
Eight years after earning his doctorate, Allen is still reading--magazines, comics, anything he can get his hands on. But mostly he reads the classics.
A floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in his cramped university office is lined with the works of Homer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Joyce, Yeats, Sophocles and other literary heroes.
In the shadow of their titanic writings, Allen yanks at his suspenders and fields questions.
Your ambitions? “At the moment, lunch.”
After that? “Supper.”
Friends and colleagues typically mention this humor first. “A very playful mind,” says Neil Graves, a professor with an office nearby.
Allen calls himself “a bit of a wiseacre” and is quick to turn into Groucho Marx, complete with imaginary cigar, to tell a favorite joke. Though he’s told it hundreds of times, he still laughs.
That lightheartedness punctuates an evolving classroom personality.
Allen landed a job teaching freshman English at Bethel in 1989 and quickly moved on to an adjunct position at Murray State University in Kentucky. He took his current post in 1996.
His first few semesters were unnerving. “If I knew where my first students lived, I would write lengthy apologies to them all,” he confides.
He’s steadier, and entertaining, now. “I’m still Robert Allen, the shy introvert who sits around and reads books all the time. But before I go into the classroom, I turn on the act.”
He fascinated sophomore Cameshia Lofton. “When he read a speech from a book we were studying, he made you feel like you were there,” she says. “I like him.”
Drawn to old things, Allen drives a ’79 Oldsmobile, listens to Beethoven and Schubert, likes to collect classical albums and study genealogy. His fascination with family led to his first book of poetry, published in 1997.
“Simple Annals” chronicles his family history, from Revolutionary War to modern times, passed orally from Allen’s elderly relatives, particularly his blind Aunt Ida.
Invoking a West Tennessee dialect--”hippin” for diaper, “haint” for joint--the book tells of heroes and tragedies, God and graveyards, hoop snakes and farm life. About half of the 3,000 imprints have sold--”a pretty strong showing for poetry today,” says agent George Schnitzer of Nashville.
Allen has no one to call family. His childhood home was empty, overgrown with weeds when he last visited 10 years ago. Relatives who reared him--his grandfather, three great-aunts, a great-uncle--have long since died.
His mother, a waitress who ran off with a traveling shoe salesman when he was 6, is dead. He never knew his father.
Allen finally connected with a half-brother on his father’s side and two half-sisters on his mother’s side. But they have either died or moved with no forwarding address.
“That’s the way it goes,” Allen says.
But his autobiographical poem “Purple” exposes a longing. It describes the birth of a boy, “helpless as a seedling and wailing purple,” into his grandmother’s knobbed hands: a “stray/Mistake of a child.”
Helen Roulston, a colleague at Murray State, says Allen is anything but a mistake. She quotes one of his favorite poets, William Wordsworth, to describe her friend as a “marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.”
“Sometimes,” she adds, “I don’t think Robert knows just how wonderful he is.”
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