University English professor John Hurrell said students today are more passive than in the early 1960s when anti-war activism prevailed around campus.
“That was the beginning of the anti-war protests,” Hurrell said. “It was rather exciting.”
He said the students he meets in his classes today are more sedate than those who lived in an era of war and protest.
“Have I been reading the same play as you?” Hurrell asked the 11 students in his extension drama class Thursday night. The soft-spoken London native was trying to get some feedback on the night’s reading from his students who, if prepared, had read Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello’s “Henry IV” for class.
Hurrell’s inquiry was met with a few silent nods. In this, possibly the last class he will teach after nearly 40 years at the University, Hurrell said that the same lecture taught decades earlier in his career would have certainly stirred lively argument. He laughed as he reminisced about a literature class he taught that had about 60 students, half of whom were nuns.
“That was wonderful,” Hurrell said. “They were really feisty people. I enjoyed that. If they had been in that class (Thursday) night, you’d have heard some argument. Now I don’t get that.”
But whether the students are feisty or reserved, Hurrell, who is 72, has enjoyed teaching at the University. His life story reads like one of the intricate plays he teaches; it is a story that several University departments have benefited from.
Born in London in 1924, Hurrell lived in the war-torn city at the beginning of World War II. During the first years of the war, he worked as a fire watcher, extinguishing fires on the roof of a college building during Italian and German air raids. “We were being bombed every night, so I got quite used to that,” he said.
Hurrell entered the British Royal Navy in 1943 at age 19. He volunteered because he wanted to avoid being drafted into the British Army. The Navy tradition ran in his family — Hurrell’s grandfather, father and uncle had all served in the Royal Navy.
In 1945, Hurrell served on the HMS Bluebell — sometimes in Arctic-cold conditions. One night he worked outside for several hours in 46-degree-below-zero weather. Hurrell had to be moved from the Bluebell to a cruiser ship to receive a doctor’s care.
“I could barely open my mouth,” Hurrell said. “Everything was frozen solid. It was awful.”
By the next morning, Hurrell had recovered and was able to return to his ship. But before he could join his crew, someone pointed out the Bluebell, which had already headed back out to sea.
“Someone said, Isn’t that your ship?'” Hurrell recalled emotionally. “I looked out and said, Yes, it is.’ I only remember bits and pieces.”
A moment later, the Bluebell was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat and sunk as Hurrell watched, leaving him the only survivor of the Bluebell crew.
“I’ve been thinking about it ever since,” Hurrell said as he reflected on that February morning. “I feel guilty. I feel relieved and guilty at the same time. I avoided destiny it seems like.”
Hurrell said the worst part of his experience came after the incident when he had returned to his parents’ home.
“I had not been in our house for more than 20 minutes and there was a knock on the door,” he said. “It was the mother of my best friend who had actually come to condole with my mother. She had gotten it that both their sons were dead, and I opened the door to her. That’s the worst part of the experience to me.”
Hurrell finished his service with the navy in September 1946 and immediately resumed his college career, which the war had interrupted three years earlier, at Birkbeck College in London. He returned to King’s College, also in London, in 1947 and met his wife of 47 years, Rosamond.
Hurrell received a scholarship in 1952 for graduate studies in Stratford-on-Avon, the home of William Shakespeare. Hurrell earned his doctorate in 1954 at the Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham.
During his stay at the Institute, Hurrell became friends with a visiting professor from the University of Iowa, who convinced Hurrell to come to the United States and teach. The American professor told Hurrell that, with the end of the Korean War, more students were coming back to school than there were professors to teach them.
From Iowa, Hurrell went to Williams College in Massachusetts before teaching for a year at the Ryerson Institute of Technology in Toronto.
Then in 1957 the University’s English Department offered Hurrell a teaching position. Hurrell accepted the offer and moved to the place he plans to call home for the rest of his life.
“The University had a very interesting faculty at that time,” said Hurrell, who said that he likes living in Minneapolis because it is a city with a distinctive personality. “It’s a good place to teach, I think.”
While reminiscing about his years in Minneapolis and at the University, Hurrell remembered how excited he was when in early 1963 late theater great Tyrone Guthrie opened the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Guthrie came to the University at the time his theater was first opening. Hurrell was invited to go over to Wesbrook Hall, from where the University television and radio stations then broadcast, to talk with Guthrie.
After arriving at the station for what he thought would be a chat with the theater legend, “I suddenly discovered that what I was supposed to be doing was interviewing him for television,” Hurrell said.
“I was shaking in my shoes,” he added. “This was like meeting God, you know, if you’re interested in the theater.”
To make matters worse, Guthrie grabbed Hurrell’s only reference notes and left him to improvise for the interview that went live on University television.
As terrifying as the experience was for Hurrell, it inspired the professor to start up what he considers his proudest achievement — his periodical, Drama Survey. When he started the publication in the 1960s, it was one of only two in the nation that dealt specifically with drama. Hurrell said his periodical, which ran for seven years, brought him into much greater contact with the theatrical community.
During his tenure at the University, Hurrell has shared his drama and literature expertise with the Theatre Arts, Humanities and Comparative Literature departments in addition to his original stint as an English professor. He also served as a College of Liberal Arts Associate Dean for three years, associate chair for the English Department for another three years and acting chair for two quarters. Hurrell retired in 1989, but often teaches extension courses when a department needs him.
With a lifetime of accomplishments and one-of-a-kind experiences Hurrell said there is one main reason why he continues teaching at the University: “I like books and I like people, and that’s a very nice combination.”