MY GREAT TEACHER/ Beowulf with belly laughs

knight's helmet with mask and horns
All right, all right — everyone wants to know what the hell this is. It’s part of a suit of armor that once belonged to Henry VIII. But it could be a nearsighted Beowulf. Or Grendel. Definitely not Ellis D. Lutz.

Mr. Lutz was the English teacher who made me want to say better things.

By Bruce Morgan

A smallish man in a shapeless grey suit, with his dark hair combed straight back and black horn-rimmed glasses set atop his nose, Mr. Ellis D. Lutz (pronounced lootz) was the English teacher for my junior year of high school in central Ohio in the late 1960s. He was both of the place and beyond it. The other teachers strolled around casually, joking with kids in the hall, but no one was that casual with Mr. Lutz. He brought a more formal bearing to the scene and raised expectations in the process.

He was the first teacher to call me by my last name. “Mr. Morgan,” he might call out. “We’ve all read these first lines of Beowulf. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on our story so far.” Then he would wait, alert and patient as the sands of Egypt, for the response. His unexpectedly formal address made his students momentarily into adults. I can’t say the trick made my answers any better, but the dignity of the questions pushed us all in the right direction: he made us want to say better things.

It is Mr. Lutz’s laughter that I most remember. The sound of it has stayed with me now for more than fifty years. Mr. Lutz found a rare joy in his encounters with good writing. He especially liked certain columnists in Saturday Review, a stylish literary magazine then in circulation. Apropos of nothing, he would stand holding the folded magazine in one hand while he read aloud a few especially acerbic or penetrating lines from a recent column. Then he would rock his head all the way back until you could see the curve of his upper teeth and he would cackle delightedly. “That’s pretty good, I think” would be his appreciative summation, given with a wag of his head.

I regret I never wrote anything worth Mr. Lutz’s attention. I was too unfocused and distracted as a teenager, not to mention lazy. But he was the first person to show me what an ideal audience for good writing might be. You could make people laugh out loud with pleasure if you did it right.

Mr. Lutz’s interests ranged widely; he was always surprising us that way. He had a decent stereo system set up in his classroom, and would listen to any record you brought in. One day someone put Jimi Hendrix’s seismic debut album, Are You Experienced, on the turntable — about as far from what you might have expected a fifty-year-old man in a dark suit to tolerate — and he didn’t flinch. “Interesting,” he mused after the last screaming notes had faded away. “I find that to be a very interesting sound.”

The usual boundaries didn’t exist with him. You could go to his house in midsummer and sit out back on his patio and discuss whether Dylan’s lyrics were poetry or just so much junk. When one member of my class wanted to qualify as a conscientious objector before the draft board downtown, he went to Mr. Lutz, who not only supported him but drove us all there and waited for an hour in a bleak anteroom to speak on his student’s behalf. He was a principled, astute, and caring man. Years later I learned that he had been a chaplain during World War II, grazing the fields of loss.

Mr. Lutz and I were never close in personal terms. When I was out in California, a decade or so after high school, I rang him up where he was living then, in Los Angeles, deeply engaged in helping yet another crop of high school students locate their own bearings with regard to literature and the world. We shared a nice few hours over wine. He was a bit evasive in his comments, and I’m not sure he remembered exactly who I was. But that’s fine. I suspect it’s often true that the people most significant in our lives are those who, in the final accounting, would have trouble picking us out of a crowd.


BRUCE MORGAN, of Concord, Massachusetts, has been an ink-stained wretch since high school, doing every kind of writing short of crossword puzzles. It’s been a blast. He has written the text for those little museum panels that no one reads. He has written chapter openers for a high school history textbook bound to put slackers to sleep. He has been a columnist, essayist, reporter, and drudge. In the mid-1980s he published the Boston Literary News, a brilliant, failing enterprise. He has contributed to Mother Jones, Creative Living, and Time, among other publications. In 2017 he retired after nineteen years as editor of Tufts Medicine, the alumni magazine for Tufts Medical School. If you’re ever feeling sick, take two aspirin and call him in the morning.

3 Comments

  1. As a former copy editor for Tufts Medicine (2011-2019), I want Bruce to know how much I enjoyed his writing in that magazine. In addition, reminiscences about former English teachers always bring a tear for me.

  2. Many of us had a similar experience, finding ourselves with a creative, dedicated teacher just when we needed inspiration. This essay captures it beautifully. I am endlessly grateful that the luck of the draw put me in Joseph Phillips’ English class in my senior year at Central High School in Philadelphia!

Leave a comment