Wit Without Malice

By Jerry Tarver | February 6th, 2019

Remembering James A. Sartain (1922-1986)

Vector cartoon empty school, college classroom

Dr. James A. Sartain, late professor of sociology at the University of Richmond, once delivered a complete lecture to an empty classroom. His students had conspired to cut the class en masse, confident that their solidarity would protect them as they got a head start on a holiday. Shortly after everyone returned to school, Sartain gave a test. One by one students appeared at his desk to protest that one question on the exam had not been not covered in the course. To each complainer, Sartain replied, “Oh, yes it was.”

Jim Sartain had deep affection and high expectations for his students and his university. He used his sometimes-caustic wit to spur them on to be their best. After reexamining the paper of a student who believed Sartain’s grading had been unfair, he said, “You don’t want justice; you want mercy.”

Sartain was impatient with what he thought was inadequate imagination and innovation at the University of Richmond. “This college,” he said, “has great potential. And always will have.”

When Sartain joined its faculty, UR had extremely limited resources. President Dr. George M. Modlin struggled to maintain quality by keeping faculty salaries as competitive as possible. Little remained for amenities. For printing exams or reports, the college owned a single, closely guarded mimeograph machine. Sartain paid for his own huge government-surplus calculator as well as a rickety office air conditioner. Lacking money, Dr. Modlin attempted to maintain morale with appeals to pride and tradition. At commencement, he always reminded everyone, “In its history, the University of Richmond has had three locations, three names and three presidents.” To which Sartain inevitably added sotto voce, “And three telephones.”

Sartain grumpily declared that UR should adopt as its motto, “Progress Without Change.” After a magnificent $50 million gift from E. Claiborne Robins, there was a mad flurry of meetings and recommendations on how best to use the money. Sartain changed his motto recommendation to “Change Without Progress.”

Jim Sartain was not above reworking someone else’s humor for himself. He modified an old anecdote to explain why he refused to attend teaching workshops: “I already know how to teach better than I do.” But he was lightening fast with a quip coined on the spot. Hundreds of his witticisms hit their mark and are regrettably lost.

Jim Sartain’s legacy should remind a sensitive generation that wit without malice has a place in our lives.

I once visited Jim in the then-Medical College of Virginia Hospital. MCV was a pioneer in the field of heart transplants, and I thought that might give me a way to cheer up my ailing friend.

I walked into his room and said to the attending nurse, “Please tell his doctor that the donor for Professor Sartain’s heart transplant has arrived.” Sartain was pale and weak with half his body paralyzed, but he immediately snapped, “Tarver, I had a stroke, not a heart attack. I don’t need a heart transplant; I need a brain transplant. And I don’t want yours.”

Also from Dr. Jerry Tarver in Boomer: Last Words, Theirs and Yours

From the University of Richmond website:

Dr. Sartain was a professor of sociology from 1963 to 1986. This award was established by the department in 1987 in his memory. Dr. Sartain loved the department, his colleagues, and above all, his students. Education was his mission in life. He received the University’s Distinguished Educator Award in 1986. The Sartain Award is awarded to a graduating senior sociology major who best exemplifies the qualities personified by Dr. Sartain: scholarship, humanitarianism, integrity, and commitment to the ideals of the University of Richmond.

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