Retired HFC professor recounts childhood in new memoir
Retired HFC English professor Ed Demerly believes major events in his life – his teaching career, his military service, writing his first book – were a series of happy accidents.
“I hate to keep using the term ‘accident,’ but it’s true,” said Demerly with a laugh. He is the author of First Years: A Farm Boy Faces the Future – A Memoir (Mission Point Press). Demerly lives in Bloomfield Hills with Martha, his wife of 37 years. They have two children and four grandchildren.
“In my retirement, I started writing memories from my childhood, partly just for fun, partly for my grandchildren. I had no personal materials from my parents. I’d find a postcard now and then. My parents seldom talked about their childhood. I decided I could put some thoughts together, so my grandkids and great-grandkids could have some glimpse of this farm boy’s life over the course of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. My colleagues at HFC encouraged me to collect these stories and put them together,” explained Demerly.
The first in his family to attend college
Born in Owosso just weeks before the air attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Demerly was the second of five children. He was also the first in his family to attend college. He was the salutatorian of the class of 1959 at Perry High School. His American literature and Latin teacher, the late Charles Randolph, encouraged him to take the SAT – something Demerly had not even heard of. Demerly scored well enough on the SAT to earn a full-tuition scholarship to Michigan State University.
“Once I had the scholarship, then what? What would I study? Back then, we didn’t have the number of majors we do today,” said Demerly. “Taking on the larger world was somewhat accidental, but once I was in it, I was terrified of failure. Perhaps it was my father's insistence that ‘the job always had to be finished’ that motivated me to keep at it.”
At MSU, he earned his bachelor’s degree in English, as well as his secondary education teaching credentials in 1963. During his time at MSU, he was required to take two years of Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). He opted to continue in ROTC for two more years, earning a second lieutenant’s commission.
“Young, foolish, and adventurous”
Upon graduation, Demerly reported for duty in March 1964 and served in the U.S. Army for 2½ years. He was stationed at Ft. Ord in Monterey, CA. He eventually trained as an Airborne Ranger and served in the Army Medical Service Corps.
“Airborne and Ranger training came about because of boredom,” confessed Demerly. “I was primarily doing office work and training. From my perspective, because of the draft, the Army was bloated with lots of guys with not enough to do except train and retrain. It was dull, so I looked for ways to get out of my office for a short time. I had discovered that Airborne training would get me out of my office for three weeks. I signed up and was accepted. I completed that training but never got assigned to an Airborne unit. That included seven jumps and lots of thrills… I was young and foolish and adventurous.”
Inspired by JFK
Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s famous words from his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” Demerly decided to join the Peace Corps after serving in the Army.
“I never considered making the Army my career,” he said. “Prior to completing my military service, I put in an application to the Peace Corps. I was influenced by JFK. He created the Peace Corps. JFK inspired a lot of young people at that time. Suddenly, here was this young man in charge of the country. Also due to my religious life as a child, listening to missionaries when they visited the church (Demerly was raised Methodist) was another motivation to serve in the Peace Corps. I had also read about exotic places in my literature courses and dreamed a little.”
Demerly continued: “At the end of my military service, I still had this adventurous spirit. Because I had no teaching jobs lined up, no romantic relationships, and no personal commitments, I applied. After acceptance, I trained for the Peace Corps in Hawaii. My training period was three months. I stayed at a sugarcane workers’ shack with an outdoor toilet and one cold water faucet.” He added with a laugh: “It certainly wasn’t the Waikiki Hilton.”
Demerly spent two years in the Peace Corps, serving in a small rainforest village in North Borneo, Malaysia. He taught all subjects in an Australian mission school. After Demerly’s tour in the Army and service in the Peace Corps, the G.I. Bill paid for his master’s degree in English at MSU. He would later earn his elementary school certification from Eastern Michigan University.
“An accidental yet fabulous choice”
Demerly's teaching career spanned 46 years, 10 of which were spent in the Dearborn Public Schools. He spent 36 years at HFC (then Henry Ford Community College).
“It wasn’t a burning lifelong desire to go into teaching. It was just something that turned out to be an accidental yet fabulous choice,” he said. “I enjoyed almost every day of my 46 years in teaching. I had a really wonderful career.”
Demerly called getting his job at HFC “another lucky accident.” While teaching in Dearborn, he was pink-slipped for four consecutive years. When he was recalled in the fall, it was at a different school every year. He was hired at HFC to teach ESL – something he had experience with, given his time in the Peace Corps – because the person originally teaching the class was on leave. It was supposed to be a one-year assignment, after which Demerly would return to the K-12 district.
However, that teacher never returned, and Demerly’s one-year assignment continued. Then he started teaching at the College full-time, from 1979 to 2008. After retiring in 2008, he taught as an adjunct faculty member until retiring permanently in 2014.
Parallels between gangsta rap and Walt Whitman
At HFC, Demerly co-founded the English Language Institute (ELI). He also received the Faculty Lectureship Award for his now-famous 1992 lecture about the parallels between gangsta rap and the poetry of Walt Whitman.
“That was one of the more fascinating extracurricular activities I took on at the College,” recalled Demerly. “All interested faculty were asked to submit a proposal to the HFC Faculty Senate about a lecture they would be giving the following spring, if selected. At that time in the early 1990s, I heard some rap but couldn’t understand it, honestly, but sensed parallels to Whitman’s work and the whole rap industry. The Faculty Senate decided to give me a try.”
So Demerly started listening to rap music and watching music videos on MTV. He gave the lecture in the Reuther Liberal Arts Building (Bldg. K). The lecture hall was so packed, Demerly had to give the lecture again a few days later.
“It was fun because the faculty knew almost nothing about rap, but the students did,” he said. “The students knew nothing about Walt Whitman, but some of the faculty did. It was a great way to connect students and faculty. It was fun.”
Opportunities beyond the classroom at HFC
Demerly looks back fondly on his 36 years at HFC.
“I liked the camaraderie of the faculty. I liked the small classes. I liked the many opportunities to be creative when teaching English,” recalled Demerly. “For years, we had a cultural fair to enlighten students about world cultures. There was also the study abroad program; I remember taking four trips to Europe with my students. Those opportunities beyond the classroom were among many of the things I enjoyed most about teaching at the College.”
He has kept busy in retirement, not only writing his memoir, but also gardening. He grows okra, cherries, asparagus, rhubarbs, peas, raspberries, apples, flowers, and much more.
Writing First Years
First Years was another unexpected event in a string of unexpected events that have characterized Demerly’s life.
“I was prompted to begin writing pieces of my past for my brothers and sisters; not that they asked me to – it was more of a desire to share with them experiences we had in common from my point of view. I hadn't intended to write something I would call a memoir,” he said. “I hope that my granddaughters' generation and ones beyond might get a glimpse of what I consider a rather common rural childhood in the post-World War II years, its challenges, its isolation, its joys, its hardships, and – perhaps – the unusual effort it took to fit into a wider world as an adult.”
“The values and discipline he learns on the farm support him at each stage of life – at the university, in the military and Army Ranger training, in the Peace Corps, and through his adult and professional life,” said retired HFC English professor Rick Bailey.
Writing First Years was very satisfying for Demerly.
“I’ve asked a few people who’ve read the book if there were any particular parts that were touching or humorous. A number of them told me that they laughed and cried in various parts, which caused them to look more specifically at their own youth. Part of what I’ve heard from them in particular are the sections where I’m describing my parents… that provoked them to try to describe their own parents. If it’s somehow reaching readers, that’s great,” he said.
So is there a sequel in the works?
“Because this one takes me to the age of 25, there has to be a sequel, right?” said Demerly. “Several chapters allude to the current time as well. This memoir ends at the conclusion of my military service. I have begun a separate book focusing on my Peace Corps experience. My mother saved all the letters I wrote home in the order they were dated. At this point, I’m considering a book of letters with very little editing, actually, about my years in Borneo. I spot-checked a few of them to see if this will work. Rereading those letters is like reading a novel. There’s a certain suspense built into them, the way the letters arrived at home. I think it’ll be interesting to a few people – if I get it done.”