Green means go, red means stop
Marjorie Ferry calls it a career after 35 years
Photo and Story by Brad Bakke
“One thing that touches my heart: When I first started, those damn portables were here.”
For the past 35 years, Dr. Marjorie Ferry, writing and literature instructor with a Ph.D. from Yale, has been a top-notch instructor at Chemeketa.
She is retiring at the end of this term – the end of an Chemeketa institution.
Ferry came to Chemeketa in 1978 from Willamette University, where she was a visiting assistant professor of Russian.
“I originally got connected with Chemeketa because I was … hmmm … I had finished my doctoral degree when I was hired for a partial fall semester at Willamette. It went into two more semesters, a spring and a fall, because a full professor had died,” she said.
“That fall they decided to eliminate the Russian major that I was teaching. They had wanted to eliminate the major but could not because the professor had been tenured.”
Chemeketa was recommended as a place to work
Her Willamette colleagues suggested that Ferry could go to Chemeketa to teach Russian.
“I said, ‘Chemeketa?’ I had heard of it, but I had never been on campus.
“I was pretty sure they were not going to want someone to teach Russian,” she said.
“And my colleague said, ‘You could tell them you could teach English composition because you’re always complaining about how our students are turning in these horrible papers; badly written, poorly organized. … Why don’t you tell them you can teach English comp?’
“So I thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’ I came over, and it turns out that Chemeketa always has more English composition classes than full-time instructors to teach them.
“I was honest; I did not lie, telling them that I love to teach English composition. I told them I had never taught English composition, but I believe I can do it and why. I told them about my academic background and that I had spent a lot of time at Willamette correcting and talking to students about their papers.
”And so they decided to give me a try. I taught as an adjunct instructor for a year or so. Then I was hired as a full-time replacement for two terms, and over that summer I was hired on full time. … So I sort of bumbled my way here.”
A heart-to-heart with Bill Gates
Mention Ferry’s name and you’ll hear stories.
Steve Richardson, a longtime Chemeketa colleague and writing instructor, tells a tale about a side of Ferry that few have seen.
Richardson said, “Marjorie has always been a great hater of Microsoft.
“She was raised in a gentler time when WordPerfect was the queen of word-processing software, and she used it with a proficiency that few of us can even imagine.
“But then in the late 1990s, the IT department … forced all of us to stop using WordPerfect and adopt Microsoft Word. We were all worried about how this would affect Dr. Ferry.
“We kept an eye on her, never trying to be too obvious but always looking for warning signs of depression: averted eyes, slowed speech, tears. We saw nothing.
She seemed to be taking the change with a calm acceptance.
”But then at an English meeting, as Fred Chancey, another colleague, was commenting on the circular nature of education reform, Dr. Ferry stood up, apropos of nothing, and began to swear.
“We had never heard her utter any curse words upon any occasion, but she unleashed a steady stream of obscenity that viciously attacked Bill Gates, MicroSoft (the S was capitalized in those days), MS-Word, the IT department, administrators, anyone who had anything to do with this ‘**** adoption of a **** inferior piece of **** software,’ etc.
“It was stunning. She went on for what felt like an hour but was probably only three minutes. Then she sat down. We all stared at her, waiting for what came next, but the only thing that came next was her asking us what we were staring at. So the meeting continued.”
The story doesn’t stop there.
Richardson said, “For the next two years, if any of us said the word ‘MicroSoft’ to her, even as a barely audible whisper, Dr. Ferry would instantly unloose a four-syllable curse word. As far as we could tell, she never had any idea she was saying it.
“This was years ago, of course. After two years, the word triggered nothing more than a sigh or a rolling of her eyes. I don’t think it will get any reaction from her today.”
Ferry recalls the transition from WordPerfect.
“I was indignant,” she said.
“I had spent all this time learning WordPerfect. WordPerfect was the first word processing program that Chemeketa used.
“When we got computers for the first time, they came with WordPerfect. … I think in my naiveté, I thought that WordPerfect was what we were going to learn and that we were going to keep it. So when we were switched to Word, I was horrified.
“I think there was a considerable amount of whining on my part.”
Dean of Humanities? No thank you.
Bernie Knab, a retired dean of Chemeketa’s Humanities Department, maintains vivid memories of his early days at the college.
Knab said, “When I was hired to be the Humanities director at Chemeketa in 1988, one faculty person was thoroughly delighted: Marjorie Ferry.
“Why? Because she would now be relieved of her duties as interim director and go back to full-time teaching, which she loved and in which she excelled.
“As she handed over to me the stuff administrators accumulate, she breathed a sigh of relief that her interim life was now over, and that this new guy she was now talking to was, well, more than welcome.
“She was, and remains, a very funny person. A favorite trick of hers has been to make gentle fun of all of her peers and/or certain administrators. On any given day, one needed only to look to the bulletin board in the faculty building to see some hilarious scene, let’s say: a Photoshopped picture of Henry VIII posing in his scholarly clothes, but with [a colleague’s] face on Henry’s shoulders.
“She pulled this kind of stuff off for years, and it always worked.”
Knab sums up his friend in a few words: “Excellent person, assiduous scholar, devoted teacher, funny lady, word traveler, and very special friend with colleagues and, quite literally, with hundreds of students. Lucky them and lucky us!”
Ferry said, “I was director for a year and didn’t like it.
“It was a gruesome experience. It was not something I was well cut out for. I think I did OK; that is all I can say. I saw it as a sort of failure. I realized that what I really love was interacting with the students.”
Her greatest joy?
“When I finally see a student get it, whatever it is. When they say, ‘Wow. I can’t believe I wrote this paper.’ Or ‘You know, I thought this literature stuff was quite dumb, but it is actually quite interesting,” she said.
She starts with a green marker
Students often grow to hate the green pen that she uses for editing, she said.
Why green? “Most people have had lots of bad experiences with red pens,” she said.
She switched to green on the theory that go/green is better than stop/red.
“But I am sure that people are just as irritated, after they leave my class, with green as they were once with the red pen,” she said.
Heather Gonzalez-Leaton, a former student, said, “Marjorie is a tough instructor but fair, and she helps you so much. She sets the bar high, but she gives you the help and resources to achieve that bar. I learned that with time and help I could write decently.”
She added, as an afterthought, “I hate green pen corrections. I am fine with red.”
Marjorie Ferry: Intellectual giant
Don Brase, the college’s current dean of Humanities, said, “In the Humanities & Communications Department, we have a plurality of talented and well-educated faculty. Marjorie certainly stands in the forefront of our group.
“She has a doctorate in Russian literature from Yale University. She studied in Russia. And she doesn’t rest on her laurels from yesteryear. Marjorie continues to expand her cosmic horizon of knowledge by using sabbatical to study African, Chinese, and Norse literature. … She travels to small villages in southern France and mountainous cities in Costa Rica to pursue cultural and linguistic inclinations.”
Of course, that can lead to interesting situations.
“When someone with such a titanic aptitude for learning demonstrates even the slightest flaw, our department is not above calling attention to this blemish in the hopes of binding an intellectual giant to the ground,” Brase said.
“Imagine the inhabitants of Lilliput holding down Gulliver; this is what we wanted to accomplish in regards to containing Marjorie’s intelligence at one of our department retreats.
“Apparently, Marjorie had forayed into the realm of studio art and found that she could not force art into submission through brute mental power. A light jest was made that perhaps she would be better suited to painting by numbers. And so, at our department retreat, a member of the art program unveiled an intact paint-by-numbers canvas of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.”
Ferry still has the painting.
“I see it every time I pull into the garage,” she said.
The brightest star in the room
Her intellect is legendary at Chemeketa.
“Marjorie is the brightest star in the room,” Bill Florence, the college’s journalism instructor, said. “And that’s true regardless of who else is in the room with her.”
The ever-humble Ferry dismisses the thought.
“I think I am reasonably bright but not the brightest,” she said. “I don’t consider myself any brighter than anybody else.
“I have an excellent education and was fortunate enough to have gone to a prestigious graduate school.”
Ferry the Crisco Oil rebel
Can she be off-beat, too?
“I once outlined a course for Crisco Oil in Literature. I think I was feeling very rebellious about having to work on some course outline that I felt had been revised a million times before,” she said.
“I had to invent [books]. War, Peace, and Crisco was one. I went through the whole outline. It had very straight-faced description of the influence of Crisco. For some reason, this course never caught on.”
Much has changed, but one thing has remained
“One thing that touches my heart: When I first started, those damn portables were here. And they’re still out there,” she said.
“I think you can probably poke your fingers through those suckers. I think they’re held up by duct tape. People would say, ‘Those are only temporary buildings.’ And they’re still here, 35 years later.”
Even though Ferry is retiring, students may still get the chance to see her in the classroom. She is planning to teach a part-time class in the fall.
“It depends on enrollment,” she said.