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A Tale Of Two Colleagues

Warner Grenelle Rice
The Michigan Alumnus 17

A Tale Of Two Colleagues


by Bert G. Hornback 


Carlton Wells remembers when
 Warner Rice came to Michigan. 
Having received his master's
 degree in English here in 1922, he 
was well under way on his own 
long career on the Michigan
 faculty when Mr. Rice arrived 
from Harvard in the fall of 1929.
 Carlton retired in 1967, and Mr. 
Rice the year following. They're 
both still around town, and both
 are still active. Carlton reads,
 carries on a voluminous cor
respondence, walks everywhere,
 and—as he has for most of the 
past seventy years in Ann
 Arbor—picks up litter and puts it where it belongs. Mr. Rice 
spends his days in the rare book 
room of the Graduate Library,
 working. And he meets with
 various but selected colleagues at 
the Michigan League for lunch,
 to discuss the state of the University and the state of the world.


I have no particular authority 
for writing about either Carlton 
Wells or Mr. Rice. I know 
Carlton, and admire him. Every 
so often we talk each other to
 school down South University.
 Though I have known Mr. Rice 
for almost twenty-five years
 now, I still call him Mr. Rice.
 The few times I have ever heard
 colleagues call him "Warner-
older colleagues, even, men near
ly his age—I have been embar
rassed at their presumption.
 Over the years I have received a 
number of notes from Mr. Rice,
 about things academic and otherwise; they were always signed 
"WGR." Two years ago I received 
a letter from him, signed 
"Warner'—and I cherish that. I
 love both of these men, and 
honor them. And though that's 
not authority for my writing 
about them, it's surely reason
 enough for my doing so.


Two more different people you
 couldn't know, remember, or imagine. They both spent some 
time in the Navy during the first
 World War—and they have spent 
most of this century together in
 Ann Arbor, teaching young peo
ple and caring about our future.
 But you'd never confuse them,
 one with the other.


What Carlton talks of most 
fondly is his golfing career: he
 was the State amateur champion 
in 1922 and 1923, and again in
 1925. He was also a devoted 
teacher, and an earnest believer 
in the goodness of humane learn
ing. He loved his work, and 
though he seems always to have 
been a modest and humble man,
 he did his work proudly. He 
was—and is—a stickler for stan
dards. For years he was secretary 
of the Michigan chapter of Phi
 Beta Kappa, and as he screened
 candidates for that honor he
 would consider not just students'
 grades but the quality of their
 educations. He would regularly 
show me difficult cases: a stu
dent whose grades were not quite
 good enough, but who had taken
 serious and demanding courses;
 another student who had all As,
 but cheap As earned in weak
 courses. Carlton finally retired as
 secretary of Phi Beta Kappa in
1978, when he turned eighty.


When I went to my first
 Modern Language Association 
convention, looking for a teach
ing position, I had several inter-
views including one with The
 University of Michigan. When
 other graduate students—even 
some of my interviewers—heard 
that I was interviewing with 
Michigan they said "Oh, my
 God—that's Mr. Rice!" I wasn't
 comfortable in our interview,
 when it happened—he rejected as
 wrong just about everything I
 said—but I wasn't intimidated.
 We seemed to get on well, and I
 liked him. He was then what he 
is now, for me: complex, inscru
table, humorous—in a Miltonic
 way—and kind. There were 
always stories about him, and
 still are. He was a benevolent
 dictator, they say, a man who
 would make sure you had fallen 
all the way down before he 
picked you up, a clever autocrat
 who manipulated everybody.


Maybe Mr. Rice did manipulate 
people—but in my case, anyway,
 the manipulation was good for
 my muscles, and made me a 
stronger man. For four terms,
 when I was new to the Universi
ty, Mr. Rice put me in charge of 
registration for the English
 department. It was a thoroughly 
unrewarding job, and it took all
 of two long days, from eight 
o'clock till maybe five, when I
 had to go report to him what of
 course he already knew. When I 
received the note telling me that I 
was to run the Waterman Gym
 registration affair for yet another 
term, I decided to risk complain
ing. "Mr. Rice," I said, "I've done
 this now for four terms." "Yes," he 
said; "and you do it very well,
 Mr. Hornback, which is why I
 have asked you to do it again."
 Exasperated at being stymied so
 easily I replied, "So if I want out
 of this job I’ll have to do it bad
ly?" Mr. Rice smiled at me and
 said, "Yes—but you're not that 
kind of man, Mr. Hornback."
 The next day he wrote to tell me 
he had found someone else to
 suffer through registration in my 
place.


Mr. Rice was always in con
trol—of everything. For seven
 years he was both chairman of 
the English department and 
director of the University 
Libraries. When he retired in 
1968 he had been chairman of 
our department for twenty-one
 years.


In 1984 his old friend and col
league Norman Nelson died. Mr.
 Rice had brought Norman here
 in 1930, and they had been close 
associates all through their
 careers. At the memorial service
 for Norman, Mr. Rice was at the 
door, making sure that everyone
 signed the register. He also passed
 out the memorial programs, personally. He had arranged the service for the family, and was also 
in charge of the seating. When 
the room started to fill up he sent
 several of the younger faculty—
several of my peers—out for 
more chairs. Four of Norman's 
long-time friends spoke, as did 
Mr. Rice. When the service was 
over and I walked out of the
 Rackham building I felt better—
about the University, about Ann
 Arbor, about life—than I had in
 years. My current chairman's
 path converged with mine, and
 we walked on together. Finally 
he said, 'That was very nice." 
And I said, earnestly and honest
ly, 'Yes: because Mr. Rice was In
 charge again. He was chairman. 
He was running everything, as he
 always has."


Carlton Wells has never run a 
lot of things, but he has done a 
lot in life—and he still does.
 Among other things, Carlton has
 kept a journal, recording his
 thoughts and doings in this
 world since shortly after he came 
to Michigan as a freshman, in
 1916. A few years ago he turned
 over this wonderful diary of a 
life to the Bentley Historical
 Library—but he still contributes 
to the collection, month by 
month.


Since I first met him, I've 
always felt close to Carlton—
because he let me. But we aren't
 very much alike. We share a lot
 of values, and believe in the same 
kinds of things, but we are more
 different than alike. Somehow—
and I'm not sure at all how, 
because I'll certainly never run
 anything—I'm probably more 
like Mr. Rice: which may be part 
of why I respect him so much.
 But I respect him from a distance—his distance—and I'll
 always call him Mr. Rice.


Two winters ago Mr. Rice
 slipped on the ice, and in falling 
broke his wrist. We joked about
 it at the grocery one day: "I'm
 forging my own signature these
 days," he said.


The next time I saw Carlton I 
mentioned Mr. Rice's mishap.
 "Yes," Carlton said, "I've heard."
 And then he added, with a smile
 and a shake of his head, "Warner
 is beginning to get old."


There's some truth to that, I
 suppose—but not much. And it was 
lovely, in a way, to hear Carlton say 
it. And I didn't find it at all
 presumptuous that he called him 
"Warner," either. After all, Carlton's
 the senior of the two, by a year: he
 was born in 1898, Mr. Rice in 1899.


Bert G. Hornback, U-M professor of 
English and Honors academic advisor, is 
widely known for his annual portrayal of
 Charles Dickens reading A Christmas
 Carol. His previous articles for Michigan
 Alumnus include: "Homer's Children" in 
May 1984 and "Charles Dickens" in
 February 1982.