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Ohio Today

Writing Epitaphs
How a professor helped a nontraditional student etch out a lifelong dream during trying times

Dorothy Sayre (left) credits journalism Professor Dru Riley Evarts with motivating her to continue her studies despite personal struggles.
By Dorothy Sayre

Returning to school is as hard as writing an epitaph on a granite tombstone.

As an older, nontraditional student planning to return to full-time classes at Ohio University after the lingering illness and death of my husband, George, my life was in a frightening transition in early 2000. It was upside down.

My dream was to be accepted into the prestigious E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. Applications are taken annually, and the competition is always keen. The deadline for applying was months away; would I succeed? What if I were not competitive with the much younger, brighter students?

It seemed as if everything that could go wrong during that time, did go wrong. Even the tombstone I ordered for my husband's grave seemed to foreshadow disaster, breaking in a rollover truck accident. The second one had too much white in the American black granite to etch the planned picture. The third had the finished picture tilted 3/16ths of an inch. The chance to see a tombstone with an image of my fighter-pilot husband sitting in his F-100 jet plane seemed elusive. However, I persisted in my goal to obtain a monument -- and to bring normalcy back into my shattered life.

That summer I unwittingly believed I could handle three classes in a five-week summer session while juggling commuting and home affairs.

One of these classes was Precision Language 133, a required subject for graduation if I were accepted into journalism school and a prerequisite for other journalism classes. The professor was Dru Riley Evarts. She is known as a tough, no-nonsense instructor -- "the definitive word" in grammar, punctuation and syntax. But I did not know all of this on that first day, when -- with my heart racing -- I sat in the front row of her class.

Dr. Evarts has a commanding presence, perhaps partly because her impressive professional and academic credentials have given her the self-esteem to walk tall even though she is short in stature and heavyset. Curly gray hair, glasses and cheerful-colored clothing complete the "Dr. Evarts look."

However, on the first day of class, I felt as if I had fallen down a rabbit hole in which I did not understand the language. Verbals? Clauses? Direct objects? Indirect objects? I didn't know what these terms meant. It had been almost 45 years since I had taken simple sentence structure or grammar classes.

I struggled to hold barely the required "C" for a prospective journalism major in Precision Language. Vocabulary and spelling tests were daily; I had recurring nightmares about failing.

And each morning, tears would stream down my face as I drove the 30 miles to the University. Yet I went, with linking and irregular verbs defining my existence, challenging me.

I was taught to solidly face challenges by my parents and maternal grandmother, who were Rocks of Gibraltar throughout my life. As role models, my relatives wrote across my psyche the positive qualities of hard work, honesty, strength to never give up and a belief in God. But the proverbial last straw, the death of my beloved husband, had me feeling as if dynamite had blown shards of igneous stone into my brain to stop its function. My concentration was poor. My mind felt as if it were a movie on fast forward. And when I would think there were no more tears, I cried some more.

One week before the end of that fateful summer session, Dr. Evarts called me at home. She said she would like me to take an incomplete in the class and finish it with her that fall. I was crushed; I was a failure. But she went on to explain that I had scored higher than any of the students on the diagnostic testing, and she could not understand why I wasn't "getting it." I agreed to her terms and finished out the last week with her. I received "A's" in my other two classes for the session, but these grades were bittersweet. I was unsure of my ability as a student, and I didn't dare dream too often of being accepted into journalism school.

More doubts and troubles were on the way.

A frequent phenomenon after a family death is the illness of the caregiver. I was no exception. For 15 months after George's death, I was besieged with pneumonia, bronchitis and relapses of both. I started the second session of Precision Language while taking antibiotics for pneumonia, only to have a relapse as soon as the antibiotics ended. That fall quarter, I continued to fight for a perfect tombstone, to make my health better and to keep up with a mountain of legal paperwork. I finished with an "A" in Precision Language. I cried, this time in happiness.

I applied for journalism school and was told there might be fewer than the usual 40 students selected that year. I had months to wait. I took other classes in the meantime, and I skipped spring quarter to take a long-planned trip to Greece while doing an independent study through another journalism professor. I left for Greece with bronchitis, an antibiotic shot and many pills. Arriving home from Greece on a weekend, I drove myself from the airport to the emergency room with an elevated temperature and a deep cough. I was so exhausted from coughing that I believed one more illness would surely kill me.

When I collected my mountain of mail the following Monday, there was an acceptance letter from the School of Journalism. It was my 60th birthday. It was a rebirth. And as if in response, my good health returned.

It was not easy continuing studies at Scripps. However, during the few times I was tempted to quit, I thought of my favorite professor, Dr. Evarts. Without an "A" in Precision Language, it is doubtful I would have been accepted into the journalism school. "I cannot let her down," I kept thinking.

Last fall, I graduated -- magna cum laude -- with a degree in magazine journalism.

So, while sometimes it may be difficult to write epitaphs, my husband's fourth tombstone is finally chiseled to perfection. And perhaps Dr. Dru Riley Evarts will forget me, but I'll never forget her. I have learned that life is hard, rewarding and fragile; yet life can be as durable and predictable as the granite tombstone that one day will serve as my life's slate.

Dorothy Sayre, BSJ '02, lives in Racine,Ohio. Now that she's obtained her degree, she hopes to pursue freelance writing and photography opportunities with a special focus on her interests in travel features and biographies.

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