“I’ve got principles. If you don’t like them, I’ve got other principles.”
Former Professor of Christianity and Literature John Reist was quoted saying this by Tony Gonzalez ’08, who wrote the statement down while taking one of Reist’s classes, along with other gems such as: “Why do I know everything and you don’t?” and “If everyone said what he wanted to, right now, civilization would collapse.”
Gonzalez partnered with fellow alumni to create a blog titled “The Sad Bear,” a website that has pages filled with Reist quotes. It is a tribute to a man who taught English at Hillsdale College for more than 20 years.
Now the Fairfield Society is paying tribute to that same man, who staunchly supported the society during his career at Hillsdale.
The event, titled “Thanks for Sharing,” will take place Nov. 2 at 4 p.m. in Dow Leadership Center Room A. Three people will be speaking at the event: the Rev. Irv Reist, John Reist’s identical twin; Professor of English James Juroe, a friend and former colleague; and former student Chase Purdy ’09.
“Of all the faculty, no member has attended the Fairfield Society functions more regularly or more enthusiastically than John Reist,” said John Somerville, professor of English and faculty adviser of the Fairfield Society.
The society decided the event would be an apt way to honor John Reist and thank him for his support.
Somerville met John Reist more than 20 years ago when Reist was one of three people on the interview board during Somerville’s application process.
“I can’t, in just a few words, describe John Reist in any way that’s satisfactory, but I love him and am glad we have the opportunity honor him in this way,” Somerville said.
Reist had a monumental impact not merely on campus, but off campus as well. He pastored a church in addition to his campus duties, a church James Wegmann ’10 attended. Wegmann said that during the difficulty of freshman year, John Reist taught him that the Kingdom of God takes all kinds.
“Making the trek out to the church could be tedious during the winter,” Wegmann said. “And I got my fair share of speeding tickets while trying to make it back for Sunday brunch.”
Wegmann said the sermons helped strengthen his faith.
“I’m still trying to apply all Pastor Reist’s wit and wisdom,” he said.
Reist impacted campus in an unconventional way. Students described his class session in a variety of ways, including: random, energetic, unpredictable.
“He would break into song or recite entire lines of plays or dialogue or poetry one after another, and then, immediately after that, talk about the Heisman trophy members,” Gonzalez said. “He would then follow that up with joke about someone he saw nodding off in his class.”
Students described Reist’s class as both “chaotic” and “moving along at an incredible pace.”
“So many things from his classes and our discussions have stuck with me,” Gonzalez said. “More so than almost any other professor.”
Gonzalez went on to detail a story he remembers Reist covering in class — a story about a little boy who loses faith in his hero.
“It had a really complex set of ideas,” he said. “Reist just went straight at it, illuminating it in many different ways. He was able to blend the most weighty, sad, and curious ideas and emotions with comedy in a way that was almost bewildering.”
Gonzalez said the mixed approach gave him a fuller understanding of what was going on in the literature.
“More so than anybody else, Dr. Reist speaks in a way that to me represents how the brain actually works,” he said. “So it is chaotic, right? Your brain can think all these weird associations quickly and that’s chaotic. He embraced all the associations in class.”
Purdy, who took one of Reist’s class at least once every year he was at Hillsdale, said Reist was the very first professor he had in class.
“I had him for an 8 a.m.,” he said. “I didn’t really know what to expect, and walking out of his class that first day, I still didn’t know what was going on. He had a very specific teaching style. It took a little bit to catch on.”
Purdy said his teaching may or may not have been rooted in the text, but students always walked away feeling as though they had learned something — if not about the text, then about life in general.
Purdy said Reist was the same person one-on-one in his office that he was in class, except for the fact that if you were with him one-on-one you had the opportunity for more serious conversations.
“You had this sense that everything was confidential,” he said. “In that sense, he gained a lot of trust on campus.”
Purdy said that when Reist taught at Hillsdale, he was always very keyed-in to campus life. He had friends across departments. In addition, Purdy said Reist was a staunch believer in campus press, specifically The Collegian. Reist is the one who came up with the name for the school paper’s satire page, The Hellsdale Collision.
“When he had a problem with what was going on, Reist was never afraid to speak up,” Purdy said. “He seemed to think of himself at least in part as a kind of compass for the school. He felt an obligation to speak his mind, and this made him a real asset to the school.”
Gonzalez, who will also say a few words at the Fairfield event, said John Reist an undeniable impact on his life.
“I’ve never met anybody like Dr. Reist,” Gonzalez said. “And I’m a news reporter — I’ve met a lot of people — just no one like him.”