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Dr. Jordan with his two sons. Courtesy | Michael Jordan

After he suf­fered a stroke in class on Sept. 2, Pro­fessor of English Michael Jordan announced a week later he would retire the next day.

A mainstay of the English department for the past 29 years, Jordan first joined Hillsdale’s faculty in 1991 as an assistant pro­fessor. After being pro­moted to asso­ciate pro­fessor, Jordan became the chair of the English department in 2004, staying in the post until 2015. 

Jordan was a fixture at the doors of Delp Hall, where stu­dents could spot him wearing his trademark brown fedora, occa­sionally a bolo tie, and smoking a hand-rolled cig­a­rette.

“Yes, I did quit smoking,” Jordan said as we sat on the white porch of his home. “And I’m not going to pick it back up, God willing. And I know he’s willing!” 

Jordan’s mild-man­nered lead­ership of the English department is largely respon­sible for its ongoing col­le­giality, talent, pro­duc­tiveness, and beauty, according to his col­leagues.

“His excel­lence is the quiet kind that too often goes unno­ticed,” Pro­fessor of English David Whalen said. 

When the college underwent sig­nif­icant changes in the early 2000s, Jordan was a leader in the English department’s tran­sition and the imple­men­tation of the updated English major in 2004, according to Justin Jackson, chair of the English department.

“He rep­re­sented and then guided the department through the changes to the core cur­riculum and the changes we made to our own core courses therein,” Jackson said in an email. “He demon­strated a steady hand throughout all of this.”

In par­ticular, Jordan focused the department’s attention on improving student writing by reducing the course load borne by each pro­fessor and capping classes at 25 stu­dents. Jordan’s legacy as department chair also includes the seven current faculty members whom he hired, including Justin Jackson, Patricia Bart, Kelly Franklin, Dutton Kearney, Dwight Lindley, Lor­raine Murphy, and Benedict Whalen. He led by con­sensus, encouraged good cheer and charity, and never imposed his view according to his col­leagues. 

“He has been a steady friend, col­league, and leader in our department,” Pro­fessor Christopher Busch said. “I and many others will feel his absence. We have been blessed to know him.”

Yet, for all of his accom­plish­ments, one cannot truly appre­ciate Jordan without hearing his stories. Between sips of apple cider, Jordan recalled his childhood edu­cation in western North Car­olina. 

“The high-point of every day was coming home from lunch to hear my teacher read ‘Tom Sawyer,’” Jordan said.

Despite his ado­lescent love for reading, Jordan believes he “wasted” his high school edu­cation and forgot about lit­er­ature. After grad­u­ation, he hopped a bus to Florida and worked at Disney World. His Floridian escapades include buying a used ’65 Ford Cortina — a real bucket of bolts, he recalls — from NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry. But then after one summer, home­sickness for the moun­tains of western North Car­olina crept in, so Jordan packed up and drove his clat­tering Ford back home.

“Once, I was in a little town called Morley, Michigan, a town of about 500 people, and I went into a cafe,” Jordan said. “And the waitress said, ‘what’ll you have?’ And I said, ‘cawww-fee.’ And she shouts to the back, ‘Hey mama, we got a western North Car­olina boy in here!’ Just that one word told her.” 

Indeed, Jordan’s Tar Heel style of speech is unusual in Michigan, which adds to his under­stated charm. But Jordan’s localism is more than the accent; it’s the lens through which he reads lit­er­ature, and ulti­mately, the heart of what he teaches to stu­dents: to love and cel­e­brate one’s culture and tra­dition. 

He is sad­dened by the “brain-drain” from rural America, typ­ified by college stu­dents who take high-paying jobs in cities rather than rein­vesting in their com­mu­nities, and the homo­geneity of urban­ization. For­tu­nately, Jordan said he believes the town of Hillsdale has largely been saved from that; he loves the scenic coun­tryside, weekend farmers’ market, and local Catholic parish, St. Anthony’s. In fact, according to Jordan, the only bad thing about Hillsdale is that it’s not in western North Car­olina. 

After his brief stint at Disney World, Jordan returned to the moun­tains of Marion, North Car­olina, and spent several years working in both a cotton mill and carpet factory. This made him recon­sider college. It was during his sophomore year that he dis­covered a love of lit­er­ature, and in 1977, Jordan grad­uated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Bryan College in Dayton, Ten­nessee.

Three years later, an encounter with Russell Kirk gave Jordan’s studies purpose and direction. After hearing the con­ser­v­ative intel­lectual give a lecture hosted by the Inter­col­le­giate Studies Institute, Jordan wrote to Kirk for advice. Kirk replied with an invi­tation to study at his home in Mecosta, Michigan. 

“I don’t think he knew what he was getting himself into,” Jordan said with a laugh. “Now, I was never a very snazzy or snappy dresser. But I didn’t even know how to tie a tie when I went to work with Dr. Kirk. I think there was a bit of a culture shock for this crude redneck who showed up in a tank top and gym shorts.” 

Those two years at Kirk’s home, called Piety Hill, were dif­ficult. He studied under Kirk, cut firewood, and served as Kirk’s chauffeur. Jordan also edited the Uni­versity Bookman, a pub­li­cation Kirk oversaw. Jordan admits that he looks back at his first pub­lished article, “Man is Moral Choice,” with embar­rassment. Nev­er­theless, he com­pleted his master’s thesis on Nathaniel Hawthorne under Kirk’s men­torship and received his “intro­duction to a life of letters.” Most impor­tantly, Jordan met his wife of 34 years, Lindy, during a seminar at Kirk’s home.

The stories Jordan recalls of Kirk’s gen­erosity — how he would sneak by his wife, Annette, to give Jordan a cigar or a slice of cake — par­allel the same kind-heart­edness Jordan has shown to stu­dents and col­leagues at Hillsdale. Many times, stu­dents visited Jordan’s office to chat about a bur­geoning interest and left his office with a stack of related books. He was gen­erous in lending wrenches and ladders, dropping off homemade sweets from his wife, Lindy, and even opening his home up to share his family’s Easter dinner table with stu­dents. 

“My first year at the college I lived with the Jordans — at their invi­tation — while my wife and I tried des­per­ately to sell our home in South Car­olina,” David Whalen recalled. “It took a full year for that to happen, and so all that time I lived here in Hillsdale with the Jordans while my family was in Car­olina. The Jordans warmly wel­comed me into their home. Theirs was not the ‘one-and-done’ good deed of con­ven­tional charity, but nine months of sus­tained help for the Whalens.”

After Mecosta, Jordan taught high-school boys at a boarding school in Bell Buckle, Ten­nessee. Much like the lessons learned at the cotton mill, however, Jordan found that his vocation laid else­where. He fin­ished his Ph.D. at the Uni­versity of Georgia under the men­torship of Marion Mont­gomery and began to teach there. Jordan’s first visit to Hillsdale was with Kirk during a Center for Con­structive Alter­na­tives lecture series; his first rec­ol­lection of the college is stum­bling upon a debate in the hallway of Phillips Audi­torium between two female stu­dents over the doc­trine of pre­des­ti­nation. 

English pro­fessors John Somerville and Busch were hired in 1991 along with Jordan. The three have taught nearly a third of a century together.

“I can’t think of a better com­panion,” Somerville said. 

In addition to his teaching duties, Jordan took special pride in estab­lishing an annual American Studies lecture and serving as the faculty sponsor for the Stu­dents for Life, the LIT lit­erary hon­orary, and One-On-One, which mentors at-risk youth. Still, he says his favorite part of his 29 years at Hillsdale has been working with the stu­dents who have become “better pre­pared, better focused, and more bright” as the years went on. 

Sophomore Sean Hoeft said he found his final Great Books class this fall with Jordan sen­ti­mental. 

“You could tell that he loved what he was doing, which made his last day bit­ter­sweet,” Hoeft said. “While fin­ishing his lecture on ‘The Par­son’s Tale’ in Can­terbury Tales, Dr. Jordan threw in his own sort of sermon, telling us stu­dents, ‘“You should love love, you should love joy, and you should love peace.’”

In the past week, the English department has rushed to fill in for Jordan’s absence. Pro­fessors Whalen the elder and Whalen the younger have assumed respon­si­bility for his Great Books classes, and pro­fessors Cline and Franklin have taken on his American Lit­er­ature 1890-Present class. 

“We all know he’d cer­tainly have done it for any of us; indeed, he has done so repeatedly,” Jackson said.

Though Jordan hasn’t decided what he’ll do in retirement, he likes the idea of spending his summers in Hillsdale and his winters at his lake house in western North Car­olina. Wherever he decides to go, however, you’ll find him hiking, cutting wood, and doing some much-deserved pleasure reading. 

As Jordan puts it, “The liberal arts can translate to a good life in another place.”