My Lunch with Judy Oster
by William R. Siebenschuh
I’ve always known Judy Oster as a scholar, colleague, and inspirational classroom teacher. But when I had lunch with her a month or so before she left CWRU, I found there was a lot I still didn’t know.
She told me she was born Judy Link in 1933 in Bratislava in what was then Czechoslovakia. Seeing the war and the trouble coming, her family moved in 1939 first to London and then to Cleveland Heights because her father had cousins who lived here. She remembers the transatlantic voyage on the New Amsterdam, and a little playmate she met on shipboard whose family, unhappily, was not allowed to enter the U.S. (She also remembers that members of her father’s family who didn’t get out in time didn’t survive.)
Arriving in Cleveland Heights as a six year old, she went to Boulevard School, Roosevelt Junior High, and Heights High after which, from 1951—1955, she attended Mather College for Women. Elizabeth Hastings (formerly of this department) was the Dean, Libby Walker (Academic Dean of Western Reserve College for years) gave her her college interview, and one of her most memorable professors was Florence Marsh, then a newly minted Yale PhD.
While she was an undergraduate Judy worked summers as a verse writer for American Greetings. One summer she began getting rides to work with a nice young man named Joe. They got married in 1955, four days after her graduation from Mather College. From 1955—1957 she taught French and English at Monticello Junior High in Cleveland Heights. However, between 1957 and 1964 children Sandra, Deborah, Naomi, and Howard arrived, and so Judy, in her words, “missed the sixties” working only part time in those years. Then in 1970, strongly encouraged by Joe, she went back to school—to the graduate program in English at Western Reserve College.
She said she took it slowly, “one course at a time at first.” She got her MA in 1974 and said she wasn’t sure about whether she should try to go on. But Joe said, “you can’t stop now” and so she went on for the PhD, which she earned in 1979. Bob Ornstein directed her dissertation. Second and third readers were Roger Salomon and P.K. Saha. Peter Salm was the outside reader.
We wanted to hire her immediately, but her first job was a lectureship in composition and literature at the University of Akron in 1980. That was because, as promising and valuable as her work already was, it took this university more than six years of administrative fretting and hand wringing about letting us hire one of our own PhDs before they gave in. What came first was a sequence of compromise appointments (lecturer, coordinator, adjunct, etc.) Finally she became an Assistant Professor in 1987, was promoted to the rank of Associate in 1993, and Professor in 2004. The books she’s best known for followed in due course: From Reading to Writing, 1997; Toward Robert Frost, 1991; and Crossing Cultures in 2003. If you take just a cursory look at her CV, her academic history is a fairly straightforward and exemplary success story. It’s a lot more than that if you consider when it happened, how long Judy had to wait for things, and how many obstacles she had in her path.
As anyone born before 1950 will realize immediately, Judy did the nearly impossible for a woman in those years. She went to college. She got a PhD. She got married. She had a family and a demanding and rewarding job. That is, at precisely the time when the battles about where women belonged—in the home, in the office, married or single by choice--were the fiercest, Judy did it all. She did it with talent and ability, of course, but also with patience, determination, poise, and a remarkable degree of clear-sightedness and unflappability.
She still has plenty of all those qualities, too, especially unflappability. When the lunch was over and we were heading back to Guilford House, I asked wasn’t she a bit nervous going to live permanently in an international hotspot like Tel Aviv. She just smiled and said, “Oh, you get used to it.” And I guess if you’re Judy, and you’ve done everything else she’s done, that’s exactly what you do.