Closing the Book Kind words as JHU Press chief retires

March 31, 1995|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff Writer

During his 21 years as director, Jack G. Goellner has shepherded the Johns Hopkins University Press into the upper ranks of scholarly publishers in the United States.

He's published seminal academic works, introduced French +V literary theory to the United States, pioneered a whole series of self-help medical books and championed regional books about the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay.

He's won the acclaim of scholars, critics, incontinent septuagenarians and the families of Alzheimer's victims.

And he's transformed America's oldest university press from a sleepy operation that once published about 25 books and six scholarly journals a year into an academic innovator that will turn out 206 books and 45 scholarly journals this year. Editors who have worked for Mr. Goellner have gone on to run a half-dozen university presses around the country, including those at Harvard, Indiana and Rutgers.

But as Mr. Goellner contemplates his retirement today, he finds his greatest satisfaction came when he rushed a book into the hands of a dying professor. It was the last volume of her life's work.

The publication of philosopher Susanne K. Langer's "magnum opus," "Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling," literally became a race with death. Langer was a distinguished thinker, profiled in the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post in the 1960s. She was not quite 80 when she died in 1989 at her home in Old Lyme, Conn.

"Unfortunately," he says, "and this was so sad, she got too old and too sick before the book was finished. I wanted desperately to get this book into her hands before she died."

As soon as the book came from the bindery, he rushed a copy by special messenger directly to her home. The next day he got a call from her son, Leonard Langer, a New York banking `D executive.

"He said: 'Jack, you wouldn't believe this. Mother got the book and for the first time in months she got out of bed. She walked out into the garden. She looked around. She smiled.' "

"She lived a few more months before she died," Mr. Goellner says. "You ask about rewards. There's a reward for you!"

'A third of a century'

Today, Mr. Goellner, 64, officially ends nearly 34 years with Hopkins Press. He'll be succeeded by Willis G. Regier, the head of the University of Nebraska Press, who takes charge at the beginning of May.

"I've been here a third of a century," Mr. Goellner says. "And I've never been bored. I've often been tired. I've been exhilarated. I've been discouraged. I've been all those things, but I've never been bored. I never once got up in the morning wishing I didn't have to go to work that day."

He projects a kind of serious affability and ready wit over a couple of hours of conversation in his office in the old church building on North Charles Street that he's had renovated into the press headquarters. He's straightforward and unprepossessing and dispassionately modest about his life and work. He uses the editorial "we" a lot when he talks about the press. He's made great friends over the years, and he's won widespread respect and admiration.

"He's done marvelous things with the press," says Elizabeth Hughes, the executive editor of the papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, which Hopkins has been publishing throughout Mr. Goellner's stewardship.

Each of the 13 volumes published so far runs about 600 pages, Ms. Hughes says, and they're destined for scholarly readers. They don't include the "thank you for the chocolates" notes.

She and her editing team consider Jack Goellner "a good friend."

"He's a skillful administrator and a very witty, charming and warm man," Ms. Hughes says. "It's rare to find someone so

admired as an administrator and so respected in the scholarly community."

'The accidental profession'

Ms. Hughes, Richard A. Macksey, a humanities professor at Hopkins, M. Gordon Wolman, former head of the press' faculty editorial board, and Henry Y. K. Tom, the executive editor, have gotten together to establish the Jack G. Goellner Publishing Fund to support "the innovative publishing that has been the hallmark of Jack's tenure at the press."

Not bad for a man who didn't know a university press from a steam iron when he came to Hopkins from Cleveland in 1961. He started as sales and advertising manager. He became director in 1974.

"Publishing is called the accidental profession," he says. "I never even knew there was such a thing as a university press."

He'd graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and earned a master's degree in English. He'd worked as a reporter and in public relations.

But then he read a book in which a character was the director of the now-defunct Western Reserve University Press in Cleveland.

On a whim, he called up the university and asked to speak to the director of the press.

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