'On the fringe of the outrageous' Profile: What makes a consummate professor? Admirers of Towson State's George Friedman say it doesn't hurt to be quirky.

The Education Beat

January 14, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

GEORGE FRIEDMAN was to have been awarded the President's Award for Distinguished Service last Sunday at Towson State University. But The Unpleasantness wiped out the ceremony, and Dr. Friedman's relatives had to return to Philadelphia ahead of the blizzard.

That left only a plaque outside Towson State President Hoke Smith's office as hard evidence of the award.

"I'm excited to be on a plaque," says Dr. Friedman, 54. "I'm one of a distinguished line of nonlegends to have won this award. But I wish my sister had been there. This is my life. I wanted to show her my life."

It's been his life for 30 years. "He's one of our most talented teachers, he's witty, and he keeps us laughing," says Dr. Smith. Clarinda Harriss, a colleague in the TSU English Department, calls Dr. Friedman "the consummate professor," and Karen Blair, an education professor, says Dr. Friedman "lives on the fringe of the outrageous, but he keeps us all from being too impressed with our own importance."

Dr. Blair, 46, knows George Friedman particularly well. She married him a decade ago -- it was the first marriage for both -- and acts as Dr. Friedman's alter ego. In an interview at their home about a mile from the Towson campus, she joins in the questioning of her husband, finishes sentences for him and says the marriage "guaranteed me a date every New Year's Eve, though the punch line is I hate New Year's Eve."

What's wrapped up in a consummate professor? In George Friedman's case, according to colleagues, students and his wife, it's the excellent teaching that wins him praise every year in student evaluations. "I routinely and very sincerely tell students that if they're English majors and haven't taken a course from George Friedman, they've got to do so immediately," says Ms. Harriss, acting chair of the Towson English Department.

Another ingredient is a sense of humor rooted in modesty and bordering on the bizarre. "George is full of mysteries and superstitions and multicultural strangeness," says Ms. Harriss. "But he's also a serious scholar."

Sitting on interview committees, he demands of Towson State job candidates that they tell him the capital of Vermont -- just because he thinks that's something educated people should know. He celebrates "Uncle Remus Day" on Joel Chandler Harris' birthday in December. He once planted cotton on the TSU campus and tended his patch for months. (All of this is related to his academic specialty, Southern American literature.)

He recites long passages from Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" and wears a North Dakota lapel pin when he's around Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University of Maryland System and a native of North Dakota.

It's a subtle kind of twitting. Dr. Friedman has been president of the Towson State chapter of the American Association of University Professors eight of the last 10 years and has often feuded with the central administration. He's frustrated with Maryland's notoriously poor record of supporting higher education and says he's "counting the days" until retirement.

But in the next breath he brags about the "jewels" he's had as students. One of them, some day, he says, "will write the great American novel" that his wasn't.

"Three Years," Dr. Friedman's semi-autobiographical novel published in 1985, "never earned me a dime," he says.

Perhaps that's because he chose a Los Angeles publisher since gone out of business. "I thought it would make a good movie, and so I wanted it published where the movie people would notice it."

Dr. Friedman is revising the manuscript of a new book about teacher burnout. This one, says Ms. Harriss, "is much less serious. George is a wonderful writer. A lot of us are characters in this most recent book. In an early version, I died a horrible death. He went back and fixed it so I live happily ever after."

"If I gave Clarinda the Manhattan phone book," laughs Dr. Friedman, "she'd say, 'George, I love your cast of characters.' "

Another secret to Dr. Friedman's success, Dr. Blair says, "is his fine sense of human nature." He knows people think other people are lazy. He knows it's human to complain. A big part of a faculty union leader's job, he says, "is simply to listen to people and say, 'You're right.' "

He also knows that people write best "about the things they know about." He tries to familiarize students with the unfamiliar. In a sportswriting course devised and taught by Dr. Friedman, for example, one requirement is for students to report on a sport they know nothing about.

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