Friday, October 3, 2008

Coleen Grissom ‘keeps on keeping on’ with "A Novel Approach to Life"

I have looked forward for over a year to the release of Dr. Coleen Grissom’s book, A Novel Approach to Life, a collection of five decades of her speeches. When I finally got my hands on a copy I settled in with a cup of tea and a pint of Crème Caramel frozen yogurt and dove into the life of one of Kendall County’s preeminent residents. If you have not had the pleasure of attending an event with Dr. Grissom slated as a speaker, you have most certainly missed out on one of life’s special treats. Her collection of speeches reveals her passion for life, her devotion to Trinity University, her unbridled enthusiasm for teaching English, and her faith in “humankind.”

As dean of students, Vice President for Student Affairs, and English professor at Trinity University for over fifty years, Grissom has witnessed the birth of the feminist movement, dealt with campus social upheaval, and, with an even hand and with some humor, handled the inception of the sexual revolution played out in the Trinity dormitories. She has enjoyed the company of some of the great writers of our time – Margaret Atwood, John Updike, John Irving, Toni Morison and others too numerous to mention. She has shared in the joys and successes of her students and has endured heartache along the way, as well.

In a section of speeches to Trinity faculty, staff, students, and alumni, Grissom writes “. . . it still disturbs me to recall even having to write remarks about the AIDS Quilt Collection, the acknowledgment of date or acquaintance rape on our lovely campus, [and] the death of a first-year man from hazing by a fraternity . . . “

While Dr. Grissom is revered and treasured for her oratory skills, her prose flows as smoothly and as naturally as her spoken words. I was shocked when I read in her introduction that she’s never really liked public speaking. Words seem to flow effortlessly from Grissom, gliding through the air with authority and proficiency without a hint of pomposity or pretension. Grissom is down-to-earth and accessible with a quirky wit.

“Although I found the delivering of my remarks onerous, what I did and do love is the process of composing, of writing . . . thinking of what I might say, organizing my ideas . . .”

Grissom’s speeches in A Novel Approach to Life are organized by “occasion” or “purpose.” The book is not all-inclusive, but rather a sampling of presentations delivered primarily during her tenure at Trinity University as an administrator, 1958 to 2000. It also includes examples of talks to other organizations such as the McNay Art Museum Docents, The Graham Ladensohn Memorial Lecture, the Texas Sod Association, and some gripping “Tributes, Toasts, Farewells.”

Although the speeches cover an array of topics, they all share a common thread. Grissom approaches each of them with a great deal of quirky humor and prodigious insight. She implores her audience to think rationally, to view and appreciate life in all of its glory, and always “figure out what you care about and live a life that shows it. Do attempt brave and important things, and, for heaven’s sake, make time in your hectic, sometimes frenetic lives to read and then make time to read some more.”

A Novel Approach to Life is more than a collection of speeches. It is also a memoir of an extraordinary human being and is as multi-faceted as its author. In her speech “Opening Pajama Party, Class of 1970,” Grissom includes a letter written by a freshman student to her parents after her first three months at Trinity. The letter is priceless and one of the funniest passages that I have ever read in any book.

Over the years Grissom has reached beyond Trinity University and has shared her time and talent with various community organizations. In addition to teaching three courses per semester at Trinity, she also participates in various programs sponsored by Gemini Ink, a San Antonio non-profit organization that promotes the arts, and she serves as Master of Ceremonies for the annual Cancer and Research Therapy Center’s “Book and Author Luncheon.” She’s been known on occasion to auction herself off for charity with the winner receiving lunch and literary discussion.

A Novel Approach to Life is filled with astute observations of life, heartwarming stories of students and teachers, references to literary influences, and glimpses of Grissom’s unselfish devotion to all that she holds dear. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

A Novel Approach to Life (Trinity University Press, September 2008, ISBN-13: 9781595340559, 256pp, $25.00) is available through all major booksellers and directly from the Trinity University Press.
This review appeared in the Friday, October 3, 2008 edition of the Boerne Star.

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