Since he began at St. Michael’s College in 1984, professor Will Marquess has started each class with a quote. Sometimes it’s a joke, or a poem, or simply Virginia Woolf’s musings on happiness — “the full use of the faculties.”
It began mostly as an exercise of composure; classes start not by fumbling papers but rather with a performance of language, borne from days as a younger, more nervous professor.
He was 30 back then and admittedly more mobile, darting from desk to chalkboard and back again. He wore ties to class, a small way to show who was in charge of keeping the discussions on track, though knots were usually loose by the second class.
Last Friday, when asked if he’s grown in any ways, he leaned back in his chair, a hiking boot propped up to encourage circulation.
“You mean I’ve changed?” he said, mostly joking.
Marquess was born in Atlanta, and though spending only the first year of his childhood there, he considers the city his ancestral home; long after moving north to Cincinnati, southern roots held strong in his family.
He read constantly growing up, a linguistic love that spanned languages, bred from sessions as chief study partner for his sister’s French exams.
By high school, Marquess knew he differed from his two brothers, who planned to pursue careers in business. Though unsure if he belonged in the Ivy League, he yearned for New England — Dartmouth, perhaps. Yet as sit-ins and rock and roll took hold in the 1970s, his father, a conservative businessman, nixed that idea.
So Marquess attended Duke University, where he double majored in English and French, much to his father’s bemusement. He promised to take an economics class, though he never did.
“He was a dear man, worked very hard and loved us deeply,” Marquess said of his father, who died 10 years ago. “I have great respect and posthumous love for him.”
Still, much of the man he is today seems, at least in part, bred from the desire to be independent.
“Part of it, always, was a way to set myself apart,” he said of his studies, which, after a year in college, steered toward a career in academia.
“Really?” asked his sophomore professor when he informed her of his plans. “You’re awfully quiet.”
She had a point, he thought. Could he find a way to fill the silence of a classroom on a daily basis? Time would tell.
He’d go on to apply at six graduate schools, including Indiana University, where he received a full ride, much to his father’s delight.
Yet Harvard also accepted him, sparking renewed dreams of life up north. He traveled to Cambridge, Mass., using money from a summer T-shirt factory job toward the $4,000 yearly tuition and became a resident assistant to pay for room and board.
Two years later, he started teaching for extra income while working toward his doctorate, which he received in 1983. He’d also earn the Howard Mumford Jones Award for the best dissertation in English literature for his work on poet John Keats, the culmination of a decades-long fascination (he casually memorized Keats’ poem “When I Have Fears” in high school.)
In 1984, he’d become professor of 19th-century British literature. After his very first class, one student would wonder how a Harvard doctorate recipient ended up at a place like St. Michael’s.
“They’re going to pay me to talk to people about poems,” Marquess answered. “Why would I not?”
Marquess stood in front of a crowded room on the third floor of St. Edmunds Hall at St. Michael’s last November, dozens of eager faces reflecting off the window behind him. The skinny sleeves of a white button-down peaked through a plaid vest as he read an excerpt from his recent novel, “Boom-shacka-lacka.”
Never a fan of the spotlight, Marquess kept the reading brief. A procession of hugs and books signings followed.
Though the book is a collection of short fiction stories, its foreword, titled “Dear Cancer: A Love Letter,” describes Marquess’ own battle which began in the winter of 2009.
“Bear with me. I’m loaded with questions,” he writes. “Why do I call you dear? Because you could have killed me. And you still might. Because we must hold close the things we wrestle with most fiercely.”
Shortly after his diagnosis, he had surgery to remove a third of his lung. The cancer returned two years later, however, so he underwent an eight-week treatment regimen — chemotherapy once a week, radiation every day.
In 2014, his lung began filling up with fluid, making simple trips across the classroom strenuous. Apparently the cancer had adapted to his treatments, he said, requiring a new plan.
Once it seemingly stopped the cancer’s growth, he moved to chemo once every three weeks. That’s supposed to work for up to three years, a quickly approaching deadline, he said.
Through it all, he missed only one class, a dedication he believes was partly instilled by his father.
And selfishly, Marquess admits, he found solace in the classroom. His students noticed.
“When Will first got sick and was going through his treatments, he didn’t skip a beat,” said Michelle Moreau, a 2015 graduate. “He was always there for us as students if we needed him.”
Moreau took his writing workshop in back-to-back semesters and said the professor helped her become a better writer by believing in herself.
“He’s one of those people that instantly makes you feel calm and welcome when you’re in their presence,” Moreau said.
The fight has taken its toll on the 62-year-old. His hair, an Einsteinian mixture of gray, sprouts from his head with a little less oomph these days. Jump shots in the gymnasium are less frequent.
A borderline skeptic of technology, he now often reads from an iPad, its enlarged text big enough for his faded eyesight. In class, he employs a magnifying gadget that can point up toward students or down at books.
In some ways, he has changed, like his new “word of the day” segment. Last Friday, his favorite was “inchoate,” something not fully formed. When asked if he defines himself as that, he can’t help but draw comparisons.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I don’t think of myself as fully formed or possessing all wisdom. I hope others won’t either, because it’s always changing.”
Anticipating that change, Marquess set up his teaching schedule to include a full day off, in case he needs one for treatment down the road. He hopes to keep reading and teaching, to learn and write and stretch his mind. He hopes to use all of his faculties to the nth degree.
“I hope to keep changing — my sense of the world and myself,” he said.