1995 Distinguished Lecture Series: Joanne Greenberg

My Sister’s Husband, a German Major, and a Ninety-Eight Pound Norwegian


Joanne GreenbergBorn in Brooklyn, New York, Joanne Greenberg graduated from American University, Washington, D.C., with a major in anthropology and English literature, and she has studied at the University of London and the University of Colorado. After her marriage, she and her husband Albert moved to Golden – when Dr. Garvin had his office on Washington, and Dr. Jennings had his offices over the bank.

Her husband encouraged her to write her first book, THE KING’S PERSONS, an account of the York Massacre, which was researched with the great help of Madeline Gibbon, librarian at the Colorado School of Mines. Isn’t it wonderful how what goes around comes around? Mrs. Greenberg now teaches there. This book has been followed by other novels and collections of short stories.

When Mr. Greenberg worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor with a caseload of deaf clients, Mrs. Greenberg became interested in communicating with the deaf, and since then has assisted in the setting up of mental health programs for the deaf in various hospitals throughout the country. This interest also led to her novel IN THIS SIGN, which has been dramatized on television.

Mrs. Greenberg and her husband live in a mountaintop home near Lookout Mountain. Their two sons are grown. She writes daily; tutors in Latin and Hebrew; teaches cultural anthropology and fiction writing at the School of Mines; and is active in the Beth Evergreen congregation, conducting bar mitzvah preparation as well as other involvements. She is a past member of the Lookout Mountain Fire Department and the Idledale Rescue Team. She is a frequent participant in writers’ seminars and workshops all over the country, and has conducted classes in writing for military personnel in Japan.

Her speaking engagements include, but are not limited to, schools, library associations, and book groups. In addition, she performs as a storyteller, helping to keep this art, and the stories, alive.

Mrs. Greenberg has authored novels, short stories, and innumerable articles on a variety of subjects, and when something in life annoys her, she is liable to write a song about it. Her students laugh because she does not use a computer to do her writing, but they haven’t written sixteen books. Her ambition is to stay around, write some more books, and finish the mending.

Over the past several decades a lively debate among scholars regarding the long-run availability of mineral resources has generated many new and interesting insights. Still, the debate continues. Some remain convinced it is just a matter of time before our nonrenewable resources are gone. Others believe they are, for all practical purposes, inexhaustible.

Drawing on the recent literature, this lecture explores the evolution of public concerns in this area, the measures used to assess resource availability, the historical trends they identify, and the implications for the future. It also addresses the environmental and other social costs associated with mineral extraction and use, and the difficulties of forcing producers and consumers to pay for those costs. Finally, it considers the implications for the future – for sustainable development, for conservation and recycling, and for population growth.

The objective is not to determine whether or not mineral depletion is a threat to modern civilization in the long run, but rather to provide a way of looking at the issues that allows members of the audience to come to their own conclusions. This, it will be argued, requires making assumptions that reasonable people can question. Which, of course, is why the debate continues.


The title of my presentation is “My Sister’s Husband, a German Major, and a Ninety-eight Pound Norwegian.” What a joy it was to be called and told that I could speak about any topic I wished. It’s a special thrill to any collector to be able to display her collection to those who are sympathetic, and I hope you will find some interest in mine. I collect heroes.

I began my official collection, as everything in the past year has begun, of course, with O.J. Simpson. Here was a man called a hero by large numbers of Americans who were proud of him and lauded him for his rise from poverty and his splendor at sports, only to watch the whole structure of their pride collapse in ruins. All the Cassandras and sandlot Savonorolas of the media then decried the loss of heroism in American life and of the heroes we had valued in the past. I knew that I had encountered quite a few heroes in my own life and I decided to begin my formal collection then and there. The informal collection had grown over the years but I am happy to bring three examples to your notice.

My sister’s husband was a firefighter and the only person in my collection so far with actual medals for heroism. Permit me to give you an example. One day, during a windstorm, a man attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Connecticut River. In a lapse of attention, he had forgotten that it was winter and that the river was frozen. He landed on the ice broken in many places, regretting his decision, and calling for help. My brother-in-law volunteered to be lowered off the bridge while being slammed back against the structure in the blizzard wind, as he went down to effect the rescue. The ice on which the man lay had been shattered by his fall and wasn’t safe. The rope rescue was done with speed and competence, my brother-in-law using his body to take the brunt of the slamming on the way up to safety. The city of Hartford gave him its highest commendation.

That’s not why he appears in the collection. He is being honored because I’d spent thirteen years as a fire-rescue volunteer, and never, not once, did he ever compare his work to mine to my denigration or in any snide or ridiculing way. My sister would sometimes send me news of his exploits, and when I saw him and said things like, “1 could never work a high-rise fire,” he would shrug and answer, “I’ve never done a buffalo-stomping or a cattle-drive on the interstate.” My heroes all have that quality of gallantry and a spirit that doesn’t exalt ego at the expense of others.

My second example was to be a German Major, the only female major in the German Army during World War One, whose exploits were many and whose heroism was of a high order, but here, before you, I have decided to present a local hero, a student here at CSM whom I had the honor to have in my fiction class.

The young man was doing adequate B work. He wasn’t thrilling as a student, but competent enough, and in the middle of the semester, his work went off, bluey–D papers with no effort taken. I asked him to stay after class one day and presented his recent poor pieces: “What’s all this?” “I’ve had a lot on my mind recently,” he said.

Teachers become cynical after a time and I waited for the standard excuses one to four, but he said, “I think I may be gay.” I asked him what evidence he had for that conclusion. It had occurred to me that a man of his age would almost certainly know, and would have known for some time, but he began to tell me of years of attempting to fit in with male ideas and idioms and images, to relate romantically with women. The whole telling sounded stunted and impoverished, the dating like recipes obeyed in a cookbook with no idea of what the moves or feelings were meant to produce. “Then, one day last week,” he told me, “I was sitting at a bus stop, I saw a magazine next to me, which I picked up and started to read. It was called Out Front, and it was a gay magazine. It became more and more exciting as I read it, realizing that all the articles related to me; all the jokes were funny, all the information what I wanted to know. There’s to be a big convention this weekend and I want to go.”

I laughed and said, “Okay, I’ll let you go to the convention on the condition that you write something about it for this class, because I don’t want you flunking out of here.”

He was back after the weekend, swaying between triumph and terror, and he had an excellent description of the convention he had attended. “I don’t want to be gay. People hate gays; sometimes they beat them up and even kill them. I understand, though, that I am gay, really. There’s a part of the world into which I can fit, not strange, not anomalous, to myself.” His face fell. “My parents have given up on me already, if I tell my grandmother, the truth will kill her. We’ve been very close and my being gay is sure to destroy her.”

I said, “Yes, the news probably will kill her, but every day she’ll die a little less and one day she’ll look at you and think, ‘I’m not dead, and there’s my precious grandson, standing, and what am I doing denying myself and him and the love we have for each other?”‘

A week later, I gave out the first of the assignments that would culminate in the final, a completed short story. Ron presented me with a fictionalized account of which he was the hero, including a tender revelation by a gay friend and a realization of his own homosexuality. The story plan was simply put, but I had reservations about its presentation. The assignments in my class are read aloud so that the students are able to hear dialogue and weigh the naturalness of their narrations. I offered Ron a compromise I had used only once previously. I could read the story myself and comment; I could read the story with no ascription, safer than it seems as I often read the class stories from different sources for critique or simple enjoyment. “Which is it to be?” I asked him.

He gave me a very gentle look and said, “If I’m to be a man, I should act like one. A man would speak about who he is without hiding.”

“There’s homophobia at Mines,” I told him.

“I know,” he said, “but I can’t let that stop me.”

His completed short story was simple, direct, and well written. It was deft and not self-dramatizing. It was an A piece. He had, as I had hoped, transmuted experience into art. When the time came, he read his own story to the class. There was dead silence in the room when he finished, which I hoped was the result of surprise and awe. I know that I was awed.

I never learned what the ultimate reaction was. I do know that Ron had outed himself without martyrdom or squeamishness, and as such, enters my collection standing tall.

When things get troubled or dark, I often go to the collection for comfort and simply to contemplate the various kinds of heroism in it. One of my most constant sources of pride is a woman named Aslaug Haviland.

She is a deaf blind Norwegian woman whom I met at the American Association of the Deaf Blind Convention in Colorado Springs in 1989. She had been described to me as a reader of my work in Braille and as they are rare, I was happy to be given the opportunity to talk books with her. There is an etiquette in circulating among the Deaf Blind, who need to learn who is near them, and who may be a friend in any given area at any given time.

I therefore had to contact her interpreter and send my name in and wait until she was free of friends and ready to meet with me. She was a tiny woman, maybe four-foot-ten, and no heavier than ninety pounds. She was about seventy when we met. As I can both Sign and Spell, we launched into happy book talk and I learned what modality of communication she favored. She had been deafened after blindness, I thought, because she spoke rather than Signed while I practiced straight spelling into her hand.

It struck me that even though her vocabulary was developed, her pronunciation was bizarre, now clear, now barely comprehensible, like a patois but without the usual deaf dead-level drawl to which I was accustomed. Deaf people can’t hear their own speech, of course, so I couldn’t tell her how strange she sounded. I decided to play it subtle. “Aslaug,” I said, “tell me something -of your background.”

“Well,” she began, “I was born in Bergen, in Norway, and when I was a baby, was ill and became blind. I was sent to the Royal School for the Blind, but my family always thought I could do better than blind craft industrial work, so they got together and collected all money, much required to send me to the great Perkins Institute in Boston, U. S. A. Because we had to scrimp every cent, I went alone. I was sixteen, and very well cared for by the people on the ship, and the captain even, looked after my comfort and spoke to me every day. On the ship I felt not well, and when I was in Boston, not well at all, but I thought it was homesickness as I knew no English and all things were so strange to me, and then I was really sick and then nothing at all, and when I woke up I later guessed it was a hospital and later still to learn that I had had meningitis and had been made deaf.”

“Aslaug, I’ve been ill in foreign countries and it’s terrible. Blind in a foreign country is even worse, but Deaf Blind – that’s not even on the chart.

“Oh, yes, Joanne,” she said, “I knew I was at a big crisis in my life. Matters were critical and not a moment to be lost to act immediately and strongly, yes.”

“You mean, to get back home?”

“No, to learn English.”

How could so small a woman cast so long a shadow? I couldn’t imagine the kind of heroism demanded by what she had attempted and achieved, day after day. Wait–wait–I began to wonder how a speaker would sound who had never heard English, but only read it, and follows long E and long A vowels scrupulously and pronounces all words exactly as they are spelled. As Aslaug did. When I understood this I had to resist a desire to jump up and down with pride for what a member of the species of which I am not always proud to belong to, is capable of.

Aslaug goes all over the world. She has visited Disneyland and Yellowstone and has attended every Deaf Blind convention here and abroad. She keeps house for a husband, also blind, and reads Braille. The physical and mental courage that requires is staggering.

These are but three examples from my collection, and I must say that it pleases me deeply to bring them forward for your delight. I present them to you with a full and happy heart.