Richard A. Hawley, Author
1984 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR LITERATURE
Most people who read Richard Hawley’s 1983 novel, The Headmaster’s Papers, feel certain the eponymous John Greeve is a thinly disguised version of the author. After all, Hawley was a longtime faculty member and administrator at Cleveland’s University School. He set his story during a decade when drug use was up, civility was down, and discipline had become a matter for debate. It was clear that he was writing what he knew.
In fact, Hawley would not assume the headmaster’s post at U.S. until more than four years after the novel appeared. And when he wrote the book, he had no designs on the large office. He wasn’t even a novelist. But an entry in his journal prompted further inquiry: “Imagine a good man whose props have fallen away.”
His answer was a collection of letters, speeches, memos and poems penned by a middle-aged Connecticut educator whose personal and professional lives were crumbling. It was filled with passion, humor and hard-earned wisdom. And it got the attention of the Cleveland Arts Prize committee, who awarded Hawley its 1984 Prize for Literature.
Now in its fifth printing, Hawley’s first novel continues to command attention. Not only has it generated thousands of letters from colleagues, including a warm response from the late headmistress Jean Harris (written from her prison cell); it earned him a standing invitation to teach workshops for the National Association of Independent Schools. John Irving sealed the book’s reputation when he wrote a chapter about it in Lost Classics (Anchor Books, 2000).
Hawley’s pedagogical career was as much an accident as his writing career. Born in 1945 in Chicago, he attended suburban public schools. He came to Cleveland armed with a political science degree from Middlebury College. By 1968, he had earned a master's degree in Management Science from Case Western Reserve University and was pursuing a doctorate in political philosophy there that he completed in 1972. He took a teaching job at U.S. to support his family.
With his public school background, Hawley says, he began the job “the greenest of the green.” Before long, however, he relished the challenges of educating boys. His teaching assignments in history, economics, philosophy and English literature would lead to administrative posts as history department chair, dean, and director of the Upper School. In his 20th year at U.S., he became headmaster.
Along the way, he was accruing impressive writing credits, publishing more than 15 books by his retirement in 2005. These included poetry collections, novels, monographs and collected essays. He wrote most of them longhand—stealing time on weekends and during his travels to and from professional meetings.
Hawley’s work has consistently delivered insightful analysis of our ailing culture, much of it as it affects growing boys. In Boys Will Be Men: Masculinity in Troubled Times (1993), he argues that the concept of masculinity must be snatched back from the social engineers who have disparaged what it means to be a man. Quiet the raucous noise from popular culture and simply let boys explore the world through ideas and personal connection, he pleads. If they enjoy a happier childhood, they might emerge with the common decency and communication skills of a John Greeve.
Hawley, who moved to Ripton, Vermont, following his “retirement,” says his workload has not diminished. He remains a sought-after consultant at both private schools and universities. He also writes, furiously, on computer now. In 2008 he published Beyond the Icarus Factor: Releasing the Free Spirit of Boys, the continuation of an earlier monograph on boys at risk. Another collection of Hawley's poems, Twenty-one Visits With A Darkly Sun-Tanned Angel, appeared in 2009. And among his works-in-progress are The Life of Jonathan Force, a novel about a journey “from first impression to last breath” and Souls in Boxes, a reflection on the nature of the soul.
“You write the things that don’t get quiet in your head,” Hawley explains. One subject that will not be still is his fictional Greeve family. In 2000, he published The Headmaster’s Wife, examining Meg Greeve’s contribution to the world. Since then, Hawley has written a novel (still unpublished) about the couple’s estranged son, Brian, the emblem of our failure to save so many of that generation.
Hawley continues to search for what he calls “the nature of things below the nature of things. . . . It seems that nationally and internationally we’re tied up in knots with how people should behave against their nature. I keep working on this. I don’t think that boys are very well understood. The best things about them are not valued.”
During his quiet moments, he returns to Edna St. Vincent Millay and Antoine de Saint-Exupery, two writers who embodied what is possible for an artist. He cites Millay’s famous verse:
And he continues to ask, “What if I burned as brightly as I could?”
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