BY ANNA BAUMAN
Alan Velie was the center of attention and loving it.
At 79, he sat surrounded by hundreds of dear friends, colleagues and students crowded into Beaird Lounge in May to celebrate the career of a man whose influence spans generations.
The group gathered was as diverse as it was large — OU’s top administrators, English and Native American studies professors, athletic executives, study abroad faculty, old friends, young students, children and grandchildren — all standing as testament to Velie’s far-reaching influence on the institution he calls home.
Many speeches conveyed part praise, part roast — fitting for a man who has been described as “lovable” and “contentious” in the same breath.
This fall marks the 50th year of Velie’s notable career at OU — a milestone earning him the distinction of being OU’s longest serving faculty member still teaching — something he’ll return to this spring post-retirement.
“He holds so much institutional memory,” said Amanda Cobb-Greetham, Velie’s former student and current colleague. “He is like a keeper of OU’s memory. A keeper of our institutional culture and history.”
In his second year, Velie witnessed the retirement of OU’s venerated president George Lynn Cross, best known for desegregating the school, and six presidents later, he will witness the end of OU president David Boren’s era. In between, he has seen OU transform from an average university into what it is today — better in every way, he says, in spite of a worsening budget crisis.
“It’s a pleasure to work here,” Velie said. “It’s always been very pleasant, but it’s really something to be proud of today.”
‘It was a long time ago’
Velie first set foot in Norman long before McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken popped up, before the football stadium sold out Saturdays in the fall and even before Barry Switzer was a household name.
Norman in 1967 was much sleepier, more provincial, Velie says, with only two restaurants in town. The steakhouse didn’t cater to his “adventurous” appetite, as one friend put it, so he had to drive to Oklahoma City for Chinese takeout.
With a wife and 15-month-old son in tow, he was just shy of 30 and fresh out of graduate school at the West coast’s prestigious Stanford University when he took a position as an instructor in the English department for around $8,900 a year.
As a Harvard undergrad, Velie found English — a major he didn’t fall asleep reading — when his plans to become a doctor were ruined by a chemistry class he didn’t have a prayer of passing. Velie admits he was not a serious student in those days, opting for the local college bar over the library, a lifestyle that resulted in a transcript mostly marked with C’s.
Post-graduation, he served four years in the Marine Corps, but left to start a family with his soon-to-be wife, Sue. It wasn’t until he worked at a publishing company visiting college campuses that he got the idea of becoming a professor.
“I figured, hell, I could do that — they’re no smarter than I am,” Velie said.
At Stanford, he got serious — diving into the study of Shakespeare, he earned a master’s and Ph.D in four years.
“In graduate school, you have to work a lot harder or they throw you out,” Velie said. “So I did.”
Velie brought his passion for Shakespeare and the written word with him to OU’s English department — one of the largest on campus — housed at the time in Kaufman Hall and later moved to Gittinger Hall, now gone. It has since been eclipsed in size by many new departments and colleges instituted under Boren.
Back then, Velie penciled in his students’ grades and students signed up for courses on a pad of paper.
“It was done by paper and typewriters, not computers,” said Velie. “It was a much smaller, simpler operation.”
Still, as students drift to other departments like communications, journalism or science-related fields, Velie recognizes the importance of the discipline he has dedicated his life to. Analyzing literature is akin to solving social problems, skills needed in any job, he said.
“Most problems involve human behavior,” Velie said. “And that’s what English covers.”
‘Soul of a teacher’
Kyle Harper would not be the person he is today without Alan Velie.
OU’s provost credits Velie, who he describes as “a character,” for sparking in him a lasting love of literature, beauty and ideas.
“I vividly remember being in his class and having my life changed because of the way that he taught great literature,” said Harper, who studied texts like Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene with Velie. “He could make it come to life, he could make it seem important, in a way that was surprising for literature that might be hundreds of years old but could somehow seem to, in his classroom, be the most important thing in the world.”
Harper estimates that Velie has impacted thousands and thousands of students in a similar way throughout his 50-year tenure — many of whom have gone on to become Velie’s colleagues in the English and Native American studies departments.
Velie’s gift in the classroom is something special, Harper said, and he’s has racked up plenty of awards to prove it.
Velie received the Amoco Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1972, the Baldwin Award for Excellence in Classroom Instruction in 1986, the Mortarboard Honor Society Outstanding Faculty Member in 1989. In 2014 he was awarded the Otis Sullivant Award for perceptivity — “whatever that means,” Velie says — which counts former linebacker Eric Striker, honors college dean David Ray and associate dean of students Kristen Partridge among its recipients. In 2015, Velie was inducted into the Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame alongside Boren.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a born teacher,” said Jerry Weber, retired exercise physiology professor who has enjoyed a 50 year friendship with Velie. “But if I thought there were, Alan would fit that category.”
Since his early years when OU had a looser admissions policy, Velie has noticed the quality of students and academics greatly increase. It’s now tougher to get in, he says, contributing to better students thanks to initiatives driven by Boren like the recruitment of National Merit Scholars.
Velie’s teaching style is traditional and his strategy is simple — to teach students how to read, write and, most importantly, think. Even through 50 years of change, Velie’s teaching remains timeless.
“I try to teach them how to think for themselves,” Velie said. “That’s why I have them read a passage — ‘Well, what do you think it means?’ Tell me, not what somebody said it meant, but read it, and try to figure it out. And if a student can get out of college knowing how to read and write, that’s really all you need.”
A penchant for travel
Velie’s dedication to students extended beyond the classroom in a study abroad program to Oxford, England, that he chaperoned nearly every year for two decades until 2015 with honors college professor Melanie Wright.
Wright traces the beginning of Velie’s involvement with the program to an event in the Union when Velie approached her at the snack table wanting to come along on the Oxford trip.
“It was just like ‘Hey, how about I join in?’ ‘OK!’” Wright said. “Who’s going to tell him no?”
Since then, the pair has taken groups of students on treks to experience the wonders of Oxford — from the school’s stately grounds, to the Houses of Parliament and, most often, the local bar scene.
“He’s the heart and soul of the program,” Wright said of Velie, who loved taking students to lunch and out to visit the many colorful, tiny bars dotting the area.
Velie, ever adventurous, discovered a quaint pub a four-mile walk away with a thatched roof, a waterfall and peacocks that’s now become a tradition for students to visit.
Velie’s travels also reached across the globe to places like Bolivia, Bulgaria and Ukraine where he gave academic lectures. He aspired to give students a glimpse of the world outside Norman — a goal shared by OU’s administration under Boren.
“There’s a big world out there,” said Velie, whose own worldview has expanded since he first settled in small-town Oklahoma. “I think it’s healthy for students to realize that and just get a sense of what the rest of the world is like, what they’re doing.”
‘Nobody else was doing it’
Velie found ways to be curious in his own backyard as well.
Cobb-Greetham sat in Velie’s classroom 25 years ago reading books she didn’t previously know existed written by Native American authors.
“I don’t even know how to explain what it meant to me the first time I was in a class and I read these texts,” Cobb-Greetham said. “I am Chickasaw, and when I read these books by native authors that I didn’t even know existed — they weren’t anywhere else and they weren’t being taught anywhere else — it meant the world to me. And I wanted to become a part of that and to share that as well.”
Cobb-Greetham, now the chair of OU’s department of Native American studies, credits Velie with helping shape the academic field she and many others at OU have built careers on.
“Alan Velie insisted that the literary works of this renaissance be taken seriously as significant texts within the academy,” she said.
In 1969, two years into a budding teaching career, Velie became the first in the nation to teach American Indian literature in an academic setting, at the request of his department chair.
“I didn’t know a thing about it,” said Velie, who had just written his thesis and dissertation on Shakespeare.
Looking for texts to teach, he found only nine novels in publication — including N. Scott Momaday’s 1968 House Made of Dawn — which he taught alongside the poetry section of a Mohawk newspaper.
Cobb-Greetham recalls sitting in Velie’s classroom the first time.
“You’re like ‘Who is this slightly-grumpy-sounding rugby player who’s in here talking about Native American literature?’” she said. “You’re like ‘What?’”
But his “gruff” personality didn’t translate into arrogance — instead, he acted as a conduit between the academic community and the writers whose works he taught.
“He didn’t hold himself out as like, ‘Oh, I’m the expert on this,’” Cobb-Greetham said. “He mostly saw himself as a way to help introduce literature from these communities…He understood that the knowledge and the expertise lives within our tribal nations and communities and he honored that.”
The Native American studies department, which emerged out of an interdisciplinary program, was built on the contributions from the discipline’s first scholars, Velie chief among them.
Velie taught the Native American literature course for years until new faculty members rose up to take his place. Still, he continued to pursue the field as a scholar, writing three books and over 40 articles and editing several anthologies on the subject.
“Indians are such an important part of Oklahoma history, and one of the best ways to understand Indian culture is to read novels about it,” Velie said.
Al Velie rugby field
Velie’s love of literature is rivaled only by his other main hobby — sports of all kinds, but especially contact sports.
“At his retirement reception there was a lot of rugby talk — and some literature,” Cobb-Greetham said.
During his undergraduate days at Harvard, Velie crossed the yard one day and saw a group of young men playing rugby. He immediately knew he wanted to join.
“I couldn’t imagine what they were doing but it looked like fun, so I asked if I could do it too,” Velie said. “And they said, well, come out Tuesday — so I did.”
Over six decades later, a sign bearing his name stands in the corner of a patchy field on the south end of campus to mark OU’s rugby field in honor of the club’s founding father.
Velie agreed to sponsor an OU rugby team in the mid-70s when approached by two law students, with one stipulation — he would play on the team. He continued to do so for several seasons in his late 30s until he took a permanent spot as the team’s sponsor and biggest fan.
Velie was not so much beloved for his abilities on the field, but instead the “abilities, expertise and passion he exhibited in pre- and post-game celebrations,” Weber said in a speech delivered at the retirement reception, sparing the details “in the interest of family harmony.”
His physical abilities were severely inhibited when he suffered a stroke in February 2014 that sent him to the hospital for nearly a month. With time, he learned to walk and talk again, but still has limited use of his right arm.
“I think the most remarkable thing is his humor — his sense of humor and his enjoyment in humor,” Weber said. “His ability to laugh, his willingness to laugh, is undiminished by his physical circumstances, and I just think that is remarkable — absolutely remarkable.”
Weber admires the way his friend made a graceful come-back, returning as soon as he was physically able to a class that met him with a standing ovation.
‘That’s a remarkable legacy’
These days, Velie sits in a new office in Cate, a converted dormitory, with a window gazing out at Dale Hall, one of many buildings he pre-dates. He navigates the halls using a walker and cruises to meet friends for lunch at the Union on his very own golf cart provided by the university after his stroke.
Wearing open-toed sandals and a sport coat layered over a Hawaiian shirt, Velie is every bit the combination of rugged rugby player and sophisticated scholar that his various interests suggest.
As OU faces a new era, relics of his past clutter the desk and shelves — a coffee-stained mug bearing an Oxford crest, photos of he and his wife on exotic trips and a vast collection of books amassed over the years.
But, reflecting on a life’s worth of contributions to OU, it’s not the books that matter most to him — it’s the students.
“That’s the best legacy you can have — the only real legacy is students,” Velie said. “I mean, you can write all kinds of books, but most of them don’t sell — and anyway, I think students are more important.”