PITTSFIELD >> In our everyday distractions we may forget about individuals who were there at important crossroads of our lives. For many former students of Berkshire County, one of those individuals was a writing teacher named Richard Nunley, who passed away this month.
As a new Berkshire Community College student in the early 1970s, Richard Nunley was unknown to me. Upon his first entrance into class, I recall a shock of sandy hair brushing the forehead, a loosely fitted beige jacket, and wire-rimmed glasses. Soft-spoken directions were given and books were handed out. Reserve combined with a contemplative and understated style.
He soon assigned us the writing topic, "Spring has sprung early this year." It seemed an unchallenging subject, but the outcome was productive. Describing an early spring brought close attention to details of sounds and sights, birth and regrowth, during a 1970s month of March in Pittsfield.
Life in Berkshires
References to nature and to Berkshire surroundings came up in class. This connection was later strengthened for me while teaching and living in Boston through Nunley's "Our Berkshires" column. In these thoughtful and reflective writings, he often observed lessons of nature and the inspiration of the garden, arts, and theater. These Berkshire Eagle pieces highlighted simple pleasures, daily insights, and favorite traditions of living in the Berkshires.
In teaching the craft of writing, Nunley used pointed questions, authentic examples, gestures, and tones of subtle humor. "Ivory soap is 99.44 percent pure," he would say of a popular commercial, then asking, "Pure what?" Unsubstantiated statements were not tolerated, whether in the media or in class. Examples of hackneyed words and clichéd phrases from our writing text were often met with subtle humor, a sigh, or an expression of pure tedium. He had a clear aversion to the word "nice" and challenged us to delete it from our work.
For topic choices, "Write what you know," he recommended, and he encouraged writing about our life experiences in our Berkshire corner of the world. If an honest writing struggle arose, the reserved tone became genuinely supportive. Much of what I learned in those early classes established critical foundations and standards.
During class time, wise phrases to help describe the writing process were spoken with effect. "Good writing is good thinking," he maintained during discussions, a quote I have used with my own ESL students.
When he announced one day, "Writing is like having a baby," that landed with curiosity for me at the time, but the phrase soon arrived at a full and well established truth. Often I have needed to help my students understand that writing is laborious and intense, involving a birth of ideas. Favorite quotes culled from Richard Nunley's classes have become axioms over the decades.
Signposts of our lives
Today on a back shelf somewhere, I still possess a worn but intact 8 x 11 light blue envelope with a GE logo on the front. Tucked inside remain essays from my BCC classes with this former teacher, from many decades ago. Outside, on the cover, Richard Nunley's comments are written neatly, in pencil. It is best not to underestimate the role encouragement can play in the paths of life.
Original, handwritten comments on that envelope are so different from receiving an email, text, or printout from a computer. As to why I might hold on to that envelope, perhaps there is a benefit to revisit certain material reminders from the past, signposts of our lives. Historical markers, they help us see a process that has unfolded to the present day.
Looking back, we can almost always find someone who was there at an important time. It may be a teacher, but it can be an employer, business person, mentor, parent, caretaker, neighbor, or guide from any walk of life. These individuals remain so greatly needed by a generation growing up in Berkshire County today. Thank you, Richard Nunley.
Judy Waters is a resident of Fitchburg and has taught English as a Second Language for many years. Richard Nunley died March 3 in Portland, Oregon.