E. Graham Ward was one of the first men to make a major impression on me. Yesterday I learned he passed away in May.
Graham Ward (I only just discovered the “E.” stood for Edgar in this appreciation penned by his colleague and another former English teacher of mine, Mark Shovan) was my English teacher, wrestling coach, and advisor during my three years at The Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts. He was the chairman of the English Department, the coach of the varsity wrestling team, advisor to the yearbook, but intrigued me enough to ask him to be my advisor by being the man of fewest words and driest wit I had ever met. Ironic that the man who instilled in me the desire to be a writer would say so little; but that was his style, and when he did speak it was with amazing effect. In reflection, his spare style was the one he taught me to aspire to in my writing: revise, omit unnecessary words, always favor a simple word over a complicated one and then revise and rewrite again.
He had an appreciation for the extreme, reserved and quiet as he presented himself. He was the man who pressed a copy of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas into my hands in 1974, two years after its publication. One short story I wrote for him, which was published in the school literary magazine and has long been lost to me, I submitted three years later to gain admission to a college writing seminar taught by the legendary Gordon Lish of Esquire and Knopf fame. Lish singled that story out when he made the cut for the class, and specifically told me that whomever the teacher was that was progressive enough to draw such a story out of a 16 year old, was a genius in his own right. Graham Ward allowed me to be the writer I am, not who he imagined I should be.
I’ve never written without imagining his eyes on the page. He was, and still is, the ideal reader I write for. He indulged me when the class played “Word of the Day” and I would predictably submit some off-color medical term describing feces, perverse sex acts, or some unfortunate dermatological condition that always won the vote of my adolescent classmates. He called bullshit on me once when I introduced the word “tampion” which is indeed a valid word used to describe the wooden plug stuck in the barrel of naval guns to keep out salt spray. My creative definition was that of a ball of mud, grass and saliva used by hibernating bears to keep ants and other insects out of their sleeping anuses. E. Graham Ward turned to his faithful dictionary and shut me down then and there. If I had the Google then I could have countered with this example as proof.
When it came to wrestling, well, that’s a story of him telling me to man up. Come my junior year, or Fifth Form as it was known by the Brooksian anglophile conceit, I was too near-sighted to be of any use to the hockey team as a goalie once the word got out in the league that shots made on me from the center of the rink actually had a very good chance of scoring since I could only hear them, not see them, until it was too late to react. The embarrassment of being scored on from the red line was too much to bear, and being in a teen torpor, I decided I would fill my winter athletics obligation by becoming the manager of the wrestling team, a job that entailed running the clock and scoreboard during matches, showing up with box of cut oranges and a pail full of drinking water and a ladle, and then washing the mats once a week so the wrestlers wouldn’t contract a foul skin disease. This was my happy fate until the time came to elect team captains, and the squad decided I would make a good leader, if even from the sidelines.
Graham Ward was the head wrestling coach and would not permit his team to be captained by a lowly manager. I was ordered to put on the tights, strapped a set of ear protectors on my head, and laced up the curiously flat soled shoes favored by mat men. Being a large boy, I had the unfortunate task of wrestling last, in the “unlimited” weight class; typically against big pink baby Hueys or the occasional steroid-abuser-of-tomorrow who had a beard and the ability to rip phone books, and me, in half.
Graham loved wrestling not because it was so strenuous and tied to the classical Greeks (wrestling is strenuous and I’d argue a fierce six-minute match is the equal to, or even worst than a 2,000 meter rowing race), but because wrestling was a thinking man’s sport, mano a mano, and rewarded those who could keep their wits while being twisted and contorted. He was on the smaller side, (as shown in the team picture below, far right with me standing next to him in the back row) which meant he himself had wrestled at the super-competitive weight classes during his prep school and Harvard career when success was all about the catalogue of moves and escapes one mastered. He decided my simple strategy would play off of my aerobic rowing capacity to work hard and fast against opponents who favored bear hugs and wet, sopping, sweaty suffocation moves.
His plan was diabolical and it usually worked. I would dance around the fat kids, get them huffing and puffing, and then dart in, grab one of their legs behind the knee, and dump them crashing onto the mat for a “take down” which was good for a couple points. Rather than try to pin the elphantine opponent and risk having them roll on top of me, I would jump up, let them find their feet again, dance around some more, and then take them down again. Over and over and over; point after point. By the third period the opponent, if they were the typical high school Unlimited wrestler, would be out of breath and more than willing to let me pin them, an intimate act that involved me getting closely involved in their damp panic, an incentive for me to get it over with as soon as possible.
Graham Ward simply smiled when I came off the mat in victory, or delivered a wry pat when I crawled back in defeat. He never made rousing carnivorous speeches to psyche us up, just a quiet expectation that we’d be sportsmen and give it our best.On a few occasions the team score would be tied and come down to the unlimited match to determine the winner. That meant it was up to me to carry the day. In my last year, I won the match for the team four times, always moments of great personal triumph. I also cost the team two matches and my worst moment was wrestling a kid who looked like the prison version of Mister Clean and was able to pin me in an astonishingly brutal seven seconds, a league record.
Graham rode a little motorbike to school every morning as he preferred to live off campus in North Andover and spare himself the hell of running a dorm and having to play the role of disciplinarian. He wore a striped red, white and blue Captain America helmet, just like Peter Fonda did in Easy Rider.
I know he began his career at Philips Exeter Academy, and I always wondered when I read John Irving’s The World According to Garp, if there wasn’t a bit of E. Graham Ward in the novel. Irving was a wrestler, would have been at Exeter as student or assistant wrestling coach around the same time as Graham. I remember reading Irving’s description of Garp’s favorite teacher, Mister Tinch, and feeling a strong identification with Graham Ward.
He was a very devoted fisherman, and like me, had a passion for chasing bonefish in the Keys and stripers in the Sound. I regret we never wet a line together. After his retirement he lived full time here on
Cape Cod and became a writer for the Falmouth Enterprise. His account of the Sippewisset oil spill is a masterpiece.
As an advisor, I couldn’t have asked for more. Classmates would make fun of him for his laconic style. His nickname was E. “Grunt” Ward. But I learned more from him about how to comport one’s self in the world, how to turn a decent sentence, and how to love literature than from anyone else. He will always represent the best of my high school years to me.
The Boston Globe