John Schott, February 2015
On the many occasions I sat down for coffee with Vern perennial themes from his life unrolled in order.
First, and always, Vern talked about his family. Tom and Liz—how they were doing. Then Lisa and Mark. Always a note about Marilyn. Vern cared so much about you, Marilyn. Thank you for taking such good care of him, especially in recent months.
Next, and always, came cinnamon rolls. At the very mention of pastry or dessert, Vern turned into a ten-year-old boy eager for a moment of lawlessness. For a good stretch of years Vern would steal out of his office in Laird Hall and drive to McDonald’s, where the cinnamon rolls under mid morning heat-lamps had developed a welcome crustiness around a soft gooey core, and where an employee unschooled in applying white icing regularly napped them into moguls of white. Vern would appear at my office in Scoville Hall with a foam pod in his hands, and that twinkle in his eye. The door would close. After fifteen minutes of contemplating the mysteries we would wash our hands in the janitor’s sink. Then do our best to make it through the day.
Cinnamon rolls offer a glimpse into Vern’s pixie self—an attractive playfulness always at the ready. This youthful impulse took Vern regularly to the basement of his home where he practiced the dark arts of model airplane building. As an English professor, the same spirit swept him into movie theaters to delight as John Ford’s cavalry galloped across the screen and Ingmar Bergman’s knight played chess with death. Vern watched movies with his hand in the popcorn, not on his pen.
After cinnamon rolls it was on to talk about movies—films from class, the tube, or those funky old screens on Highway 19. For Vern, movies always started in a place of unalloyed pleasure that reached back beyond graduate school to enthusiasms of his youth—perhaps to memories of that
ten-year-old at the movies in Montana.
Vern was a passionate collector of films, and he cherished 16mm prints of Citizen Kane and La Strada. He built a remarkable hoard of VHS tapes he recorded from TV, which meant staying up late in his robe and slippers, then pressing "record" on the VHS before scampering to bed. His spiraling library of VHS tapes were secreted all through the eves of Scoville—a collection occasionally curated by the squirrels, and regularly purloined by colleagues.
Vern was the founder of the Carleton Film Society in the mid-60s. Films were on celluloid then, and scarce on campus, and in that era friends would often have dinner togethee on Wednesday nights, then walk to the week’s movie like they might to a concert. More often than not we read Vern’s mimeographed notes while waiting for the projector to fire up.
Thankfully, his passion for film was more than matched by his critical insight and historical knowledge. Vern was among the first generation of American academics to introduce the serious study of film into the liberal arts. His first class, Classic American Films, hit our screens
in 1967. Next year came what became an annual course: English 28: Introduction to Film.
From the first, Vern introduced Super-8 cameras and practical filmmaking to the classroom. Students apparently brandished those cameras with delirious abandon, because alumni who were in those classes now speak of them as the stuff of legend. By instinct, Vern understood that critical reflection and creative response were mutually informing, and this principle of uniting thinking and making has been has a been a hallmark of film studies at Carleton ever since.
Cinema found its way into Carleton because people understood that the sharp mind and excited spirit that taught Lawrence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy in the morning was the same one that taught Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’Avventura in the afternoon. Cinema flourished because people respected Vern—even if they might be dubious about the movies. Vern was cinema’s avant-grade, it’s authorizing agent.
Authors or auteurs were the organizing principle of Vern's courses. And his insights came form years of viewing and reviewing all the works of favorite masters—Renoir, Bergman, Antonioni, Hitchcock, and others. Walking by his classroom I'd hear loud tinny blasts of movie music alternate with what seemed like complete silence. Those sciences were where Vern did his work. He was never one to clack across the stage of his classroom. Rather, as he unpeeled a film his voice became quieter and quieter. Students sat breathless, transfixed like a pack of weimaraners: lowering their heads as his voice got softer, pricking their ears in unison. Until Vern revealed the last great mystery in a whisper—like a secret that could never leave the classroom.
Back at coffee, after family, pastry and movies, it was on to talk of the college. And strategizing. Let me tell you, Vern loved to strategize about how to get things done, because he always had a list of things he wanted to see happen.
One day Vern appeared at my office door—no sweets—and swung his arms like a boxer: “You know, I’m a counter puncher,” he said. I am not quite sure what he meant, but I have always remembered this as a metaphor for his inner strength and conviction. Vern was no Lee Marvin; but a Gary Cooper he certainly was. A western plains boy, quiet but insistent, willing to work and fight for the things he believed in.
Thank goodness he believed in the movies. His conviction, his strategizing, and the occasional counterpunch brought Carleton a new regular faculty member in filmmaking and cinema history in 1979 [that’s me], and a formalized curriculum as a “concentration” a few years later. Next came the hire of a PhD-trained film historian and theorist, our cherished colleague Carol Donelan. [By the way, dessert with Vern got Carol her job—something to ask her about.] Today we have a full-fledged major with 30 new students next year, a faculty of four, two staffers, and 15 or so faculty beyond our department teaching dozens of cinema courses.
All of us are working in the house that Vern built.
Vern had retired by the time that Cinema & Media Studies moved into the new Weitz Center for Creativity. When we were planning the beautiful new Weitz cinema, there was concern that the college might not have the resources to install a high-quality projector. Together Vern and Marilyn
made a donation that insured we had the best—a last gesture that connected Vern and the Baileys to the Weitz.
The next time you enjoy a movie at the Weitz cinema—and please bring something for your sweet tooth—remember that even now, and into the future, our dear colleague Vern Bailey will continue to cast a bright, guiding light on our screen.