Laz Varnas and the Origins of Our Linguistics Program — If you have ever watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you’ll likely remember that the father in this film always traces the origins of practically everything back to the ancient Greeks. He is very proud of his Greek heritage and takes every opportunity to share his passion for all things Greek. In some ways, Laz Varnas, the first linguist in our English Department, reminds me of the father from this film.
When I first joined our department in the fall of 1984, Laz stopped by my office and said that he had heard that I had moved into Dilworth. I said that this was true. He then told me all about the upcoming Yiasou Greek Festival sponsored by the the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, which he informed me was right in the middle of Dilworth. He let me know that he belonged to this church, and that the festival was their big community outreach event. Well, I have gone to the Greek Festival every year since then. The 40th Annual Yiasou Greek Festival will take place this year from September 7–10. I will be there and (as always) Laz will cross my mind as I enjoy the Greek food, music, and dance.
Lazaros Anastasios Varnas joined our English Department in the mid-1960s and immediately set about developing our linguistics program. One of Laz’s first students was Ron Lunsford, and Ron traces his professional interest in linguistics back to courses that he took from Laz. In addition to creating the department’s first linguistics courses, Laz advocated for the hiring of additional faculty members in this area. He succeeded in this endeavor, and soon our own Boyd Davis joined Laz. I recently contacted Boyd and asked her to share with me her memories of Laz and the origins of our linguistics program. Here are her comments:
Laz was our first linguist, hired by Dr Bob Wallace not long after he completed his dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania on the phonology and morphology of the Parker Chronicle (DA 26.3322, 1965). Before arriving here, he taught at the University of Michigan, where he was working on the Middle English Dictionary, was promoted from Instructor to Assistant Professor in 1965 after completing the dissertation, and that may have been when he joined the department. He was married to Athenais (who had an MA in Old French from UNC Charlotte) and they had twin sons who attended UNC Charlotte. He was deeply involved with Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral on East Boulevard. Shy and modest as he was, Laz had connections with most of the Greek restaurateurs through the Cathedral, and was able to talk many of them into establishing prizes in language for our English undergraduate majors and later, our graduate students, setting both the precedent and the bar. My interview in summer 1969 was at the Amber House, a really good steak and Greek potatoes restaurant on 49, and I began as an instructor in 1970. Jim Hedges came a couple of years later: James Stoy Hedges. His Midwestern training was, like Ron Lunsford’s, partly in linguistics and partly in comp theory, and he adored folklore, so among the three of of us – this was prior to Ron’s return to the department – we developed courses in all three areas (I remember I developed the Intro to Tech Writing with campus-wide projects which let us push for new hires there, as well as Language & Culture and Language Acquisition; Jim developed most of the comp/rhetoric courses and its sequence plus Syntax; Laz did History of English, Chaucer, and we all shared Intro to English Linguistics). We were overflowing with students and were able to make a case to hire – and that was Ralf.
Like Boyd, Ralf worked closely with Laz until Laz’s retirement in 1995. Ralf took it upon himself to organize a special event to honor Laz’s long career. I contacted Ralf and asked him to share his memories of this event and of Laz’s career. Here are his comments:
I did indeed organize a special session in honor of Laz at the SouthEastern Conference on Linguistics (SECOL); it was in 1995 at the University of Georgia, Athens. Laz’s concluding remarks were improvised and unnecessarily self-deprecatory. Laz was working on a book manuscript at the time in the spirit and style of Robert Lado on transfer interference for native Greek speakers of English. He gave me five or six chapters to critique after he retired, which I did, but I suspect they are stored somewhere in a box now. I also recall he was working on ancient Greek and Hebrew reflected in Anglo-Saxon writing, and boy do I wish I had that manuscript now. Laz had the only typewriter I have ever seen in my life with Anglo-Saxon characters on it. He had it specially made for him, I think. He also had a roll-out map of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which now resides in my office and will do duty again next Spring, when I teach a Medieval Literature survey. One thing that could be mentioned is that Laz was the faculty member who organized the library purchases for the department, which is probably a major factor in why Atkins has such a fine collection of old and facsimile English grammar books going back to the 16th century.
Laz still lives in Charlotte. He is in his late 80s, and it has been many years since he last visited our department. We, however, should remember Laz, for he was one of the pioneers of the English Department, and he played a key role in building our internationally known program in linguistics.
Kudos — As you know, I like to use my Monday Missives to share news about recent accomplishments by members of our department. Here is the latest news:
Valerie Bright published an interview titled “Speaking as a Southern Picture Book Author: An Interview with Gail E. Haley” in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of The Southern Quarterly.
Paula Eckard published an article titled “Lost Children in Southern Literature” in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of The Southern Quarterly.
Anita Moss contributed an essay on Willie Morris’s My Dog Skip as part of a collaborative article titled “Childhood in the New South as Reflected in Children’s Literature: A Forum.” This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of The Southern Quarterly.
Upcoming Events and Deadlines—Here is a list of upcoming meetings and events that will take place this month:
–Provost’s Awards Reception Tuesday, September 5
3:30-5:00 pm Halton Reading Room, Atkins Library
–Bank of America Award Reception and Dinner Friday, September 8
6:00 pm Hilton Charlotte Center City
Quirky Quiz Question — In addition to being interested in the ancient Greeks, the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding has a peculiar obsession with a particular product. What is this product?
Last week’s answer: Ron Lunsford
The first time that the English Department was the recipient of the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching was in 1995-1996. Who was the chair of the English Department at that time?