Grandfatherly and personal: Phil James


By Tony Madsen ('99)

When I think of the professor that I most enjoyed during my tenure at JMU, I think of Professor Emeritus Phil James, former chairperson of the art department. I was not an art major, nor did I take more than one art class, but my liberal studies requirements mandated that I choose at least one of a particular grouping so I chose Art in General Culture/Art Appreciation.

When I got to the class at Duke Hall, we were greeted by a jolly old soul named Dr. James. He introduced himself and told us about his teaching career that dated all the way back to the late 1950s. This was in the late-1990s so he certainly was an experienced professor and nearing retirement. He was a grandfatherly figure who reminded me of a cross between Santa Claus and Moses with this long white beard. I say this with the utmost affection.

You would think that watching a slide projector for three hours per week, would be boring, but it became our own personal trip to the museums of the world, complete with Dr. James' personal stories.

Dr. James showed us a painting called the Horse Fair, which was his wife's favorite painting. Not only did he tell us about the Horse Fair, but he also told us about how his wife used to get annoyed that he would be only one to get credit card applications in the mail. He taught us about establishing credit and how, by that point, his wife got plenty credit card applications and she gets annoyed with them. Another time he showed us both Leonardo DiVinci's and Salvatore Dali's rendition of Jesus' Last Supper and how they are different. One Jesus has blond hair and the other Jesus was a brunette. In addition, he showed us slides of Georgia O'Keefe's works, which was just a bunch of flowers for me. He definitely surprised us when he said that some people interpret her works as representations of the "female anatomy." Aghast at such thoughts because of my conservative background, the lesson taught me that there are definitely different viewpoints out there in the world, no matter how liberal and outlandish

He, also, taught us that honesty is the best policy and that he took the JMU Honor Code very seriously. Dr. James would take attendance during class and after the lights would go down, some students would leave class early. One day, Dr. James took attendance a second time at the end of class. The next class he warned that signing in for class and then leaving or signing someone else's name is a direct violation of the Honor Code. Instead of punishing the perpetrators, he rewarded those that were honest with an extra point on our averages.

Once my art adventure came to an end on the last day of class, I requested that Dr. James pose for a picture with me. "Oh, a photograph with a student and his esteemed educator," he replied. I affirmed that this was exactly was I was looking for and told him that I had really enjoyed his class, then I shook his hand. There was only one other professor whom I asked to pose for a picture with me while at Madison. The other was Dr. Clive Hallman.

After graduation, I had the pleasure of working fellow colleague and former art major Leslie Barham ('80). She is now an AP art teacher/department chair in Virginia Beach. I shared my memories of Phil James with her and she knew exactly who he was. Apparently, Dr. James has been making a difference in students' educations way before I had known him. This was no surprise. I even gave her my extra copy of my picture with Dr. James for her bulletin board in her office.

Last autumn, I tracked Dr. James down to share with him again how much I enjoyed his class and memorable teaching style. He thanked me for my kind words and also said he would look for any Madison College memorabilia that he might have hiding in the attic. "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops," said Henry Adams. Thanks for your commitment to our education, Dr. James.

Professor emeritus of education Phil James led the education department for many years and created the JMU Summer Art Education Program in 1978. Contact him at (540) 434-3449.