Spotlight: Remembering Jim Justus

Timothy Long, Professor Emeritus of Classical Studies at IU, wrote this remembrance.

I was lucky enough, when I came to IU in 1969, to make the acquaintance, almost immediately, of Charles Forker of the English Department. Charles was better than any Spartacus Guide for acclimating yourself to Bloomington gay life. Through Charles I then met Jim Justus and Wallace Williams, both professors in his department. Of course Charles let me know, with delight, what the relationship between the two was.

Jim and Wallace had met when Jim arrived in the early Sixties at IU to join the English Department, of which Wallace was already a member. I gathered later, from Wallace, that his infatuation with Jim had been instantaneous. “Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?”  Unlike most cases of that instant attraction, Wallace’s love was reciprocated. The affair continued for nearly thirty years. “May I have this dance for the rest of my life?” 

In some ways it was a meeting of likes. Both Jim and Wallace were Americanists. Wallace was the editor of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays, and Jim was a specialist in “Southwest humor,” where “Southwest” refers not to New Mexico and Arizona but Missouri and Kansas in the mid-nineteenth century.

Jim and Wallace put the “American” in “Americanist.” Jim was from rural Tennessee, and Wallace was from the paradisiacal California of the 1950s. Both were veterans of the United States Armed Forces, Wallace having served in the Air Force and Jim in the Army, on the staff of Stars and Stripes in Japan. While most faculty members in the humanities looked forward to walking the halls of the Prado or other great museums, they looked forward to the Fall Foliage Festival in Ellettsville. They kept not poodles or elegant borzois but ignoble basset hounds (probably not realizing that the breed is French). They kept a large, typically Midwestern vegetable garden bordered with solidly American peonies and sunflowers.

As overlapping as they were in interests, however, they were a couple supported only in part by similarity. The other prop was complementary. In them two very different personalities meshed. For Wallace was clearly energetic and effusive whereas Jim was placid and reserved. But of course it takes two poles of a different charge to create that spark which ignites the oxygen.

This worked somewhat to Jim’s disadvantage. One could take his modesty for reticence. Wallace carried the conversation before him, while Jim lay back. When Charles Forker and Wallace Williams were part of the crew, one was faced with a rhetorical force majeure, and the best advice was to seek shelter. When Jim did speak up, however, it was always to the point and often with fervor.

After Wallace’s death—and Jim outlived Wallace by more than twenty years—Jim came more into his own in society. I then had the good fortune that another retired professor from the English Department suggested that four of us lunch biweekly at a quiet local restaurant. It wasn’t The Round Table at the Algonquin, but, if the conversation was only half as epigrammatic, the personalities were three times as pleasant.

The other three participants were all about fifteen years older than I, so there were references to things from popular culture which were only hearsay to me but which, for my three companions, were part of their youth. In this smaller and somewhat less voluble company, Jim came more into his own. It was then that I saw Jim show one of those conventional features that people associate with being gay. When the subject of movie actresses came up, Jim showed a shockingly precise knowledge of their manner and style, both in fashion and coiffeur.  Veronica Lake, Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck, and others were only New York Times crossword answers for me, but Jim knew how each wore her hair (especially, of course, Veronica Lake) and whether she preferred Helen Rose or Edith Head.

A major irritation of being fifteen years younger than many of your close friends is that they are inconsiderate enough to predecease you. Gradually our group took losses. There were attempts at replacement, but in the end Jim and I had a regular lunch for two at two week intervals. We talked about literature. I mentioned that my brother was urging me to read Flannery O’Connor, and Jim provided me with a paperback of A Good Man Is Hard to Find. (It isn’t about what you are thinking!) O’Connor provided opportunities for Jim to explain parts of Southern culture to me I had never imagined.

By this time Jim had begun to work on his last opus:  an inquiry into the tradition of the hard-boiled detective in American crime fiction. It was Jim’s Americanism again. Europe invented Peter Wimsey and Hercule Poirot; America invented Sam Spade and Mike Hammer.

When a phone call told me that Jim had been moved to hospice, I gathered myself up and headed over, hoping to find him still aware enough to enjoy a visit. At the moment, I had a paperback of three novellas by Raymond Chandler. I grabbed it as I went out the door, thinking that Jim might be without reading material.

Both the conversation and the book were pointless. Jim was clearly very near the end, and there were even hints of the facies hippocratica. There was a table on the side, one of those hospital tables that can be turned over the bed. On it there were only three things. There was the inescapable plastic pitcher and also two silver picture frames. In one was a picture of Wallace, laughing. In the other was a picture of Wallace and his father, visiting Bloomington, for Wallace’s father had been a frequent visitor to Bloomington to see his son and his son’s lover long before anyone had thought of PFLAG.

So a gay couple which had shaped gay life in Bloomington for so long was back together, on a hospital table. Jim and Wallace had helped loosen up gay life greatly in Bloomington in the early 1980’s with the founding of a chapter of Integrity, the LGBT association of the Episcopal Church. Wallace and Jim were, naturally, charter members. I think it might be more accurate to say that they were instigators. They energized the meetings with lectures on gay subjects and fortified the participants with pans of roast beef, beautifully done potatoes, and green beans that were just the right texture.

After the dissolution of the Integrity chapter, I gather from others, Jim and Wallace directed their energies to the gay political sphere, offering guidance and encouragement to city officials. They were known, very privately, for having been materially helpful to gay people who were not so fortunate as they.

For a generation and a half in Bloomington, Jim and Wallace were the first gay couple that came to mind if anyone thought of a stable relationship. They provided a holistic model of personal decency, professional accomplishment, and gay love.

verba docent; exempla trahunt: “Words instruct; examples compel.”

Posted in History and Inspiration, Spotlight

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Bill Elliott

Timothy Long’s recollection of Jim Justus and Wallace Williams (and Charles Forker) is a wonderfully written and moving story. All three faculty members were at the height of their academic and creative powers when I joined the English department as a graduate student in 1981. While I never took classes with any of them (I wasn’t an “Americanist” or a “Bardolatrist” at the time), I was well aware of their reputations—as academics and as bon vivants. It is sad that a whole generation of academics who built an international reputation for the English department has now largely passed away. It… Read more »

Rebecca Keith

Thank you Bill Elliott! Your thoughts about this terrific IU faculty couple were great to read.

Michael Bedwell

Thank you, Prof. Long, for such a magnificent remembrance of our mutual friends, Jim and Wallace. I smiled at your description of Jim’s fondness for and knowledge of film. A few days before he passed, I was visiting him at the hospice as I did every day when, as he was most of the time, he was sleeping; the occasions when he was awake and somewhat alert fewer and fewer. To pass the time, I had the TV on the wall opposite his bed on, the sound muted so as not to disturb him. Presently, he woke, and after a… Read more »

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