Substance Over Style
Janet Haedicke – Progressive Thinker, Professor, Beauty, Trend-Setter – September’s BayouIcon
article by Michael DeVault | photographed by Brad Arender
Picture this in your mind. It’s nine a.m. on a Friday morning, and you are sitting in a college classroom. The topic of today’s discussion, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, is hardly an approachable text for your average college student. The professor enters. She’s wearing pleated khaki slacks, a white button-down and wisps of blonde hair trail behind her like a cape. When she steps up to the podium, she dons a pair of reading glasses–a solitary concession to her age, which you incorrectly peg somewhere around fifty. Then, she speaks, and the room is captivated. Now, flash forward twelve hours. You’re at work tending bar at the catering gig that’s helping fund your degree. It’s an indoor-outdoor event, and your station is by the pool of a lavish home. Candles float amid magnolias in the blue water of the pool. All around you mill men and women dressed to the nines. It’s a fundraiser for a children’s charity, black ties and ball gowns. For a single second, you allow yourself to be captivated by the lights twinkling through the bushes that separate you from the band tent. Then, you hear it.
“What are you doing here?” asks a familiar voice. And, when you look up, you’re not working the bar anymore. For a flash, you’re back in the classroom that morning and standing before you is the professor, only this time she’s not wearing khakis and a button down. She’s in a black and white ball gown that slinks gently against a pair of peep toe pumps. Before you can answer her question, she laughs and promises that she’s not here to quiz you on her lecture. Instead, all she wants in this moment is a glass of white wine.
It’s a pretty piece of fiction, unless you’re one of countless students at the University of Louisiana-Monroe who’ve lived this moment, or any of a hundred more like it, as a student of Janet Haedicke, a professor of English at ULM. Like someone out of a Rand novel, Haedicke moves gracefully between the classroom and the ballroom, commanding attention in both spaces by expert use of attentiveness, wit and blinding intellect. Spend more than five seconds speaking with her on any subject, be it David Mamet’s latest play or sewer pipes–and she can speak with authority on both–and you leave with the impression that she’s the real deal, a modern-day Dagny Taggart, effortlessly in command of virtually any situation.
“Janet is a no-nonsense kind of person and pretty to-the-point when it comes to her thoughts on matters,” says Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo. Mayo has known Haedicke for years and has always been impressed by the depth of commitment she brings to organizations and efforts she supports. “She’s a doer. She gets involved.”
Mayo appointed Haedicke to a seat on the city’s Infrastructure Commission, the governing body tasked with keeping critical infrastructure projects moving. The commission assists in prioritizing infrastructure needs, from road lighting to street paving to, yes, even sewers. Mayo says he’s watched Haedicke become an informed and involved force on the Infrastructure Commission, someone who can be counted on to bring foresight to the commission as it strives to end a federal consent decree.
“She’s a progressive thinker,” Mayo says. If experience shapes the mind of the thinker, Haedicke should be. Each of her 67 years has been packed with experiences, any one of which would be enough to fill a lifetime. Born in Monroe, Haedicke graduated from Neville High School in 1965 and immediately announced to her parents she was done with Monroe.
“I left here swearing I would never move back to Louisiana,” Haedicke tells BayouLife. “I told my parents that.” She enrolled in Hollins College in Virginia, where she pursued a Bachelor of Arts in English from the same program where Annie Dillard was a graduate student. Dillard’s husband at the time was a Hollins professor who taught contemporary American Literature. Haedicke recalls him as one of her favorite instructors. Hollins proved to be a good fit for Haedicke, something she says her mother encouraged because it had a well-respected study abroad program.
“It was always just an understanding that I would go away to school,” Haedicke says. It’s important to remember Haedicke was 19 and this was 1966–a time when young women of stature simply did not go gallivanting across the Western world. Yet, that’s precisely what Haedicke did.
For a year, she lived in Paris, where she studied at the Sorbonne. Together with a friend, she traveled Europe extensively during that period. “We went to thirty different countries and lived with different families,” Haedicke says. On one such visit, they stayed with a family in Dubrovnik. The family did not speak English, and neither of the girls spoke Croatian. Yet, over the course of their stay in Yugoslavia, the girls bonded with their hosts. “I remember thinking that there is this commonality. Sometimes you have to dig deep for it, but even at 19, I recognized that,” Haedicke says.
That commonality, those universal threads that unite people across language and cultural barriers, would become one of the common themes in her literature classes. But those classes were still years away. Haedicke still had traveling to do. After traveling to Istanbul, Haedicke spent her twentieth birthday on a train platform at the Soviet-Turkish border. The girls had planned to visit Russia, but they were stopped due to a smallpox outbreak. Still, she recalls it as one of her favorite birthdays. Haedicke and her companions returned to Paris and, eventually, back to the states. “I left Paris a year before the student riots.”
The world was changing quickly, and the roles of minorities and women in society were being hotly debated. She had attended Hollins College, one of the cradles of Eastern Feminism, and traveled Europe extensively during the run-up to an historic student movement. The world had not yet invented the word that would drive intellectual inquiry for the next fifty years. Yet, her time in Europe and at Hollins not withstanding, Haedicke described herself as apolitical. Like the rest of the world around her, she did not realize the world was on the verge of post-modernism. “No one was calling it that yet,” she says.
In fact, though the post-modern movement had been taking shape since the 1950s and Feminism had become a recognized school of thought, most of the world was unaware of the huge sea change the 1960s brought. That realization would come later, when in the mid-1970s and early 1980s academics began to take a close look at the powers driving social thought during the decade. A recent spate of CNN specials has taken an in-depth look at the 1960s, and Haedicke watched each episode in awe with her husband, Steve. “When you see it condensed that way, 50 years later, we were both struck by how incredibly tumultuous it was,” Haedicke says. “I teach American Literature, and I teach the history along with the literature. Even so, having it condensed the way they did for the series makes you realize it was a complete paradigm shift.”
Following Europe, Haedicke settled in New York, much to the chagrin of her mother, who had grown up in Queens. “It was absolutely beyond her why anybody would want to live there,” Haedicke recalls of her mother, who had embraced life in the South with both arms. Neither Mildred Vanderpool nor her husband, Lee, were natives. She was from New York, he was from Galveston, and they loved life in Monroe. So much, Haedicke recalls, that when she went to Europe for school, neither of her parents had traveled abroad. Haedicke calls it “a testament” to her parents’ progressive attitudes, and she credits this open-mindedness with her own inquisitive nature. “My mother at 94 is the most inquisitive person I know,” Haedicke says.
While living in New York, Haedicke worked in advertising. She met Steve Haedicke, whom she would marry, while he was working on Wall Street. They knew they wanted to build a life and a family, and doing so would require leaving New York behind. “We were getting married, and the couples there were all headed to the suburbs,” Haedicke says. The idea of life in the ‘burbs did not appeal to them, so they relocated to Houston, TX, where Steve took a job. The move was supposed to be temporary, but it proved even more temporary than either expected.
“Our first week there, Steve got ticketed for jaywalking,” Haedicke says. Houston was not the right fit for them, so they relocated again, this time back to Monroe, which Haedicke says was meant to be “a stopgap.” Neither she nor her husband expected to spend any significant amount of time in Louisiana. “To get back to New York was our trajectory,” Haedicke says. “Forty-three years later, it’s a life. And it’s a good one.”
Together, they raised three children–two sons, Stephen and Cameron; and a daughter, Jordan. They became involved in civic organizations, charities and even politics. It wasn’t an easy reintegration, though, as Haedicke had a particular view of what life could be, and she wanted that life for herself. For a long time, Haedicke says it was easy to define she and Steve by what they were against rather than what they were for. “I remember my oldest friend, Amanda Morgan, saying, ‘You and Steve are just pro-Anti,’ because the easiest way to describe yourself is not what you are but what you are not,” Haedicke says. It took a little while, but Haedicke eventually rejected defining herself with negatives. “You learn that’s not the way. You don’t create a life or an identity negatively.”
Back in Monroe and building a life, Haedicke needed a career. For a while, Haedicke considered law school, but she ultimately dismissed the idea as too radical. Even though the world was changing, a woman attending law school was still objectionable enough to raise eyebrows and rare enough to make even the smartest women question the potential for success. Only two of her Hollins classmates chose a law school path. One was the daughter of a U.S. Supreme Court justice, the other the daughter of a U.S. senator. “Truthfully, we all thought they were really radical to be doing that,” Haedicke says. So instead of a groundbreaking career in law, Haedicke returned to her first love, literature, and earned a Master of Arts in English from Northeast Louisiana University. After completing that degree, Haedicke took a job teaching English as an instructor. “I came back to get my masters with no intention of pursuing the Ph.D.” she says, describing herself as not particularly ambitious on the academic front.
“I got into teaching by default,” Haedicke says, adding that, had they returned to New York, she wouldn’t have become a teacher at all. Yet, teaching became a passion for her and, by the late 1980s, Haedicke realized continuing her career would require further study. She entered the Ph.D. program at LSU and began studying in earnest. While raising a family. And teaching. Full time. At a university more than 300 miles from LSU. Yet, challenges aside, Haedicke completed her Ph.D. in Modern Drama in 1996. “I look back, and I can’t believe I did it,” she says.
Following completion of her doctorate, Haedicke continued teaching at NLU, eventually ULM, and her skills in the classroom grew exponentially. Students in her classes came to appreciate a “Haedicke class” as a challenge, albeit an enjoyable one according to ULM graduate Rachel Richardson Vaesslar. Vaesslar studied feminist theory and Modern Drama class as part of her own M.A. studies. “She’s the idea of what I strive to be academically,” says Vaesslar, who today is a high school English teacher.
“She sparked my desire to push my students beyond what they thought was possible,” Vaesslar says. Haedicke’s feminist theory classes were so foundational to her education that Vaesslar decided to bring one of her senior English classes to a Haedicke lecture. “My students blew her away with their knowledge of modern drama,” Vaesslar says with relief. She was nervous that one of her mentors might have been unimpressed.
“She was so intimidating!” Vaesslar says. “But she challenged me and my way of thinking.” That challenging persona extends beyond the classroom, too, according to Rev. Weldon Gaddy, pastor of Northminister Church, where the Haedickes attend services. In her church life as well as her academic life, Haedicke has frequently found herself a part of committees, groups or governing bodies, and that can be a challenge in and of itself, according to Gaddy.
“I think that a group is a challenge to Janet, because she’s a very independent thinker. She’s a creative person,” Gaddy says, adding that Haedicke’s opinions are strong, well considered and in groups, she must balance her own integrity with the work of the group. That’s not a bad thing for Gaddy. “I think it makes for difficulty sometimes with people who don’t understand a lot of questions being asked and a lot of doubts being raised. But I appreciate Janet.”
Mayo echoed that sentiment and says that she frequently raises issues and elevates the nature of discourse. “She was one of those I wanted to contribute to the city,” Mayo says. And contribute she has. Gaddy’s not surprised. “I always find her intensely attentive and filled with questions,” Gaddy says. Haedicke is aware of her public persona and embraces it as just one of her many facets.
“I increasingly am fascinated by the depth and strength of the human spirit and less interested in the surfaces,” Haedicke says. “The ‘situations’ created are generally meaningful and sustaining connections, both professional and personal. Value to me notwithstanding, there are doubtlessly those whose adjective of choice would be intrusive!” Yet any intrusion Haedicke brings to the table is borne with an aim to better the student’s understanding of a complex element of literature or the goals of the organization she’s serving. And serve she has.
Haedicke served as editor of the Tennessee Williams Literary Journal for four years. She also sits on the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Executive Committee, is the Secretary of the Louisiana State Museum Board and holds a seat on the board of directors of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Closer to home, Haedicke sat on the board of directors of the Center for Children and Families, where she was elected president and established the Black and White Ball with Sue Sartor. “It’s become a signature fundraiser, which I’ve become very proud of,” Haedicke says. Immediately, she deflects attention from herself to the cause she supports. In this case, it’s abused and neglected children. “The statistics are horrifying.”
That service mentality extends to ULM, where she continues to teach. In addition to the classroom, Haedicke sits or has sat on numerous college and university committees. She was elected president of the ULM Faculty Senate, a position that created around Haedicke an impression of her as firebrand and lightning rod. ULM biologist Anna Hill served two terms as Faculty Senate president and knows the demands of the job. She described Haedicke as a ferocious defender of faculty interests. “I know from experience that there have always been difficult negotiations between faculty and administration,” says Hill.
Those competing interests arise from different goals, according to Hill. “They want more students to graduate, while we want to maintain what we consider to be college level academic standards and academic freedom,” Hill says. That often means whomever the faculty elects as its representatives finds themselves in a sometimes contentious relationship with administrators. Hill recalls that Haedicke never compromised on matters of principle and did not shy away from a fight.
“She never backed down during a tough argument, and she was always well informed and well spoken,” Hill says. “I may not always have agreed with what she said, but she gained the respect of the administration by stating her case well.” Haedicke tempered her opinions with the knowledge that her position was one of honor and influence, highlighting an acute self-awareness that at times can border on self-consciousness. Haedicke is aware of her public persona, but she says it has tempered over the years.
“I think that’s one of the redeeming facets of aging, that the disparity between the public and the private narrows,” says Haedicke, who likens life to performance. “We all perform. I teach drama and film. We all perform. But when that gap between the performance and the reality narrows, life becomes more navigable.”
At 67, Haedicke shows no signs of slowing down. She’s still teaching a full load at ULM. She and Steve divide their weekends between Monroe and their home in New Orleans, where Haedicke just welcomed a new grandson, Stephen William Peltier. And she’s returned to the board of the Center for Children and Families. Yet, today, she approaches life with a circumspect attitude and knows what she would do differently if she could turn back the clock.
“I didn’t laugh enough,” she says. Whether the topic was her personal or professional life, Haedicke believe she missed opportunities at humor. “Everyone has a sad story. And being able to…it’s absolutely essential…to gain a perspective on your own story. The best means to that perspective is humor,” Haedicke says. “In my personal and professional life, there were times where I just took myself too seriously.”
The journey’s not over, though, so Haedicke has many days left to laugh. She returns to the subject of her mother, Mildred, who at 94 hasn’t slowed down. “My greatest hope is that I can be as vibrant as she is at 94.” In the classroom, Haedicke hopes she’s building a legacy of thinkers, students who don’t parrot back what the professor says but, instead, learn to process information in a way that leads them to be independent. Students today give her cause for “tremendous hope.”
“When you have to denigrate, demonize in order to feel a sense of personal power, if you translate that by person, by state, by nation, by country, then you end up with the world we see every day in the news,” Haedicke says. She paints a clear picture of what success looks like in the classroom: “If I can reach these students, most of whom are first generation college students, many of whom have never seen the parish line, and inculcate them that identity is essential and powerful so long as it is acquired positively, rather than through polarization.”
The substance of the thing is vastly more important than the style of it, and when Haedicke realizes she’s yet to touch on style, she laughs.