Leonard Oakland says that nobody at Whitworth University calls him Mr. Chips.
But it’s not because they have trouble choosing between the two movie versions of James Hilton’s novel – “Goodbye Mr. Chips” – about an elderly, adored schoolteacher on the eve of his retirement.
“Nobody on the staff calls me Mr. Chips,” the 70-year-old Oakland explained with a laugh, “because they haven’t seen the movies.”
Then he added, “I did get called Dumbledore by somebody.”
Typical. Contemporary pop culture (in this case J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series) seems always to trump the more traditional arts.
Some traditions prove enduring, though, and that applies particularly to Oakland, who has been a fixture on the Spokane university’s north side campus for four-plus decades.
It was in 1966 that Oakland, a Chicago native who a decade before had come west to study at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., arrived in Spokane to teach English.
Beginning today, the school – along with a number of his friends, family and former students – will honor Oakland, who is entering what he describes as a “phased retirement,” with an event called the Inaugural Leonard A. Oakland Film Festival.
“I feel very honored and embarrassed by having (my name placed on) this,” Oakland said. “But it’s meant to start something that will be ongoing and give a strong foothold for film and film studies at Whitworth that will bring, I imagine, not only bring interesting films but filmmakers to the campus.”
The inaugural festival includes a number of public events, including a screening tonight of a student-made film, a Saturday-afternoon showing of director Ron Shelton’s 1988 film “Bull Durham” (on which Oakland served as assistant to the director), a Saturday-night celebration banquet at the Davenport Hotel (tickets cost $45) and a special film screening and panel discussion on Sunday afternoon.
Shelton, whose work as a Hollywood director includes such well-known titles as “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Tin Cup,” is particularly happy to pay tribute to a man he refers to as his “mentor.”
Speaking last week over the phone, Shelton talked about meeting Oakland in the “swirling” atmosphere of the early ’60s. Shelton was then a Westmont College student-athlete, and Oakland (after doing graduate study at the University of California, Berkeley) had returned to Westmont to teach freshman English.
“It was marching and madness, and this was a conservative liberal arts college, in the manner of Whitworth, and so there was a lot of swirling things going on in a young man’s head,” Shelton said. “The last thing you thought you’d be turned on to was 18th-century English literature.”
Yet, he said, Oakland managed to do just that.
“He was just a brilliant classroom teacher, probably the best I ever had and I’ve had many degrees since,” Shelton said. “He just made you excited about what he was teaching, and I got excited about reading and writing.”
Oakland’s passions weren’t always confined to the pages of great novels and frames of great films. When he arrived at Westmont in 1956, he was, he said, “very much a fundamentalist Christian, carrying my Bible to school, handing out tracts, preaching on street corners.”
Over the next four years, though, his beliefs gradually evolved.
“Some of my classmates would later say that I came in the most conservative and left the most liberal of any kid on our class,” Oakland said. “And there’s a certain truth to it.”
In short, he says, he began to redirect the same fire that he had felt in high school for religion and theology toward the study of literature.
“I found myself loving T.S. Eliot, reading Hemingway, reading Dostoevsky, Kafka,” Oakland said. “These were the people who began to transform me, because I found in them the kind of understanding of the intense, complex inner life that I had been experiencing in my own really young way.”
Oakland has tried to instill that same kind of passion in the courses he’s taught at Whitworth, whether they involve the literature of Jonathan Swift or the cinema of Francois Truffaut. And as he adjusts to a 50-percent teaching load, he’s thankful to the school for what he says it’s given him in return.
“It is a place that has given me space to grow, to ask questions, to challenge my assumptions and the assumptions of the institution,” he said. “It’s been a place that in other ways has just opened up possibilities, especially for someone like me in the humanities.”
Oakland’s hope is that this inaugural film festival that bears his name will pose, through an endowment, those same kinds of possibilities for others – as his own teaching did, for example, with his former student Shelton.
“When it comes to a good parent, good teacher or good coach, you’re lucky if you’ve got one or two in your life,” Shelton said. “Leonard was the teacher. Without him, I might not be doing what I’m now doing. I was just trying to get through class. He was that inspirational.”