Jon Dressel shares memories from his time as resident director of Central’s Wales program.
Wales program origins
I spent a sabbatical at Trinity College Carmarthen in 1973, when I was a member of the English department at Webster College (now Webster University) in Saint Louis. My mother’s family were Welsh immigrants (named Jones, the most common Welsh name), and I had been spending summer vacations in Wales for some years preceding that. Webster had a student sabbatical program, and I took 14 of my creative writing students to Trinity, where they took courses and I lectured Welsh students on American Literature. We all had a great time, and after my return I tried to interest Webster in establishing an ongoing relationship with Trinity.
For various reasons Webster felt unable to undertake such a venture, so I made contact with Central, as I knew Webster had been sending French and Spanish majors to Central’s programs in France and Spain, and that Central had recently opened a program in London. Dean Jim Graham and President Ken Weller were receptive from the start, and after trips to Wales and other preliminary measures, they agreed to start a program at Trinity in autumn 1976, and I became the director.
Years at Trinity
The program at Trinity (which merged with St. David’s University College in Lampeter, 30 miles from Carmarthen, several years ago and is now known as Trinity St. David’s University) endured for 30 years before being relocated to Bangor University in North Wales. Bangor is a fine institution, and the North Welsh mountain region, most of which is included in the Snowdonia National Park, is spectacularly beautiful. Still, it is with Trinity, Carmarthen and the equally beautiful Southwest Wales coastal and hill country that my memories, and those of many alumni, reside.
I never tired of the view from Trinity’s hilltop location on the western edge of Carmarthen, looking down on the one hand on the River Tywi, winding gently between green and hilly banks toward the sea at Llansteffan, eight miles away, and on the other on the town of Carmarthen, the oldest town in Wales, which traces its ancestry to the Roman fortified settlement of Maridunum, founded in 75 A.D.
For most of the 30 years of the program’s existence at Trinity, I maintained a residence in Llansteffan — first a cottage known as Hen Ysgoldy (the Old Schoolhouse) and later a ground-floor flat in the home of Tudor Bevan, a dear friend and member of the English department at Trinity, and I reckon I have driven the road between Carmarthen and Llansteffan about 5,000 times.
Many alumni will no doubt have pleasant memories of visits to Llansteffan, one of the loveliest villages in Wales. At the beginning of each semester we always made it a point to bus the newly arrived Americans to Llansteffan for a hike up to the impressive castle ruins, which date to the 11th century, and from which there are magnificent views looking back up the Tywi towards Carmarthen, and out over the river estuary towards Devon and Cornwall and the Celtic Sea.
During the international rugby season in February and March we would often gather at my flat in Llansteffan to watch Wales take on Ireland, Scotland and France, or most importantly, the ancient enemy, England, often with time for a pint at one of the friendly village pubs before returning to Carmarthen. And who can forget the Llansteffan beach parties each June at the end of the academic year, attended not only by the Americans but also by many Welsh and English students, and which featured the annual American-British softball game. By late June, it stays daylight in Wales until nearly 11 p.m., so the games were never called because of darkness, and we were usually blessed with perfect summer weather. As everyone knows, it rains a lot in Wales, but the Celtic gods must have smiled on our beach parties, as I recall it raining only once on that night in 30 years!
One of the things I appreciated about the experience in Carmarthen over the 30 years of the program at Trinity was the true collegiality of the situation, the fact that we were truly integrated into the life of what was, particularly in the earlier years, a relatively small college. We not only attended classes with Welsh and British students, but we participated in clubs, sang in choirs, acted and stage-managed in dramatic productions, and enjoyed the social life of the Students’ Union, and events such as Rag Week and the year-end Carnival, participated in sporting activities and much else.
I am sure many alumni retain strong memories of such courses as Outdoor Pursuits, with its weekly days in the field and its longer trips to the North Welsh mountains and the valley of the River Wye. Malcom Gilbert’s Soviet Studies course featured end-of-semester trips to the “Evil Empire” (USSR), one of which occurred during the Chernobyl disaster and which resulted in students (including my son, Ben) having to be screened for radiation fallout on their return. Raymond Garlick and Tudor Bevan taught classes on the literature of Wales in English.
Other favorites included Maldwyn Jones’s valiant efforts to teach Americans to speak a modicum of Welsh, Gareth Wardell’s course on Modern Britain (which because of the nature of some of the field trips some student wags renamed “Modern Breweries”), Malcom and Cyril Jones’s enigmatically titled “The Search for Welsh Identity” (I used to ask them in the faculty lounge for daily updates on its whereabouts or recent sightings, as though it were a creature like Bigfoot), private voice lessons (they were free) and much else.
Spirit of Wales
Those with an interest in poetry might be interested in the anthology “Poetry 1900-2000, 100 Poets from Wales,” which was published in 2008 under the auspices of the National Assembly of Wales. It has been distributed to all libraries and schools in Wales, and as its title suggests, it covers the entire 20th century. It includes poems by Raymond Garlick (Raymond was instrumental in helping found the program at Trinity and passed away in March 2011 at age 84), Nigel Jenkins (for more than 20 years, Nigel was the program’s teacher of creative writing and the course called “Celtic World.” He died at age 64 in January 2014) and me. The book is available through Amazon.
Osi Rhys Osmond, who passed away in early March, also played a vital role in the Wales program. Alumni of the program from the years 1995-2000, when my son, Ben, served as director, will remember the “Over Here” course taught by Nigel and Osi, who was a well-known Welsh painter, cultural critic and television commentator.
Malcom Gilbert, who served with me as associate director of the program at Trinity, and who took over as acting director during the times when I was back in the United States, is still very much with us. Malcolm, an expert on the Soviet Union who spoke Russian, taught the Soviet Studies course which was universally popular with American students for many years.
My last trip to Wales was in 2008, to take part in a reading tour marking the publication of an anthology devoted to the work of American poets of Welsh descent, titled “Other Land.” I will turn 81 this April and am not sure that I will ever get back again, though I hope so, as Ben and his family, which now includes nearly 3-year old twins, a girl and a boy, are talking of making a family trip there within the next year.
Iechyd da, a cofion cynnes I chi gyd (Good health, and warm remembrances to you all),
Anyone with memories of Jon Dressel or the Wales program is encouraged to share their reflections in the comment field below. Contact Jon about Wales at firstname.lastname@example.org.