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  • Martha Heasley Cox:A Tribute
  • Arlene Naylor Okerlund (bio)

“One person can make a difference.” This aphorism—commonly, casually repeated until it has almost become a cliché—resonates throughout San José State University’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, the creation of which I was privileged to watch from its genesis. In 1969 Professor Martha Cox was already immersed into researching the life and works of John Steinbeck when I, a newly hired temporary lecturer, was assigned to share an office with her. Martha’s reputation as one of the more formidable senior professors in the English Department preceded her, and I found myself rather intimidated by the prospect of sharing a ten-by-ten-foot space with her, where the backs of our chairs almost touched as we sat at our respective desks.

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Fig 1.

Martha Cox around the time she became a full professor at San José State University, mid-1960s.

Collection of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.

Thanks to PMLA’s publishing my article on the Faerie Queene, my status improved a bit the following year when I received a tenure-track appointment. [End Page 85] Still, I was very junior to Professor Cox and hardly less intimidated. In 1971, when she decided to sponsor the first Steinbeck conference at SJSU, guess who was invited to help? Of course, I agreed—even though I knew nothing about John Steinbeck, other than having read The Grapes of Wrath.

Despite this limitation, I was nevertheless excellent—superb, even—at performing my assigned duties, the most important of which was sticking mailing labels onto envelopes. Those were the days when there were no student assistants, no support funds, no supplemental help from either the English Department or the University for special projects. Even full professors of Martha’s stature had to pitch in and do the logistical work necessary to sponsor a conference. Martha was no slacker. One afternoon she set up an assembly line in the English Department conference room to send out announcements for the event. She herself headed the line—folding the announcements and handing them on to me. I stuffed them into envelopes and stuck on the mailing labels. Jim Clark, Chair of the English Department—yes, the Chair of the Department—sealed the envelopes and sorted them into zip code piles. Martha was persuasive in enticing everyone to help.

Well, almost everyone. Just as we were hitting peak efficiency, an assistant professor walked by the open door of the conference room, stopped in absolute horror, and berated us: “Is this why you spent all that time in graduate school and did all that work to get a Ph.D.? Just to stuff envelopes?!!” He stomped off, determined not to demean himself. Martha, Jim, and I continued until we ran out of announcements.

Martha expected about seventy participants to attend the three-day conference. Instead, hundreds came—eight hundred, in fact. Here was the first indication that John Steinbeck’s writing tapped into something that readers and teachers, in particular, found engaging and powerful. The two buses planned for the tour of Steinbeck Country were oversubscribed to the point that another three were added. Sunday morning found a convoy of five buses departing from San José State, driving to Steinbeck’s home in Salinas and on through the Pastures of Heaven, to Cannery Row, and on to Tortilla Flat.

The success of the 1971 conference encouraged Martha to plan a second event in 1973 that featured Of Mice and Men. Singers from the San Francisco Opera performed the Carlisle Floyd opera. A showing of the film, a staging of the play, and discussion panels rounded out the weekend. Gwendolyn Steinbeck, John’s second wife and mother of his two sons, attended and offered to donate to the University six dining chairs that had belonged to the author. The first editions, manuscripts, literary criticism, portraits, and memorabilia already collected by [End Page 86] Martha constituted a substantial collection, and in March 1974 the SJSU Library opened a dedicated Steinbeck Room. In November 1975, San José Studies published a special Steinbeck issue that featured articles and...