Bill Jolliff: Professor of English
Poet. Professor of English. Banjo extraordinaire. These are just a few words to describe Bill Jolliff, long-time faculty member and active writer and researcher at George Fox University (GFU). Most students may know him as “the guy that went up on stage and played the banjo during chapel.”
Jolliff grew up in Magnetic Springs, Ohio, where “the springs are actually magnetic,” he said. Jolliff started playing the guitar and banjo with his grandmother when he was 15.
During his high school years, he started forming an interest in American literature. Particularly interesting to him were the works of Robert Frost and John Steinbeck.
As he studied English at Ohio State University (OSU) he continued to play the banjo and joined a Bluegrass band called “Side Rally Authority.” Even after the band split up just a few years later, his musical interests carried on throughout the rest of his life.
Jolliff said, “In my undergraduate work I was thinking about becoming a pastor, so I split my English courses between writing courses and literature courses; I also took a lot of ancient Greek in preparation for seminary.”
After finishing up his bachelor’s degree in English at OSU, he went to Ashland Theological Seminary, expecting to stay until completing his work. But Jolliff said that “after getting to seminary, it would have been only about eight weeks when I decided that I probably was not going to be going into pastoral ministry—in part because of my own theological questions about the very nature of a monopiscopal kind of system.”
One of the most distinct memories that Jolliff can recall at this point in his life came in a few words from Carl F. H. Henry, founder of Christianity Today Magazine, when he offered a challenge to all of the seminary students at a ministerial conference: “Maybe a few of you should go back into your own disciplines and try to do the best work you possibly can as Christians in academics.”
With that, Jolliff decided to head back to OSU, where he went on to earn his Ph.D. in English, writing his dissertation on the American naturalist writers of the 1890s.
Around this time in his life, as he was teaching part-time at OSU during his graduate work, he began to understand his own theological values. Jolliff said, “Probably the person who resonated most deeply with me was an old Quaker theologian named Robert Barclay.”
In 1988, he went on to teach at Messiah College in Pennsylvania for six years before seeing a job opening at a small Quaker university in Oregon.
Since coming to GFU 1994, Jolliff’s interest in American Appalachian writers has led him to publish several books and articles in the field of study, and hundreds of poems. His poetry collection, “Twisted Shapes of Light” (2015), was one of his most recent achievements.
“One of the greatest blessings of poetry is empathy training.”
For Jolliff, part of literature’s value is its high accessibility.
He said, “How many people in your immediate circles do you feel like you really have access to be inside their heads and really know how they tick? When you start reading novels or poetry, you get a certain sense of the commonality of feeling and increased understanding of the ability to identify with people who have been in a very different situation than you.”
Jolliff and his wife Brenda have three kids: Jacob in New York City who plays in the Yonder Mountain String Band that travels over 120 days of the year; Rebecca, a Willamette graduate and a grant writer in Washington D.C. for an organization that supports non-profit work; and his youngest, Anna, doing graduate work in psychology at the University of Wisconsin.
Reported by Jacks Whitehurst
Photographed by Coleman Weimer