By Gianmaria Franchini
John Dizikes’ Santa Cruz home on King Street, off Bay Street, is locally registered as a minor historical landmark. A recondite plaque on the shingled two-story building reads 1919 — the year it was built. On a gloomy rainy afternoon in February the home’s interior is inviting, placid. It matches the temperament of its gentlemanly inhabitant. Dizikes catalogues his home’s biography succinctly and with immediate recollection.
“The house was built by an architect influenced by the arts and crafts movement, William Burn. He built this house for himself and his family, practiced architecture for three and a half years, but there wasn’t enough work for him here,” he said matter-of-factly. “He sold the house to a couple named Adams, a superintendent and his wife Bertha, a teacher. Fifty-one years later she sold the house to us. We registered it, so that it’s preserved and protected from any architectural change.”
It’s fitting that a man who has forged a lifelong relationship with American culture and history should live in a piece of it.
Dizikes was a professor of American Studies at UCSC from 1965 until his retirement in 2001. His long-standing career has seen the university, and the American Studies program, rise from their earliest days. In that sense, he has a very strong relationship with the school, one whose bonds have been strengthened by the passage of time. Well-schooled as anyone in UCSC’s history, Dizikes might be someone to whom the university looks to ensure that as it moves forward, it doesn’t completely lose touch with its past.
American Studies is an academic discipline apart from history itself, but when asked, Dizikes said that he considers himself a historian. In September 1995, he delivered an address at the memorial for beloved Santa Cruz community benefactors Eloise and Page Smith, who died just two days apart from each other. Referring perhaps to the providential proximity of their last days, he spoke of history as “divine drama” — a phrase borrowed from Mr. Smith, first provost of UCSC’s Cowell College and former professor emeritus of history.
“[Page] was a great man and an enormously influential figure,” Dizikes said. “From him I got the sense of history as this ultimate human drama. It’s a drama in which there is no script or plot written by a particular person. We don’t know how it began and we don’t know how it will end. But there is this dramatic sense of its unfolding.”
With shrewd honesty typical of the scholarly man, Dizikes supplemented his statement with a caveat.
“I have no particular theory about history,” he said. “It’s one damn thing after the other. I’m just an interested observer.”
Marge Frantz lives near Dizikes’ home on King Street and first met the professor as a graduate student when Dizikes was on her dissertation committee. She herself taught American Studies at UCSC for 20 years, and considers her neighbor a close friend. In between strong suggestions to visit the Dizikes home on open studio weekends to comments on the “startlingly beautiful” weaving of Anne, Dizikes’ wife, she gave animated endorsements of her colleague.
“John is a charmer, a raconteur and a very good storyteller,” she said.
He can make just about anything interesting — he keeps people entertained. His work, and American Studies, is an effort to combine literature and American history and more — to use both to reinforce a deeper, clearer understanding of where we came from and where we’re going.”
Dizikes has written three books that chronicle unique pieces of historical Americana. In his writing, which his friend and colleague Forrest Robinson, professor of literature and American Studies, calls simply “superb,” Dizikes evinces a mind of broad interests and a particular love affair with sportsmanship.
In 1981, he published “Sportsmen and Gamesmen: From the Years that Shaped American Ideas About Winning and Losing and How to Play the Game.” “Opera in America: A Cultural History” won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993. A biography of sorts on the roguish and pioneering racehorse jockey Todd Sloan, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” was published in 2000. He recently finished a book on American women poets of the early 20th century.
Dizikes’ primary concern, however, has been teaching. “All of my books have been shaped by teaching,” he said. “Not my teaching by my books.”
This range of topics reflects the inclusive nature and intellectual latitude that American Studies grew to provide. Before seriously discussing his work, Dizikes mentioned that his wife, Anne, teases him and Robinson because they have been lucky enough to love what they teach and vice versa.
“The great advantage I had at UCSC was that it was so wide open that I didn’t get narrowed down and put into a box as a New Deal historian,” he said. “Moving away from political history, into what I concentrated on with American history — the history of the arts. And I did art, painting, poetry, architecture, photography and music. So American Studies was, essentially, an effort to find something that was interdisciplinary.”
His reputation as a formidable teacher, with values that resound with UCSC’s earliest and most commendable goals, is probably what Dizikes is best known for among his colleagues. In October 2001, history lecturer Bruce Thompson was given the first annual John Dizikes award, established by the Humanities Division to honor outstanding teaching by humanities faculty.
“John was one of the original faculty members [on this campus], and over those years there were many students who became his disciples,” Thompson said. “For an award like that to be named after you is a great distinction, but it also means that there were students who became alumni and were willing and eager to provide the endowment for the award.”
When speaking of Dizikes, Thompson chose his words carefully, attempting to draw out a full description of the measure of the man. He had several noteworthy memories of the professor, and recalled them with a hint of nostalgia.
“I have this very vivid memory,” he said. “When I first arrived at UCSC, the history department had oral examinations for seniors. Every one of them had two professors as examiners, and John was my partner. He had a wonderful rapport with this student who was very nervous, and when John walked into the room she was completely transformed. It wasn’t an exam — it was a conversation. I think that’s what teaching should be.”
Though he retired close to seven years ago, Dizikes’ steady presence can still be felt on campus. The eponymous award speaks volumes in that regard, and Cowell College presented a musical event in his honor March 9. The performance was taken from Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” — hardly American, but consistent with Dizikes’ passion for opera.
The professor makes a point to visit UCSC almost every working day. Thompson laughed but remarked verily that the two often meet each other walking up and down Hagar Drive to campus. Robinson noted the same fact, jesting that Dizikes is on campus more often than he is.
Although his training is in literature, Robinson has also been with UCSC since its inception. In naming influential faculty who had a significant hand in shaping American Studies on campus, he cited Michael Cowan and Dizikes.
“John Dizikes is, in my mind, one of the most important founding faculty of UCSC,” Robinson said. “Over his career here, he was most faithful to the founding ideals of this campus. He really stood for the wonderful educational mission that Dean McHenry and Clark Kerr brought to this campus. He was always very much in favor of narrative evaluations, small classes, and faculty. There is virtually no one in the program who can do the things that John did, and I consider that a loss.”
Dizikes is curt when speaking of his current relationship with the school, stating that he visits lectures and old friends while allowing that he is somewhat “out of touch.” But he turns a keen mind towards the current direction of UCSC.
“The early years, the founding years from ’65 on, were extraordinary and they could never be duplicated,” he said. “What I think attracted [students] to the place, and then to American Studies, was the idea that it was a little bit different for students who wanted something unconventional — they weren’t there just to prepare to go get a job. That spirit is still here, but you’re working against overwhelming odds, because of the change in atmosphere and the scale.”
“What concerns me is the fact that the overwhelming direction of the university is really much more toward preparing people for careers,” Dizikes explained. “That’s extremely important, but it must take a subordinate position to giving people a chance intellectually to challenge themselves. I will say to you, my sympathies are with the people who are up in the trees. It seems to me if they’ve got guts enough to go live up there — more power to them.”
He stopped for a moment before continuing more emphatically.
“The university should under no conditions harass them and sue them. That’s crazy! Quote me.”