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Spring 2001
The Last Man of Letters
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16-year-old John with parentsJohn had an ineffable ability to see the humor in everything, and it served him well. In 1944, Knopf published Minor Heresies, a book of reminiscences of his childhood in Shanghai. Two others quickly followed. Excerpts were printed in The New Yorker, and for good reason. The stories of young John amongst the "heathens," as his parents called the Chinese, were charming, witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. But they were also touching, and even critical, of Christians' belief that they could somehow "civilize" the most civilized of societies, and of naive Americans and their coddled children.

John's favorite stories from the trilogy were reprinted by the University of California Press as Minor Heresies, Major Departures in 1994. At the time, novelist Amy Tan called them "compassionate and yet honestly critical, and always mindful of the ways that human nature both undermines and uplifts us." Still, after all those years.

In many ways, John Espey represented not only the exalted qualities sought after by Cecil John Rhodes, but also those sought after by UCLA and its students. As an institution of higher learning, UCLA could not have hoped for a more enthusiastic educator and autodidact. He spoke of Melvyl and Orion (the two computer systems used to catalog books at the university's libraries) as though they were pals of his: "Well, I sat down with Melvyl, and we found that there are two copies of Double Trouble in the UC system, unfortunately residing for the moment in Irvine and Davis."

Once, as a high school theater student, an assignment required me to find a scene for two women from a Henrik Ibsen play. I didn't want to do the same old A Doll's House (everyone else was doing it), but I couldn't, for the life of me, find anything else. John appeared triumphant one evening, having spent all day in the University Research Library, and pleased as punch. He handed me a copy of Lady Inger of Östrat, an early play of Ibsen's so bad that the playwright himself had tried to prevent its publication. But it had the scene I needed, and I got to wow my teachers with a play they had never heard of. Lady Inger and her fight to save her beloved Östrat became a running joke in our family.

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