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Spring 2001
The Last Man of Letters
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Johe You did not have to be a student to reap the rewards of John's company. Among those he championed were novelists Alison Lurie and Diane Johnson. Both were faculty wives (Johnson later entered the graduate program) who - bored and lonely - had taken up writing. No one would give them the time of day except John, who listened to their stories, told his own and helped them to begin to become the writers they longed to be. Talk about instincts to lead and to take an interest in his fellows.

And, then, there was my mother. As a pathologically shy graduate student in the early 1960s, she could hardly hold her head up to address her professors. It was John who supported her choice to write her dissertation on the Hollywood novel, though others thought the subject "lacking." "He knew more than anybody else in the department, so all the misfits, the people who fell between two stools, ended up with him [as an adviser]. The thing is, he never said a mean word to anyone, never, in all the years he taught," my mother says.

John had married his college sweetheart, Alice Rideout, in 1938. They had two girls, Alice, born in 1949, and Susan, in 1951. During his wife's long battle with cancer, he became her caretaker and his daughters' protector, though he was never a model of health himself.

In 1974, a year after his wife's death, John Espey would call my mother, beginning what would become a 26-year relationship. During that time, John never stopped encouraging his old student, always supporting her work and making her laugh. One nonfiction book, one memoir and five novels later, my mother can say, without question, that he was the best teacher she ever had. Together with my sister Lisa See, the three collaborated on two historical novels, Lotus Land and 110 Shanghai Road, under the pseudonym Monica Highland. Books they would gleefully call "airport reading for smart people." This time, it was all for fun.

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