Retiring? Well, not exactly

After 37 years at Puget Sound, Michael Curley, literary scholar, longtime director of the honors program, and author of four books, including one on Geoffrey of Monmouth, the 12th century historian who is credited with popularizing the King Arthur legend, is retiring. But he wants to make it clear he won’t miss his favorite aspect of teaching—the students—because he’s not giving them up. Not completely.

Taking advantage of a program that allows emeriti professors to continue to teach a course per term, Curley will be back in the classroom next fall, helping a new batch of students discover the likes of Shakespeare and Milton.  

“I don’t think it’s good for anyone to go from working full time to not working at all. To just have the curtain come down and be done would be very difficult for me,” says Curley. “I love the idea of simply teaching. It’s the perfect next step.”

A native of New York, Curley enrolled at Fairfield University, intent on becoming a doctor. “I still love the sciences, but at some point I took a look at my classmates and realized they were far more ambitious and competitive than I cared to be.”

That’s when he heard the classics calling and traded what might have been an M.D. for a master’s from Harvard in 1965 and a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1973.

“Unfortunately, from about 1968 to 1984, there were virtually no jobs in English for Ph.Ds. In fact, most of my classmates went on to law school,” he says.

It’s a career path Curley might also have pursued if Rosemary VanArsdel, then chair of the UPS English department, hadn’t tagged along while her husband attended a medical conference in Chicago.

“She called the University of Chicago and said her department had an opening for a Medievalist,” says Curley. “Someone from the school passed along my name, and we met at the Palmer House the day before she left town. A while later, I came out here and interviewed, and, 37 years later, I still feel damn lucky and enormously grateful, and I thank the goddess Fortuna that things happened the way they did and I got the job.”

During his early years at Puget Sound, the directorship of the honors program was a rotating faculty position. Curley took his turn at the helm and was pleased when, in 1984, the position became permanent and he was asked to fill it. He’s directed the program ever since and is proud of its evolution.

“We had the opportunity to set up a common core curriculum for the honors program,” he says. “It’s something we saw working at other select schools, and it’s been rewarding to put it into place here because it really does optimize our faculty’s talents and expertise.
As curriculum changed, new buildings were constructed, and the university went back to its liberal arts roots, Curley says one thing has remained consistent: the students.

“I always had, and still have, some absolutely fabulous students,” he says. “They’re curious and hardworking and, while the means by which we teach and learn may have changed, the students continue to be engaged.”

He is hoping his new, lighter schedule will allow him more time with his wife, Sandra Plann, and sons, Austin and Brendan. He’s planning to do more research and is traveling to Italy this summer, where he’ll work on a book he’s writing about Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Francesco Tommaso Manzoni. He also wants to get back into running and may return to studying voice, something he gave up years ago.

“I have no doubt I’ll keep busy,” he says. “It’ll be a new kind of busy, but I assure you that I’ll be hard at work next year on my study of Manzoni’s treatise on the Lombards in Italy.” — Mary Boone

You can write Professor Curley at