Tony Stafford, Ph.D., professor of English, decided to enter a phased retirement after 55 years at The University of Texas at El Paso. He said the reasons behind his long stay are his love of the region’s people and culture as well as his devotion to the institution and its students. Photo: Laura Trejo / UTEP Communications
For the better part of the past 55 years, Tony Stafford, Ph.D., has spent part of his summers in preparation to teach English courses at The University of Texas at El Paso. He continued that tradition in 2020 although this year’s effort had a COVID-19 twist.
The 84-year-old professor, the longest-tenured faculty member in the history of UTEP’s Department of English, has entered a phased retirement. He did not teach during the spring 2020 semester, so the technology is all new to the professor who relishes face-to-face classes with loads of student interaction. “There’s a lot to know and I’m learning what I can, but it’s a lot to digest.”
Stafford admitted that he was a little uncomfortable with the technology, but the lifelong learner saw it as an opportunity. Part of the reason behind his confidence was his mastery of the subject and his ability to teach.
“I love teaching, working with students,” Stafford said. “That’s where the joy is.”
The longtime educator, who said he plans to separate from the University after the fall 2021 semester, breezed through an hour-long interview where he spoke about himself and his time at UTEP. He handled each question with the patience of a good teacher. His slight accent and easy laugh accentuated the southern charm that stamped his time in El Paso.
Stafford was born in Belmont, North Carolina, about 14 miles east of Charlotte, and raised in a modest farmhouse. Although denied much of a formal education themselves, his loving parents ensured that their children would be educated. Stafford said he initially planned to join the ministry, so he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy with minors in Latin and English literature from Wake Forest University in 1957.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army after college and was stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland. Stafford took a philosophy course at George Washington University, but eventually wound up in a literature class that interested him more. The Army transferred him to Fort Bliss, Texas, a few miles northeast of Texas Western College (TWC), now UTEP. He enrolled at TWC and earned a master’s degree in English after his enlistment ended in 1959.
Stafford’s eagerness and love of learning caught the eye of Joseph Leach, Ph.D., professor of English. Leach contacted the recent graduate, who was teaching Latin at Radford School for Girls and Cathedral High School in El Paso, in 1960 and hired his former student as a teaching assistant.
“I guess he liked what he saw,” Stafford said. “He had faith in me.”
Stafford left TWC to pursue his doctoral studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Leach contacted him again after his final exams but before he started his dissertation and invited him back to teach. The young educator accepted the job, but only planned a brief stay.
“Fifty-five years later, here I am,” Stafford stated with a laugh. He said his decision to stay was based on his love of the region’s people and culture as well as his devotion to the University and its students.
The Work Ethic
Stafford, who became a scholar of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, said he worked hard on his lesson plans because he wanted the best for his students. Initially, he was a strict lecturer, but he soon saw the value in the Socratic method, a form of dialogue where questions are asked and answered to stimulate critical thinking and encourage new ideas.
“You have to engage the student’s brain,” he said. “You have to have them involved. If they are only listening, they’re just absorbing maybe 50%, but when they are having to think with you, you are engaging their brain as well. It’s much more effective.”
The best lesson he learned from a mentor professor was to be super conscientious about everything you do because your work influences young minds. He was taught to take his job seriously, but not himself. The lesson he tried to instill in junior faculty was that students come first and that educators always must strive to do their best.
Through the years, Stafford has served his department in different capacities. He was chair of the English department four times, directed several programs and served on numerous personnel committees. His academic specialties included dramatic literature.
“I think my real legacy is my teaching and my scholarship,” he said. “Teaching was my No. 1 priority. I was devoted to teaching, preparing my classes and developing my scholarship so I would have something to offer my students. You have to keep growing intellectually and scholarship helps you to do that.”
On a personal level, his legacy also includes five children. Each of them became a certified teacher and two of them earned doctorates. He also spoke with pride about his 11 grandchildren.
‘A Remarkable Human Being’
His colleagues and former students spoke highly of him and his abilities. They describe him as smart, helpful, influential and compassionate.
Mimi Gladstein, Ph.D., professor of English, said she was a part-time instructor in the department in the late-’60s when Stafford, then a department chair, encouraged her to earn her doctorate.
She said he was “amazingly productive” because of his work that includes several books to include three novels, scores of scholarly papers, and more than a dozen plays that were produced. She also praised his discipline to remain mentally and physically fit, which inspires others to work harder.
“It’s amazing how he has continued throughout his career to be so productive,” said Gladstein, the next most senior department professor. “It’s publish or perish, and he publishes all the time. He’s a remarkable human being, a remarkable teacher and I will miss him.”
Beth Brunk-Chavez, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s Extended University, was one of Stafford’s former students. She took a graduate course in the early 1990s about Shakespeare’s major plays. She said that Stafford created a learning environment that engaged students and invited them to test ideas and make their own connections to the material.
As she became more interested in a career in the professoriate, she remembered Stafford’s example of someone who balanced research, administrative work and student-centered teaching in a meaningful way.
After she had earned her Ph.D. and worked in higher education for a few years, Brunk-Chavez applied for a job in UTEP’s English department. She said Stafford was chair at the time and enthusiastically invited her back. She added that he took pride in her accomplishments as well as those of all his former students.
“People knew when Dr. Stafford walked in a room because of his energy and delight with interacting with everyone,” Brunk-Chavez said.
Aaron Martinez, a reporter with the El Paso Times, met Stafford around 2010 when he was an undergraduate. He took a few courses with him that covered such authors as Shaw, Shakespeare, John Steinbeck and Eugene O’Neill before he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in print media in 2012.
Martinez said those classes were his favorites as a Miner because Stafford passionately discussed the art of writing and storytelling down to word choice. He said his professor stressed that a simple, meaningful sentence will have a deeper impact than one made up of extravagant words.
“My love for writing, which was already strong, exploded under Dr. Stafford’s tutelage,” Martinez said. He added later, “While journalism is very different from fictional writing, the art of telling a strong story and keeping a reader engaged are the same. I learned from Dr. Stafford the importance of finding deep emotional characters and telling the story of their struggles and pains.”
Stafford will continue to serve students after his retirement through gifts to the University. He established in 2019 the Tony J. Stafford Endowed Scholarship to benefit full-time students who are junior English and American literature majors. At the same time, he arranged to donate his condominium to the University upon his death. The plan is to sell the property and use the proceeds to fund a departmental professorship.
“We all have to give back,” Stafford said.
In retirement, he has three goals: to read, write and run.
He is an avid morning runner who has used many trails around the El Paso community for more than 50 years as a way to combat a sedentary lifestyle. Some of his current favorite routes are in-and-around El Paso’s Kern Place neighborhood.
He plans to write what would be his fourth novel that will be based loosely on his father’s family who started as humble dirt farmers. His father eventually became a successful businessman despite only having a grade-school education. He also has plans to write similar books about his mother’s family, the English department and about the history of UTEP.
“I’ve got plenty to keep me busy,” he said.
A visitor once asked the Shakespearean scholar if there was one quote from the bard that summed up the educator’s life. Stafford said he would need time to consider his response and promised an answer. He kept his promise with a line from “Hamlet.”
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.”