The brief Facebook description says, “Russell Long, Writer.” So, which does he prefer, to be Dr. Russell Long, the writer, or Dr. Russell Long, former president of West Texas A&M?
“Right now, I guess, writer,” Long said. “‘Former college president’ makes it sound like I was over the hill a long time ago.”
Long was president of WT from 1994 to 2005, a time in which WT’s enrollment increased 10 percent, there were $92 million in campus improvements and 18 new academic programs were added. A street — Russell Long Boulevard — borders the north end of campus.
“I took great pleasure in my work at the university,” he said, “and I think I did some pretty good things. Absolutely I made some mistakes too, but that’s the nature of life.”
Ah yes, the nature of life. Different seasons, different chapters of life, the ups and downs of life that are often the consequences of our decisions. In a way, that may account for where Long is now — as a published author.
He has returned a bit to his roots and first love as a long-ago English professor. Combine that with the reflective view afforded in retirement and he completed his first fictional book, “An Unexamined Life,” of which there was the first of several launch parties last Thursday evening.
It was almost a crucible for Long, who began starting on this book about a month after he retired. It took him five months or so to finish the first draft. Let it rest, reworked it. Let it rest some more, reworked it again.
Then about a year ago, he was asked to join a critique group of local authors who would meet once a week to provide feedback on their current work. They would look at 6 to 10 pages of Long’s budding book at each meeting.
“It was incredibly valuable,” Long said. “We read the pages out loud, and then go through and make suggestions, comments and criticisms. It’s a different process when someone reads what you’ve written. Sometimes, I just cringed.”
No need to do that. “An Unexamined Life” is a page-turner. At a crisp 237 pages, I’m about halfway through and only started it Sunday night.
The book traces the life of Neal Landrum, a well-to-do New York executive who gets the jarring news of a terminal illness. He spends his last healthy months retracing his oft-dysfunctional life, taking him to, among other places, the Texas Panhandle, where he grew up in a peculiar family. Through that, he sees his life’s journey for the first time.
No, it’s not autobiographical. Long’s been asked that. But if there is common ground, it’s one man knowing his life will soon end and an author whose professional career has since ended.
“I guess anytime a person of a certain age starts to look back on his life, he thinks about decisions he made and the road he might have taken or the road he did,” Long said. “I don’t think that’s uncommon, but it’s not autobiographical in a true sense. It’s totally fictional except for the places.”
Long took numerous career roads after he left Van Horn, his hometown 120 miles southeast of El Paso. He thought he wanted to be an engineer because he saw in construction work they made all the decisions and made the money. Long didn’t like engineering, and switched to what he really liked — English.
He spent an early academic career as an English Lit professor and later as head of the department of English at Tarleton State.
“Teaching is a very creative thing that I enjoyed a great deal,” Long said. “You don’t major in ‘college presidency.’ I never said when I was 30 years old that I wanted to be a college president. For me, it was just one of those things that happens one step at a time.”
If there is a message to “An Unexamined Life,” Long said, it’s that it’s easier to react to life than to act on life.
“It’s to take the path not necessarily of least resistance,” he said, “but to take what we think is the right path at the time.”
Long actually has a couple more books that he’s more or less finished. One is a sequel, and he’s still trying to improve the first one. In the meantime, he’s said goodbye to Neal Landrum, old girlfriend Joan, his brother Joe and a few others.
“You get to the point where these fictional characters become real to you,” Long said, “and you start to dream about them, It’s an odd kind of thing.
“I knew when I decided Neal had a year to live that I pretty well took care of the ending in one way, but what the circumstances would be to get there I had no idea when I started.”
Jon Mark Beilue is an AGN Media columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 806-345-3318. Twitter: @jonmarkbeilue.