Phillips Hall — the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center lecture space infamous for early classes and sleeping undergraduates — housed a magical moment this past Saturday. At 7 p.m., the dense space oversaw the unveiling of Cal Poly English professor John Hampsey’s newly published “Kaufman’s Hill,” a memoir revolving around Hampsey’s adolescence from 1961 to 1968 in a Pittsburgh suburb.
Hampsey’s students, family and supporters fidgeted in their chairs, quick to laugh as English professor Kevin Clark, through his east coast accent and white mustache, talked up his colleague.
“’Kaufman’s Hill’ — I think it’s remarkable,” he said. “I’ve been telling John for months now how disappointed I was that it came out after Christmas because I wanted to buy a copy for every friend I had and every family member I had, which I will do next year.”
Hampsey followed the raving introduction by reading two passages from his work, thanking his colleagues and giving some background on the half-novel, half-memoir that he’d spent the past two decades crafting.
And his efforts were evident.
In “Kaufman’s Hill,” Hampsey makes use of a boy’s vocabulary to communicate a brand of nostalgia specific to coming of age in the mid-1960s. He relies largely on imagery and the external aspects of those experiences, meaning he needs to convey emotion through action and physical gestures.
“Big Maury stood perfectly still with his arms crossed in front, like an Indian,” Hampsey read. “The wind gusted suddenly, and I noticed a group of birds settling into the weeping willow tree in the corner. No cars were passing. No one else was around.”
Each line dripped with the compound used to coat, encase and petrify his memories. Hampsey’s words subdued his audience, ensnared in the nostalgic primer.
Following his reading, Hampsey’s audience poured out their inquiries. He candidly answered their questions about the avenues and realizations that brought him to publication.
After a hiatus, a special moment brought Hampsey back to his work.
“My mother died in 2004, and I went back to writing this book then,” he said. “All of a sudden, I knew what I wanted to do. I went way more deeply into my past: things about my father, my family, the problems, the dark days. I never would have done that if she were still alive. So, in a sense, the book is what it is because she died.”
Hampsey also discussed the challenges that came with reaching back to memories over 50 years old and writing from the perspective of the person he was at the time.
“Well, there’s two problems,” he started. “How much do you remember? My family is always saying to me, ‘How do you remember all this?’ I don’t remember dialogue; I remember images. And then the images unpack themselves, but with an intensity and an immediacy that if I wrote it looking back, it would make more sense but it wouldn’t feel the same.”
Hampsey said he struggled to write with the language he used and perspectives he held at previous stages of his life.
The crowd remained respectful and interested in the struggle and vulnerability Hampsey put himself through to create his work. Among the audience were his students.
English senior Jordan Fulmer spoke highly of his professor and his relationship with his students.
“I consider him more than a professor,” Fulmer said. “I consider him a friend. I wouldn’t be a good friend if I wasn’t out here to support him on his day. He’s very humble. He’ll maybe bring it up a couple of times here and there, ‘Oh, this is something I said in my book.’ But only when it’s organic.”
“Kaufman’s Hill” was released in hardcover Feb. 1, but for much of its conception, Hampsey did not have plans to publish it.
“When I wrote this, I didn’t think it would get published,” he said. “So there’s a lot of stuff I put in there that I wouldn’t have if I’d known it would have been published.”
“Kaufman’s Hill” is available to purchase online on Amazon and through its publisher, Bancroft Press.