English literature professor known for more than his fezzes

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From his attire to the way he handles himself inside and outside of the classroom, Alan Altimont is one of the last of a dying breed of Renaissance professors that still teach at St. Edward’s University.

Altimont, the associate professor of English literature, has taught at St. Edward’s for almost 30 years, teaching classes that focus on poetry, modern American poetry; theater, Shakespeare’s comedies and histories; and occasionally literature, British literature.

“Poetry is maybe the hardest sell right now, but I think it’s always been that way. It used to be a language for the elites to speak to each other about how wonderful they were like court poets at the time of Henry the 8th,” Altimont said.

Shelly Lieber, who is currently taking modern American poetry with Altimont, said that a class with Altimont is a unique experience.

“Professor Altimont is someone who is very passionate about what he teaches. He has a lot of background knowledge of the poets we study which gives us a more in depth understanding,” Lieber said. “He also makes his lectures entertaining by using comedy or just by the tone he uses when reading different author’s works.”

Something that Altimont is known for on campus are his hats. He has a lot of hats. These hats are something creative writing professor Mary Helen Specht is all too familiar with.

“At my first faculty meeting as a newly hired professor, someone slipped me a penciled note with a list of colors on it and the request to choose one,” Specht said. “It turned out that Professor Altimont was trying to find out what color I wanted for my fez.” 

Every member of the creative writing faculty has a fez thanks to Altimont.

The Formative Years of Alan Altimont

Altimont has not always been a fez wearing, learned man of the arts. In his youth, he was a different person entirely.

He started playing offensive guard at Georgetown University in 1975. It was a division three university for sports at the time, so there were no scholarship players.

“It was just people who did it because they where nuts, basically,” Altimont said. “It’s funny because I think about that time in my life pretty frequently, but it’s mostly just thinking…Why did I do that?”

One reason was because Altimont was trying to avoid getting drafted into the military. He is thankful, though, that the war ended later during his freshmen year. Another reason?

“I think it might’ve had something to do with proving my manhood and stuff like that. I guess I was trying to be all macho,” Altimont said.

Even though Altimont did not continue to play football after his freshman year, he loved the camaraderie and playing with many Vietnam vets. 

“I was this little kid, right out of high school, and these where guys who had been patrolling in the jungle, they had killed people, they themselves had almost been killed,” Altimont said. 

His freshman year was the same time that poetry caught his eye.

“I went into an auditorium at Georgetown and there’s like 50 people sitting in there, and this man comes walking down the center aisle and he just starts reciting poetry,” Altimont said. “He recited a poem and said: ‘That’s by James Wright. Now I’m going to say one by Yeats.’ And he stood in front of us and did this for about half an hour.”

Altimont wanted more, and he was inspired by someone with so much poetry literally at the tip of their tongue. He knew then what he wanted to do. Altimont has his bachelor’s degree and doctorate in English literature.  

Changing Times

In recent years, the influx of new colleagues has changed how Altimont handles some aspects of his job.

“I’m still a member of the creative writing faculty,” Altimont said. “But I’m sort of taking a backseat to more accomplished rhetors like Carrie Fountain and Mary Helen Specht.”

That said, Altimont has received notable acclaim as an artist and had his own poems “FishTail” and “Hometown Skyline” featured in the Texas Observer.

To students and coworkers in the creative writing department, it’s his charm, his wisdom and his fezzes that make Altimont such a valuable member on campus.

“He’s one of those people that sees learning as a life long process,” Specht said. “He’s [also] one of the few Renaissance professors left on campus, which is really too bad.”