John Ashmead Jr., Inspiring Professor, Master Of Many Arts

Posted: February 11, 1992

John Ashmead Jr., 74, an inspired and inspiring professor of English and film at Haverford College for 41 years and a lecturer who could charm audiences from Shipley School to Osaka, Japan, died Friday at Bryn Mawr Hospital.

A very busy and successful scholar, Dr. Ashmead wrote two novels, won three Fulbrights to teach in Greece, Japan and India, developed computer programs to analyze poetry and made - and played - his own harpsichords and other instruments.

Yet he was proudest, perhaps, of having been in a small way responsible for the death of the man who planned the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto.

He didn't pull the trigger, of course. He was an interpreter with U.S. Naval Intelligence during World War II and was able to get captured Japanese fliers to reveal - not the admiral's itinerary - but simply that the admiral was a punctual man.

That information enabled Navy fliers to ambush the admiral's plane over Shortland Island in the Solomons on April 18, 1943, and to shoot him down.


It was a story he loved to tell to family and friends. He was a born storyteller, reveled in being center stage and could spellbind his audience once he got its attention.

Listeners couldn't take all his stories at face value. "He had a way of embellishing things to put them in their best light," said his son, Graham Gaylord Ashmead.

"After a couple of glasses of sherry, he thought the name 'Ashmead' initially came from 'Akmed' and that the family was entitled to wear a green turban as a descendant of the prophet (Muhammad)," he said.

Students at Haverford, where he taught English, creative writing and film

from 1947 to 1988, crammed his classrooms. A demanding professor, he gave stiff exams and assigned tough papers early in the semester to purge his class of slouches. But when they dropped out, their places were immediately filled by others.

"His classes kept getting bigger and bigger," said his son. "Some of his last enrollments were over 100."

"He was a tousle-haired, ruffled, inspired teacher," said Alan Armstrong, a banker and lawyer from the Haverford Class of '61. "He gave some of the most inspired readings and lectures about Melville and Hawthorne and the New England School I ever encountered."

He was also a great tease. Armstrong said his older brother once turned in a science-fiction story for a creative writing assignment for Dr. Ashmead. His grade was left in his mailbox - marked on a ray gun.


Students honored him by collecting many of his more trenchant sayings, which they scribbled on walls and called Ashmead's Laws. For example: "90 percent of your time is spent preparing to pick up crap, shoveling crap from one pile to another and putting crap down."

He once said that the only time his students got the marks they deserved was when a pet cat mistook his desk - covered with his students' papers - for

kitty litter.

In school skits, students poked fun at his dress - his tam-o'-shanter, scarf, wool coat, plaid pants. One thing was certain - nothing would match.

Living with Dr. Ashmead was clearly not as much fun as having him for a teacher.

"He was cantankerous and difficult," said his daughter, Theodora Wheeler Ashmead. "He was very single-minded and independent and spoke his mind, and was very sure of himself. . . . He listened, but he had very strong opinions and could articulate himself masterfully."

He was "so darn smart," arguing against him was like arguing with a steamroller, she said.

But family members said he had "mellowed" during the last three years as he battled lymphoma. He had taken great joy in the birth of his granddaughter, Alexandra, and had made peace with most of his children.

He was born in New York City and attended Loomis Institute in Windsor, Conn. He earned his bachelor's (1938), master's (1939) and Ph.D. (1950) degrees from Harvard University.

While in college, he worked as a reporter and music critic at the Hartford Times, family members said. He told them that to make deadlines, he used to write the review beforehand, leaving blanks for adjectives. After the concert, he filled in the words and filed his story.

His stint in the Navy intelligence fueled his fascination with East Asia and he did his doctoral dissertation on Japan. He returned to Japan in 1955 as a Fulbright lecturer in American Studies at Osaka University.

Throughout his career, he also taught or lectured at schools in India, Taiwan, Korea, Burma, Cambodia, Greece, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia.


He wrote dozens of articles, an English textbook and two novels, The Mountain and the Feather and All Who Sleep on Brambles.

His first novel, a satirical war story set in the Pacific and Japan during World War II, was praised by the New York Times as "one of the four brilliant first novels of 1961."

He was active in the Franklin Inn, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Historical Society, the International House of Japan Inc., and the 18th Century Scottish Studies Society.

After retiring from teaching in 1988, he co-edited The Songs of Robert Burns with John Davison. The songs have been presented in concert and on public television by the authors and soprano soloist Shoshanna Shay.

Dr. Ashmead was a fine figure skater; a Phi Beta Kappa; a ballroom dancer; a maker and player of harpsichords, clavichords, mountain dulcimers, harps and other instruments; a bibliophile; a cook (who convinced his friends that Scottish and French cooking were quite similar), and a devoted opera- and theater-goer.

His survivors, in addition to his son and daughter, include his former wife, Ann Harnwell Ashmead; two other sons, John 3d and Gaylord H.; another daughter, Louisa H.; a granddaughter, and two sisters.

A memorial service will be held Feb. 29 at 2 p.m. at the Haverford Friends Meeting, 855 Buck Lane, Haverford.

Contributions may be made to the library of Haverford College.

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