Closing the Book Kind words as JHU Press chief retires


During his 21 years as director, Jack G. Goellner has shepherded the Johns Hopkins University Press into the upper ranks of scholarly publishers in the United States.

He's published seminal academic works, introduced French +V literary theory to the United States, pioneered a whole series of self-help medical books and championed regional books about the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay.

He's won the acclaim of scholars, critics, incontinent septuagenarians and the families of Alzheimer's victims.

And he's transformed America's oldest university press from a sleepy operation that once published about 25 books and six scholarly journals a year into an academic innovator that will turn out 206 books and 45 scholarly journals this year. Editors who have worked for Mr. Goellner have gone on to run a half-dozen university presses around the country, including those at Harvard, Indiana and Rutgers.

But as Mr. Goellner contemplates his retirement today, he finds his greatest satisfaction came when he rushed a book into the hands of a dying professor. It was the last volume of her life's work.

The publication of philosopher Susanne K. Langer's "magnum opus," "Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling," literally became a race with death. Langer was a distinguished thinker, profiled in the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post in the 1960s. She was not quite 80 when she died in 1989 at her home in Old Lyme, Conn.

"Unfortunately," he says, "and this was so sad, she got too old and too sick before the book was finished. I wanted desperately to get this book into her hands before she died."

As soon as the book came from the bindery, he rushed a copy by special messenger directly to her home. The next day he got a call from her son, Leonard Langer, a New York banking 'D executive.

"He said: 'Jack, you wouldn't believe this. Mother got the book and for the first time in months she got out of bed. She walked out into the garden. She looked around. She smiled.' "

"She lived a few more months before she died," Mr. Goellner says. "You ask about rewards. There's a reward for you!"

'A third of a century'

Today, Mr. Goellner, 64, officially ends nearly 34 years with Hopkins Press. He'll be succeeded by Willis G. Regier, the head of the University of Nebraska Press, who takes charge at the beginning of May.

"I've been here a third of a century," Mr. Goellner says. "And I've never been bored. I've often been tired. I've been exhilarated. I've been discouraged. I've been all those things, but I've never been bored. I never once got up in the morning wishing I didn't have to go to work that day."

He projects a kind of serious affability and ready wit over a couple of hours of conversation in his office in the old church building on North Charles Street that he's had renovated into the press headquarters. He's straightforward and unprepossessing and dispassionately modest about his life and work. He uses the editorial "we" a lot when he talks about the press. He's made great friends over the years, and he's won widespread respect and admiration.

"He's done marvelous things with the press," says Elizabeth Hughes, the executive editor of the papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, which Hopkins has been publishing throughout Mr. Goellner's stewardship.

Each of the 13 volumes published so far runs about 600 pages, Ms. Hughes says, and they're destined for scholarly readers. They don't include the "thank you for the chocolates" notes.

She and her editing team consider Jack Goellner "a good friend."

"He's a skillful administrator and a very witty, charming and warm man," Ms. Hughes says. "It's rare to find someone so

admired as an administrator and so respected in the scholarly community."

'The accidental profession'

Ms. Hughes, Richard A. Macksey, a humanities professor at Hopkins, M. Gordon Wolman, former head of the press' faculty editorial board, and Henry Y. K. Tom, the executive editor, have gotten together to establish the Jack G. Goellner Publishing Fund to support "the innovative publishing that has been the hallmark of Jack's tenure at the press."

Not bad for a man who didn't know a university press from a steam iron when he came to Hopkins from Cleveland in 1961. He started as sales and advertising manager. He became director in 1974.

"Publishing is called the accidental profession," he says. "I never even knew there was such a thing as a university press."

He'd graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and earned a master's degree in English. He'd worked as a reporter and in public relations.

But then he read a book in which a character was the director of the now-defunct Western Reserve University Press in Cleveland.

On a whim, he called up the university and asked to speak to the director of the press.

"The director said: 'I'd love to talk to you but I'm on my way to Paris with the galleys of two books, and I'm going to read them there.' And I was hooked," Mr. Goellner says. "I had this cockamamie vision of university press publishing being Paris, pipe smoke and afternoon sherry, and, of course, it isn't."

He wrote six letters, and got four job offers, including one at Harvard, but at half the salary he was making at public relations. After a certain amount of reticence because of his absolute inexperience, Hopkins hired him as manager of sales and advertising, a job now called marketing.

The rest, if not history, is at least curriculum vitae. But not much pipe smoke or sherry. And he's still trying to get to Paris.

"I never worked so hard in my life," he says. "And at that time the press was very small."

Founded in 1878, Johns Hopkins is America's oldest university press. But in 1961 it was not much different from any other university press, probably right about in the middle in size and standing.

A small operation

All presses were much smaller and a whole lot stuffier, publishing stiffly academic books, written by scholars and read by a half-dozen other scholars.

When Mr. Goellner arrived, he had to organize his office and immediately go on the road selling Johns Hopkins books.

"We had a total staff at the press of 20 persons," he says. "Our annual sales for that year were $150,000."

Today, the Hopkins press is a $13 million operation with 118 employees, selling books worldwide. And probably about sixth or seventh among university publishers, Mr. Goellner says, when you tote up revenues from scholarly books, academic journals, electronic publishing, services for other presses and foreign sales.

"He's made Hopkins one of the most respected presses in the country," says William Sisler, head of the Harvard University Press. Mr. Sisler earned his doctorate at Hopkins and spent 10 years as humanities editor at the Hopkins press.

Mr. Sisler says he's a graduate of the Hopkins farm system, which has produced the heads of about a dozen university publishing operations around the country.

'Consumer health thing'

Always innovative, Mr. Goellner championed medical publishing at Hopkins. People assumed that because of the medical school Hopkins was a medical publisher.

"We weren't," he says. "Whatever few medical books we did were done sporadically, haphazardly. We determined that we would develop a medical publishing program."

Hopkins has published 200 medical books and remains the only university press in America with a medical publishing program.

"And that consumer health thing is a kind of outreach from that," Mr. Goellner says.

The "consumer health thing" produced Hopkins' best-selling book. And it's not "Staying Dry," the self-help book about urinary incontinence that became famous after it was praised in an Ann Landers column.

"Staying Dry" was and remains a big seller -- about 125,000 copies sold so far. But "The 36-Hour Day," by Nancy L. Mace and Peter V. Rabins, which was written for families of people with Alzheimer's disease, is No. 1 with 500,000.

The scholarly monograph, nonetheless, remains Hopkins' basic book.

"But what we're always looking for is a somewhat broader scholarly work," he says. "I've always held up a book that we published by a great Johns Hopkins historian, Frederick Lane, called 'Venice, A Maritime Republic.'

"Here was a scholarly work of monumental, truly monumental, scholarly importance," he says. Hopkins published it in hardback and it did extremely well, reissued in paperback it did better.

"It garnered marvelous reviews in the popular press as well as the scholarly press," Mr. Goellner says. "It was translated into a number of languages. It won prizes for design.

"That's the kind of book that I prize above all others as a university press publisher," he says, "as a kind of model of excellence."

No shame in going regional

In the 1970s, he convinced his editorial board that it would not be undignified to publish regional books.

He worked closely as an editor with Susan Q. Stranahan, a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, on her widely praised "Susquehanna, River of Dreams."

He spent 10 years extracting the wonderful "Birds of the Chesapeake" from Audubonesque painter John Taylor. He helped develop the text, pick the paintings and raise the money needed to publish it at a reasonable price.

"I happen to be an admirer of John Taylor's painting," he says. "This is a purely regional book. But that's just an awfully good book."

Mr. Goellner's work at the press has shaped his life. He lives in Tuscany-Canterbury just north of the Hopkins campus, and he's married to Barbara Lamb, the managing editor of the press. He has four children from his first marriage and four grandchildren.

Though he's treasured his years at the press, Mr. Goellner is looking forward to life after publishing.

He's an outdoorsman who loves trout fishing. He ties his own flies. He knows some good trout streams in Maryland and Pennsylvania and he's going to fish them now.

He's going to try to get to Paris.

And he's going to catch up on his reading.

"All those years I was editor-in-chief, my complaint was I had to read so many bad manuscripts I didn't have time to read good books," he says. "Now I'm going to have time to read."

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