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Students see St. Paul through the eyes of an American icon

| Judy Berthiaume

Dressed for a night on the town in the roaring '20s, UW-Eau Claire English students stroll through St. Paul on a sunny fall afternoon, visiting the historic buildings and neighborhoods often associated with F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American novelist best known as the author of "The Great Gatsby."

The Blugolds — all students in an English theory and criticism class taught by English Professor Dr. Joel Pace — begin their tour at the historic Commodore Hotel, where Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, lived for a couple of years in the 1920s, and where he is believed to have begun writing what later became his most famous work.

At the hotel, students get a peek at the newly renovated lobby and ballroom, which soon will open to the public as a restaurant. They also hear from Dave Page, author of "F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: Toward the Summit," about the many ways Fitzgerald's experiences in St. Paul made their way into his literary works.

They continue their tour, visiting St. Paul places and neighborhoods that are connected to Fitzgerald, with Pace and other experts giving mini-lectures at each stop along the way.

Eventually, as their day nears an end, they head to the Grand Ole Creamery, where the students announce as they walk in that they're time travelers visiting from the 1920s.

As they wait for their food, a customer slips a note into Pace's hand, telling him to "take this back in time with you, trust me."

The paper advises the "time travelers" that the stock market will crash in 1929, but be sure to tell your grandkids to invest in Microsoft, Apple and Google and all will be fine.

An entertaining end to an educational day that marked the beginning of the English theory and criticism class' examination of "The Great Gatsby."

"Our examination as a class of 'Gatsby' began with the walking tour around Fitzgerald's haunts, exploring a constellation of historic buildings and neighborhoods that shine throughout his fiction from his first publication to his last," Pace says. "I also lectured to the students about the influence of jazz music on Fitzgerald, especially the influence of Rondo, St. Paul's historic African American community, on his 'Jazz Age' novels and short stories."

The hands-on, creative way to kick off the Gatsby coursework in their English theory and criticism class was a hit with his students.

"I absolutely loved the walking tour," says Page Wilson, a senior English education major. "Even though I'm from St. Paul, I had never seen the sights that he brought us to up close. One of the highlights was definitely going inside the University Club on Ramsey Hill. It has such a history and it was amazing to see some of Fitzgerald's hang out spots. Most fun were the stories we heard concerning Fitzgerald's past and inspiration for stories."

Exploring the St. Paul sites and hearing from experts who could share information and stories about Fitzgerald's time there brought the coursework to life, and helped students connect with Fitzgerald in a way they would not have through a more traditional classroom introduction to his works, says Wilson.

And dressing in the 1920s garb was a bonus, Wilson says.

"He had us dress up for our field trip and I wouldn't have expected anything less from him," Wilson says. "His eclecticism shines through when he's as passionate about something as he is about Gatsby. Our attire really helped our class travel back in time to a different era.

"As we walked along Summit Avenue towards the University Club on Ramsey Hill, it was easy to see how enrapturing the time period would be. Everything was grand back then, and dressing up help us shed some light upon how fabulous it felt to be a part of the age of prohibition."

Pace weaves his passion for Fitzgerald's writing and his interest in the novelist's life in St. Paul into his personal and professional lives.

The professor lives in St. Paul at the Commodore Hotel, upstairs in what now are condos, and this fall his band, Irie Sol, hosted their album-release party at the historic venue on the author's birthday.

His scholarly work, as well as his teaching and performing, also reflect his expertise on F. Scott Fitzgerald's life and literary works.

"This past year I delivered a public lecture and a concert in St. Paul on 'Jazz in Gatsby,' and I spoke on this topic at an international conference in England," Pace says. "I also manage to sneak works by Fitzgerald into my class whenever possible."

Pace's expertise and his passion for what he teaches is inspiring and motivating, Wilson says.

"This is my third course with Pace and each one gets better and better," Wilson says of the theory and criticism class she's taking this semester. "I absolutely love having him as a professor because he pushes his students to their full potential. He knows we can do better and he strives to guide us there."

Photo credit: Lisa Venticinque