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Longtime professor remembered for his wit, commitment to teaching

May 27, 2010
Max Autrey, professor emeritus of English who taught literature at Drake University from 1960 until his retirement in 1992, recently died at age 81 in Des Moines.

After joining Drake in 1960, Autrey was tenured and promoted to associate professor in 1967 and professor in 1972. He also served as director of English education, freshman composition and graduate studies in the English department at Drake.

"Professor Autrey was a very conscientious faculty member -- he worked hard and he was always available to students," said Bruce Martin, professor emeritus of English and one of Autrey's former colleagues.

Drake alumna Dale Norris, professor of English at Des Moines Area Community College, said Autrey was her mentor and teacher for eight years. "I went to him for advice a lot, and his door was always open. He was always very accessible to his students. He was a quiet, introverted person, but in the classroom he displayed an amazing knowledge of literature."

Autrey's published work includes a number of articles on 18th century women's social history and American writers such as Poe, Hawthorne, Crane and Steinbeck. He also served as editor of the Drake Faculty Manual -- one of the University's accreditation reports to North Central Association -- and the Iowa State Drivers License Manual.

"Beyond his knowledge of literature, he had a passion for the material -- he loved it," Norris added. "When a teacher loves the material, it rubs off on the students. It definitely rubbed off on me -- I've been a teacher for 36 years and I think the teacher I am is because of him."

Well-known for his sharp wit, Autrey frequently engaged his colleagues in discussions about teaching and research.

"Max was a sweet, gentle and articulate man," said Drake Professor of English Jody Swilky. "He had a biting sense of humor and he was just a very warm, open and encouraging soul."

Martin also said Autrey was "very good company" and noted that Autrey held regular social gatherings for friends and colleagues at his apartment near campus.

Autrey made a positive impact on many, including Barbara and Norman Hane, who now live in Oak Park, Ill. Barbara was a student of Autrey's in the 1960s while Norman, Drake professor emeritus of English, worked alongside Autrey in the English department.

"He was there when I came to Drake in 1968," Norman recalled. "For some years, I had an office next door to him, and he was always very kind and understanding."

Barbara said Autrey was "a total professional and totally dedicated. He was a demanding teacher and he expected you to know what you were supposed to know. He was a wonderful guy -- a gentleman. I liked him immensely."

Autrey earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in English education from Indiana State University and a Ph.D. from Wayne State University in Detroit after teaching high school for four years in Michigan.

Autrey is survived by his brothers, Ray and Bill, and his sister, Martha Helms, all of Indiana.

Per Autrey's wishes, he was cremated and no services were held.

Online condolences may be posted on the Web site for the Lester Jenkins and Sons Funeral Home in Bloomfield, Ind.