James Langmesser is a proud alumnus of the UM English Department. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, Langmesser is retired at 72 years old and resides in Woodbridge, Virginia. He worked in the Army Signal Corps and later worked for Calibre Systems in Virginia. In this interview with our intern, Sarah Liese, he explains how his degree in English influenced his career and more importantly, how it shaped his life.
Sarah: Give me a job description of what you used to.
James: When I graduated, I had a ROTC scholarship. Therefore, I was committed to four years in the army. During that time, I decided to make that a career. When I made that decision, I was put into the Army Signal Corps, which I served for 25 years total ‘til 1994. Shortly before I retired, I was contacted by someone whom—as someone in the military you meet people—and I transitioned to a small information technology company (Calibre Systems) in the area here. I stayed with it for 17 years. It started out very, very small, and when I retired, it was a very, very big company. I retired as a director on the 31st of March 2011. I’ve been retired ever since.
S: So how has your English major helped you in any of these jobs?
J: Due to the excellent teachers and professors I had, it enabled me to virtually experience all kinds of relationships and see how people behaved and experience lives that you would have never encountered on your own. If I would have majored in Algebra, I would not have met some of these people like the Snope in some of Faulkner’s books.
The Army War College is as a program of intensive training in how to read and write. They would give you a paper to write, and they would give you something like 25 references knowing full and well that there’s no way you could have read all those books. So, if you hadn’t been trained in how to write a term paper, you would’ve been out to sea. And in the two years that I was at the War College, I never had a paper turned back. I never found it overly difficult.
Any company wanting to do business with the federal government has to go through the federal acquisition cycle. There’s a very set series of laws, but the way it works is the government makes an announcement and says, “We would like to have somebody make us a proposal on how they would do this. Here’s our problem. Here’s what we want, and you need to come back to us and tell us how you’re going to do it. You need to tell us what your previous experience as a company is, and you need to tell us something about the people whom you were going to assign to this project. Then, you need to come with another package and show us how much you’re going to charge us for this.”
Well the first part, doesn’t that sound a lot like writing? But, that’s the dirty little secret; no company gets work with the federal government unless they go through that process and write proposals. And if you’re a contractor, that is the most difficult and grinding experience. That’s the only way I can characterize it, and that’s what I did for many years.
So yes, that knowledge of English underpinned my entire career in the military and my entire career in the commercial sector. There was no thought of teaching English, but boy you certainly had to use it.
S: You kind of touched on it, but how has an English degree shaped you and your character?
J: It’s like food. What you eat does affect how your body looks, right? Well, what you read does affect how you think. It shapes the way you think. It shapes the way you analyze things. It shapes the way you look at things, and it can’t help but cause you to react differently than you would if you hadn’t been exposed to these things to a degree.
S: Let’s say you are talking to a college student who wants to pursue a degree in English, but their parents think another degree would be more practical. What would you tell them?
J: I didn’t have to experience that because my mother and father didn’t go to college. My mother understood its importance, but there was absolutely no pressure.
In fact, I can vividly remember the first semester my freshman year. I brought home the honor roll, and I showed it to my father. He looked at it and said, “Let’s be clear. This is important for you. If you fail out, you’re the one that must go to work. So, you need to be motivated.”
Another point is if we say, someone is questioning what to do and should they major in English. Let’s get that out of the way, you’re not selecting English because that’s another way of saying, “I want to be a teacher.” There’s nothing that says, “If you are an English major, you can’t go to law school.” So, I would say that you need to do a bit of introspection and see what makes you happy.
S: What advice would you give to your former college self? It can be about your English major or just about life in general.
J: So, I look back on it, and I would say, “You had…you were able to make the right decisions. The education you got majoring in English and the individuals you met enabled you to have the judgment and to make the subsequent crucial decisions in your life.” It gave me the tools set to make the decisions and build the subsequent career that I did.
S: What is your all-time favorite book?
J: I would say The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon.
S: Is there a particular reason why?
J: Yes, the sonorous English is absolutely hypnotic. His turn of phrase is just brilliant. The theme of what he writes is just splendid.
There have been many other favorite books of mine, but that one… that… let’s say is my all-time favorite. It was one that really impressed me. It was written in the 18th century, so we’re talking no electricity. This guy is writing by candles, and when you look at the breadth of resources he had to consult—no internet—you just shake your head.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.