by Henry Mann
Sitting across from him in the dark, dingy bar, I couldn’t help but smile as the renowned poet, writer and professor sipped a mug of Labatt’s Blue, touting that Clancy’s sells the best wings in town.
From observing Dr. David Petreman or hearing of his classes, you may be inclined to box him into the stereotypical image of a college professor. Underneath the tweed suit and thick moustache, however, lies the incredibly fascinating story of a man whose path to teaching and writing has taken several unexpected twists and rewarding turns.
With an ironic smile, Petreman confesses the one thing he knew upon graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University with a Bachelors of Arts in Spanish was he did not want to teach. He entered the Masters of Arts program at the University of Iowa, pursuing literature as all great poets do and Spanish as only the best can.
The first curve in the winding road came when Petreman was offered a teaching assignment on his first day of class. “Teaching college freshman! Imagine that—no education courses, no experience, and I took it.” After a few weeks, he knew he had found his calling to teach.
After a year into graduate school, however, the Department of Defense (DoD) interrupted with their call. “I was dragged out of graduate school the very year the DoD decided to end graduate school deferments.” The U.S. policy of sending its best and brightest to the front lines halted Petreman’s literary pursuits and landed him in basic training with orders to report to Fort Benning, Virginia, with a next-stop ticket to Vietnam.
By another twist of fate, good fortune and a frightening ride toward potential desertion, Petreman was transferred at the last minute to Washington, D.C. with orders to work in the library of the Inter-American Defense College (IADC). As it turns out, the IADC offered 9-month courses to military officers from the U.S. and Latin American countries.
As Petreman told it, “I happened to be the only member of the U.S. Army that spoke Spanish with a college degree.” With such a background, he was given the job of scouring the IADC library and compiling the reading list for the officers enrolled. “The course consisted of classes in military strategy, economics, social movements and geography of the Western Hemisphere.”
The program was not a brainwashing mission concocted by the U.S. to infiltrate Latin American governments. Rather, Petreman explained that the IADC offered U.S. military officers the opportunity to rub elbows with the military officers that were moving up the ranks in Latin American countries. “Essentially, we were getting to know the potential military dictators that the U.S. officers may come across in the future.”
Working “the cushiest job possible” while still a member of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, Petreman looks back on his time in D.C. as an “enriching experience.” He was given the opportunity to travel to Central America with the military as a translator. He met several influential people, including Efraín Ríos Montt, the future leader of one of the most atrocious genocides against the Mayan Indians in Guatemala. He forged friendships with co-workers that lasted a lifetime and, most importantly, practiced his Spanish with speakers from a variety of Latin American countries. “It became so that if I was in a room and heard someone speaking Spanish as they walked down the hallway, I could quickly identify the speaker’s country of origin.”
Two years to the day after Petreman was drafted into the Army, he was released with $400 severance pay, a half-finished graduate degree and no hope of finding meaningful employment in a deteriorating economy. After stumbling around, Petreman eventually returned to the University of Iowa to finish up his Masters of Arts and Ph.D. in Spanish literature.
He constructed his dissertation around the works of the most widely-read Chilean author of the time, Francisco Coloane. While finishing his dissertation, Petreman found work as a professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. By the time he finished, Petreman had the makings of his first book, La obra narrativa de Francisco Coloane. The advisor for Petreman’s dissertation recommended he contact Coloane, and in 1981 Petreman began a 20-year correspondence with the poet.
Coloane responded to Petreman’s message and quickly invited him to visit him and his wife in Chile. Due to his friendship and honorary adoption by the Chilean author, Petreman gained access to the most highly-regarded literary circles and writers of Chile. “I truly believe that it was my destiny to go to Chile. This was the greatest friendship of my life.”
Following his time at Wake Forest, Petreman secured a position as a professor in the Modern Languages Department at Wright State. “I love the honesty of the Midwest, the feel of a state school and the diversity found at Wright State.” Petreman is a profound and knowledgeable force in the classroom with an inherent passion for teaching.
When asked what he wants his students to gain from his classes, Petreman said, “I want my students to understand that people live in vastly different ways than us.” According to him, Latin Americans define the world on “human terms” and find beauty in simple living. “Ultimately,” said Petreman, “I desire to instill a similar appreciation in my students.”
After twelve visits to Chile, countless literary publications and 30 years at Wright State University, Petreman has become the man that sat before me at Clancy’s. He is an expert on Chilean literature, Latin American culture and the Spanish language and is here to teach.