"This fight is not yours, nor is it up to any man except me to measure his strength against the monster or to prove his worth. I shall win the gold by my courage, or else mortal combat, doom of battle, will bear your lord away."
Excerpt from Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney
The ancient warrior Beowulf was hardly more embattled than Northern State University student James Nolan, who - despite three heart attacks, single fatherhood and a full-time night job - fought his way to success as a 2014 Dr. Russell Brock Memorial Scholarship Award winner.
The award for superior non-technical student writing was given for Nolan’s paper on Beowulf - the title character of an ancient Germanic tale - who slays monsters, is made king, and finally dies after fighting a dragon.
“It’s filled with the honor and glory of battle,” Nolan said.
In the paper, written for Dr. Peter Ramey’s British Literature class, Nolan asserted that Christians lent their own interpretation to the tale to help spread their faith, crediting the warrior’s victories to power gained through God.
“Other papers used Beowulf as their Jesus Christ,” Nolan said. “I couldn’t buy into that. The ancient pagans didn’t know Jesus – the New Testament was beyond them; they weren’t going to relate to Him very well. But [Christian missionaries] took a hero of their time and spiced it up with Christian aspects.”
Nolan, 44, is part-time history major and political science minor at Northern by day; security guard by night. His daughters, ages 15 and 13, attend Aberdeen schools.
Nolan worked construction jobs until health problems forced him to seek a less strenuous career. His first heart attack hit in 2008, and was followed by one in January 2013 and yet another in May 2013. Subsequent tests indicated liver and knee problems, a blood-clotting disorder and diabetes.
During vocational rehabilitation, Nolan’s aptitude test scores led to his eventual enrollment at Northern.
“If everything works out, I’ll graduate May 2015,” said Nolan, who hopes to work in a museum in a research/archiving position.
Having been away from school for 20 years, Nolan found his academic skills lacking, but revitalized them through Northern’s Student Success Center. Nolan said he especially benefited from his time in the Writing Center with center director Vicki Evans, who also helped him make final corrections to the winning paper.
“I’ve never been good at grammar,” Nolan said, “but I could write; I had the ideas. They would come out great. I just needed the grammar and punctuation work.”
“It's been such a pleasure to watch his skills grow, along with his confidence,” Evans said in an email. “He's become a strong, creative writer, and I'm so proud of his accomplishments.”
Nolan carries a B average - although, he says, his daughters accuse him of never doing homework. “Imagine what my grades would be if I did,” he said. “But when you’re a single dad and working, you don’t have a lot of time to do a lot of extra things on your homework.”
That didn’t stop Nolan, who spent nine straight hours immersed in monsters, warriors and glorious battles as he wrote his first draft.
“This is the best paper I ever wrote,” he said.
Ramey emphatically agrees with Nolan’s assessment.
“What impressed me about James was the miraculous transformation that I saw occur in his writing over the semester,” Ramey said in an email. “He really struggled with his first writing assignment, but by the final paper, he had ‘got it’ - he had formulated a rich and original idea about the story of Beowulf, and out of that idea he crafted a fine and scholarly research paper.
“As I held the final draft in hand, I was blown away by the transformation of this student. His accomplishment in winning the paper award is a true testament to James' grit and determination. Despite crippling health problems during the course, he soldiered on and wrote a paper to make us all proud.”
Nolan credits his daughters for their support of his work at Northern. His academic success also is fueled by a near-perfect memory for facts, which has resulted in what he calls a “head full of useless knowledge.” “If I hear something interesting, I never forget it. I don’t want to know [all those facts]; they’re just stuck in my head.”
Nolan has encouraged his daughters and his friends to attend Northern, which he calls “a great school.” A point in Northern’s favor, he jokes, is that he was admitted despite his age and infirmities.
“They let this ancient dinosaur walk in here,” he said.
Photo: Nolan (left), and Ramey at the scholarship awards ceremony