Earle Labor: Jack London scholar, Centenary educator, impeccable Gent, irreplaceable pal

LABOR OF LOVE: The young author at his 2003 Centenary graduation with one of his teachers and idols, Dr. Earle Labor.

By MICHAEL MOSLEY, Special to the Journal

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Earle Gene Labor of Shreveport, 94, who was generally accepted as the world’s foremost Jack London scholar, passed away on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. A memorial service will be held at Centenary College’s Brown Chapel, on Woodlawn Avenue, Saturday, Nov. 12, at 11:00 a.m. Michael Mosley was one of the thousands of students grateful for Labor’s impact; here are his recollections.)

Our community lost a wonderful man in Dr. Earle Labor to the ravages of time this past Sept. 15th.

He was foremost an outstanding individual to all that knew him, was internationally recognized for decades as the world’s leading Jack London scholar and served as distinguished curator of the Jack London Museum and Research Center on the beautiful grounds of Centenary College –where he maintained his position of Emeritus Professor of American Literature until retirement.

Dr. Labor taught me freshman English in the Fall of 1991. I’ll always remember the graceful command he had over his classroom. This educator was always on time, and he expected his students to be on time to join him, properly seated, once he clicked the door shut. In my mind’s eye, he dressed as though he followed men’s fashion cues from Dillard’s store mannequins over at Mall St. Vincent. Casually wearing a purple and gold Utah Jazz cap into Jackson Hall was a “no-no” in Dr. Labor’s book.

I gained a private bonus lecture on how to dress properly for his class one morning before it began exactly on time. Stern words from Dr. Labor were not easily forgotten. He had the build and countenance of a drill sergeant. He was the first and only professor who “encouraged” me not to “skip” because I was unprepared on another occasion for his weekly assignment.

Anyone who visited Dr. Labor’s office on the third floor of Jackson Hall will tell you how neat and regal it was to behold. It looked like M’s office in the James Bond movies of yesteryear cinema. Dr. Labor even had a secretary in the manner of Miss Moneypenny, in my friend, Becky Palmer. 

I was rather impressed the first time I stepped into Dr. Labor’s office for a visit by invitation. My eyes danced over the beautiful bookshelves, the rows of first editions higher than the top of my head, and the enlarged framed photo of Jack London behind Dr. Labor, seated at his expansive mahogany desk. It was humbling to be in the presence of true class, but he made you feel warmly received in his Centenary digs. 

Dr. Labor edited volumes of Jack London’s work and skillfully authored Jack London: An American Life, for which he was awarded the Golden Spur in California. I helped Dr. Labor share his award-winning biography with Ken Burns, for which he received a thoughtful reply from the most acclaimed documentary filmmaker alive today. We shared the hope that Mr. Burns would feature Jack London in a documentary to premier on LPB. Mr. Burns certainly has circled the subject with his features on rough and tough Jack Johnson and macho Earnest Hemingway, where London’s influence is documented.

My primary educational focus was film studies in gaining my degree. Dr. Labor was a film buff. And one of his favorite all-time filmmakers was Stanley Kubrick. Cinematic classics like Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, and 2001: A Space Odyssey were among his favorites from Kubrick’s canon. Earlier this year — soon after his 94th birthday in March — I helped Dr. Labor share his Jack London biography with Christiane Kubrick, Stanley’s amazingly gifted artistic widow, for her own 90th birthday in May. Dr. Labor’s book made a long trip across the “big pond” to Childwickbury in St. Albans, England. I thought it special as Mrs. Kubrick’s client to share his book with her as he was four years her senior and shared the same birth year of 1928 with Kubrick, a noted book collector.

One of Dr. Labor’s favorite short stories was The Red One, first published with illustrations in Cosmopolitan back in October 1918. This publication was two years after London’s untimely death on his ranch in 1916. It featured a deliberately buried alien object, an eerie giant red sphere with sonic otherworldly sound emissions, and was ahead of its time as a science-fiction forerunner to the ancient astronaut’s theory in today’s pop culture as promoted by Ancient Aliens.   

For SBJ readers involved in athletics, Dr. Labor was a competitive weightlifter in his youth. He walked away from meets with trophies and press releases. He once (or maybe twice) told me over lunch (a “to-go” from Marilynn’s Place near his home was his favorite place) that when he was a young handsome wunderkind in Dallas, rippling with muscles and brain cells, while dating in rotation a bevy of striking American Airlines stewardesses (another story), that all the young pretty ladies of the Texas skies flattered him with talk that he looked like the masculine screen star Kirk Douglas — but better looking.

Well … I originally thought my dear elderly friend was maybe just a bit kind to himself. But, lo and behold, he shared a decades-old photo of himself slated for his nostalgic early 1950’s memoir, The Far Music.  He indeed favored Kirk Douglas, but was better looking as was the genial boast. Frankly, Dr. Labor once looked like a chiseled Greek god, with a tussle of wavy hair kissed by the sun.

He would sometimes quote baseball’s Dizzy Dean and say to me, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.”

One Earle G. Labor could back it up.

It mattered to him what he ate, how he lifted weights, what he wore, how he kept his office, what he drove, how he kept it nice, where he lived, how he kept it neat, what he read, how he kept his family informed and those relationships happy and thriving, and how he kept his friends and colleagues in want of his company. My pal proudly served his nation in the Navy on international waters and was all man, period. He reflected in his lifetime the grit of America, as did his complex idol, Jack London.

Parents, if you haven’t, please think about reading and encouraging your children to read The Call of The Wild, White Fang, And Other Stories from Penguin Classics with Dr. Labor’s introduction; you can find this $10 paperback at Barnes & Noble.