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ST. MARYS — At as young as 5-years-old, Gabriel Rieger was already tackling the literature of Edgar Allan Poe as a way to spend time with his father.
“I had this thing about monster movies and ghosts and horror stories — I was just fascinated with that kind of thing,” Rieger said. “So, my father thought he’d try to find something to do with me a little bit more, so he went to the St. Marys Public Library and borrowed a collected works of Edgar Allan Poe and he used to read that to me in the mornings before he would go to work and I would go to school. He’d sit there in his big, overstuffed chair, and he’d read through it and ask me after a few sentences or a paragraph and he’d ask me what I thought about it or he’d try to help me through some of the more challenging language. It just went from there. It became a ritual for us. I’m very grateful for that.”
Now a professor teaching Renaissance literature at Concord University in Athens, W. Va., Rieger said the reading was challenging — he read a variety of literature with his father, including Shakespeare — he enjoyed the time he was able to spend with his father and felt literature was fun.
“It was challenging, but it was also fun, and I think that’s what was key to it,” he said. “I took to it, in part, because he made it fun. I enjoyed having the chance to talk to him about it, and I enjoyed having the chance to exchange ideas with him. I think that’s part of what I found so rewarding. I came to associate reading literature and engaging in literature with the time I spent with him.”
As a freshman at Memorial High School, Rieger played the role of Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet.”
He noted the course, along with all of his English classes in high school, was rewarding and said he was grateful to have had such a good group of English teachers.
Despite his high regard for literature, Rieger pursued politics in college, and he said he never thought about a career with literature until his sophomore year.
“When I got to college, I actually started out as a political science major,” he said. “My sophomore year, I took a course on Shakespeare, and it was an extremely challenging course. It was a fun course, but I was really sweating it.”
When he got his midterm back, he was surprised to find he did well.
“I had no idea how I had done on this thing — I was pretty apprehensive about it,” Rieger said. “I found out I had done well on the midterm, and then I found out subsequently that I was the only A on the midterm and one of only four students in the class that passed it. That was the first time it occurred to me that maybe this was something that I could do — in addition to being fun, maybe this was something that I might be good at.”
With the top score in the class, Rieger’s peers were coming to him for help.
“People were asking me to be in their study groups, which had not really happened to me before, and it changed the whole trajectory of my college education,” Rieger said. “Shortly thereafter, I ended up switching my major to English.”
With his new focus, Rieger went on to graduate school to study 20th century American literature, but switched his focus to Renaissance literature after taking a seminar on Renaissance drama.
“When I really read some of the stuff — not just from Shakespeare, but some of his fellow playwrights — I knew there was nothing else that I wanted to study,” he said. “Nothing else excited me in the same way. Nothing else was as interesting or compelling to me as that was.”
After graduating, Rieger took a one-year position at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, and while he said he enjoyed his time at the college, he knew the contract was only for a year. After interviewing and visiting the campus in Athens, W. Va., Rieger accepted a position at Concord University to teach Renaissance literature, a job he said he is “blessed” to have.
“I enjoy it very much,” he said of his current position. “I feel very blessed to have the opportunities that this job has given me.”
Since his arrival at Concord University, Rieger has earned a few accolades.
“I received a university fellowship for an article I wrote on ‘Measure for Measure,’” he said. “Then I received the Innovation Grant for the Shakespeare festival that I’ve put together down here, it’s called the Appalachian Shakespeare Project.”
The Appalachian Shakespeare Project, he said, is a project he organized to bring the works of Shakespeare to the community.
“It’s a festival that has run for the past two summers, and it brings people from Concord University and people from the community all together in this performance — it’s not professional, it’s community theater,” he said.
“Actors get together and it’s an educational experience. The university offers some course credit for this, and students have the opportunity to engage with Shakespeare’s language and Shakespeare’s plays in a way that they might not otherwise. It’s been a blast. It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s very rewarding.”
Currently, he is working on the third installment of the Appalachian Shakespeare Project, in which “The Merry Wives of Windsor” will be performed.
Rieger said there are several things he enjoys about where literature has taken him, including his work on the Appalachian Shakespeare Project, the opportunity to help and exchange ideas with students and living in the Athens, W. Va., community.
“The profession of English has been extremely rewarding for me,” he said. “There are a lot of rewarding aspects to my job. I would not trade it. I am very, very fortunate.”