He favors seersucker suits in summer, corduroy vests in fall, bow ties year-round.
His diction - Southern genteel leavened with a dash of the aristocrat - is impeccable.
For 50 years, Jimmy Gasque has been a larger-than-life presence in the classroom. He leverages his literary wisdom to persuade teenagers of the beauty of a finely crafted phrase and the integrity of this over-arching truth: "It is beautiful and proper to defend the English Language."
Or as he might say in Latin: "Dulce et Decorum Est Linguam Anglicum Defendere."
When students enter Gasque's class at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School - as they have each August for nearly four decades - they know what to expect.
Most have heard stories about their loquacious, quirky, overbearing, funny, demanding, gentle instructor.
"I'm a defender of the faith," Gasque, 72, declares to whoever will listen.
The English language is under assault - "sort of like the Norman conquest" - and only he and this new crop of freshman converts can save the world from incomplete sentences, dangling participles and the unnerving misuse of "like."
"I get mad as hell with people who don't teach grammar any more," Gasque says. "You cannot learn to use the language if you don't know the grammar of the language."
Students learn French and Spanish, "and some Latin if they are lucky," and would never think of ignoring the grammar of a foreign language, he says.
"But the language that is theirs is precious and frail, and a lot of schools have just quit teaching it."
OF CATS AND CRITIQUES
In class, Gasque leavens his instruction with references to the classics, to Shakespeare and Dickens, the Romantic poets, and onward to the 20th century.
He tells his own artfully embellished stories: of his father's Shandon drugstore and life during the World War II years, of mule-riding, of chasing cats from his backyard garden with a well-placed sprinkler.
"I despise cats," he grins.
On occasion, he will recite a letter to the editor that he has written but never mailed, detailing an egregious grammatical error.
His students write short autobiographical pieces that he critiques on an interactive whiteboard. The essays, if accepted, become part of their portfolios.
He excises the banal, strengthens a verb, edits a sentence, reminding them that creation, albeit painful, has its rewards.
"The sound of the keyboard is the sound of your brain," he tells them.
During the summer preceding their freshman year, students must become familiar with Gasque's "grammatical catechism," a detailed list of rules that explains use of commas, phrases, conjunctions and other sentence elements.
"Several people said you have to know your catechism when you start," student Sallie McLeod says, "and a few (rising freshmen) were kind of nervous about that."
Gasque declared the class' initial comma usage "horrible," she says, but as the weeks wore on, more and more students won the coveted acceptances.
"Honestly, even if you didn't like writing, the way he teaches makes you want to please him and to make your writing good," McLeod says.
On a recent Thursday, she read aloud an essay about a trail ride that goes from routine to exhilarating when she holds her horse in check and makes a galloping, heart-pounding dash to the end.
There is a pause as the class contemplates the short, evocative piece, waiting for Gasque's assessment.
"I think it is an extremely sensitive piece and it has passion in it," he declares. "You did a masterpiece."
FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE LANGUAGE
Passion for the written word is what James Henry Gasque (pronounced gas'-kwee) has tried to impart in his five decades of teaching - 37 at Heathwood and 13 in public schools, including 10 years at his alma mater, Dreher High.
He favored teaching more mature juniors and seniors and "kind of went kicking and screaming to teach freshmen" three years ago, Heathwood's provost and upper school head Anne Weston says.
But once in the classroom, he told her, "I need to get them earlier, to teach them grammar and writing." (Another advantage, he grins: "They can't drive.")
Each year, he hopes something magical will transpire, something akin to what happened to him in 1954.
That was the year he fell in love with the English language.
He was 17, enrolled in Miss Patty Parker's senior English class.
He still remembers how the diminutive "Miss Parker" could calm a rambunctious class with a look and a reproving "Now, boys" before she would launch into a dramatic recitation.
"She just inspired me to love the things I didn't know I loved," Gasque said. "She could make a poem just incredibly wonderful."
He was accepted to the University of North Carolina, but his father, having read a Life magazine story about communists on the Chapel Hill faculty, refused to let his son go.
"You have to remember, this was 1955," he said.
He headed to USC, albeit a bit grudgingly, but realized then the beginnings of his philosophy that all things work for good. That was when he and his high school sweetheart, Betty Rader, made the decision to marry.
A LIFE IN CAMELOT
In 72 years of life, Gasque has found many things to love: Betty, his wife of 51 years; England (think Robin Hood and King Lear); dogs, including his Wheaton terrier mix, Sally; gardening; painting; the Episcopal Church and Heathwood Hall.
"For me, Heathwood is Camelot," he said. "When I come down the Heathwood Road, the sun is rising in front of me and when I leave, the sun is setting."
He said he never would have considered leaving Dreher High except for the entreaties of two longtime friends, now deceased.
The Rev. John Barr, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, and the Very Rev. James Sterling, dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, persuaded him to become chairman of the English department at Heathwood, which was then building its high school, class by class.
He began teaching in the old Heathwood mansion before the current school was built on a 103-acre tract along the Congaree River. Now, he said, he believes coming to Heathwood was "a call."
Of Heathwood, he says, "There has never been a place that I treasure, almost, the earth."
For some parents, a Heathwood education without the presence of Jimmy Gasque is unthinkable.
After spending her middle school years in the public single-gender program at Dent Middle School, Virginia Kluiters entered the upper school in August mainly on the strength of Gasque's reputation, said her mother, Helen Kluiters, who had taken his classes 30 years earlier.
"That was not the only reason, but it was the strongest reason," said Kluiters, who worried that Gasque would retire before Virginia and her son, now a seventh-grader, could be in his class.
"He is a real character; he is very outrageous and says outrageous things, but he gets the kids' attention and they really love him," Helen Kluiters said. "He definitely earned her respect, and he made her feel good about her creativity and her writing."
Gasque's alumni include syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, whom he taught at Dreher, and Josh Lieb, executive producer of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and author of a new middle school fantasy, "I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President" (Razorbill, 2009).
His graduates are devoted to him, and he is devoted to them, although there are limits to his expansiveness.
Back in 1986, he chaperoned a group of seniors to England and soon realized that the stately spires of London and Oxford could not compete with the attractions of the corner pub and British streetscapes.
"That was the first and last time" he accompanied students on an overnight trip.
Gasque, who presides over Heathwood's graduation ceremonies each year, has no plans to retire. His only concession to advancing age is a four-day work schedule, which has allowed him to pursue a new passion, painting.
"I've always had the notion that painting and writing were parallel," he says. "You pick and choose colors just as you pick and choose words."
Each summer, like clockwork, Weston said she has come to expect an e-mail from Gasque, detailing some infirmity that has crept upon him and suggesting that perhaps this will be the year he finally steps down.
She mostly ignores those e-mails. Once the semester begins, Weston says, "all his aches and pains disappear."
Soon, he is back writing memos to parents, (signed, Your Servant, Jimmy) sharing student works, reminding them that creation, while sometimes painful and time-consuming, is an act of God.
"The happiest people in the world are creators," he tells his classes.
Which may be why Gasque rises each morning at 5 a.m. eager for the day ahead.
"I think I'm where I'm supposed to be."