This evening I found out some very heartbreaking news about one of my former college professors. He took his own life by jumping from the top of a campus parking garage and was discovered this morning. Not only was he very successful in his professional academic field of rhetoric theory, he had recently taken the position of department head in the Dept. of Communication.
He was one of the first two communication professors I had, after switching out of the business school into liberal arts, tentatively declaring communication as my major. I had him for Introduction to Communication Theory, a required, upper-level course I ambitiously took my second semester of freshman year. I am so glad I did. They ended up switching out professors and the format for the course by the time I reached my junior year, when most COMM students took the class.
This professor was one of the most challenging I had at my time at A&M, and I have so much respect for him because of that. He definitely inspired in me a greater interest in the study of rhetoric — as I went on to take a number of other courses on the subject. His passion for his life’s work was a contributing factor to why I decided to stick with my then-new major.
Here is a wonderful “Prayer for the First Day of Class” Dr. A wrote and published on his blog, which someone then resurrected and shared the link to online. It shows how passionate he was about academia. And that passion cannot help but rub off on his students:
Praised are You, Adonai, Our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has made us holy with commandments and commanded us to engage in the study of Torah. You have told us that the study of the universe and the humans who live in it is a way to worship You. Help us to remember with Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it. ” Help us to remember with Leo Strauss: “Always imagine that there is at least one student in class who is your superior in heart and mind.” Help us to remember with T.H. White: “The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
It’s still hard to grasp what has happened. We are all familiar with suicide, from headlines and from literature, but it is very striking when it involves someone who we directly know. Even if that person was a bespectacled, gray-haired man — like so many others I encountered in those four years — who ranted and raved in front of a large lecture hall, full to the brim with hundreds of other young students.
It’s yet harder to fathom how this could have happened when there is no obvious answer to the question of “why?” This man was very successful in his career; he had just been promoted, not fired. He was still married at the time of his death, to the best of my knowledge. He practiced and studied his Jewish faith. I guess it’s situations like these that make us harshly confront the mysterious darkness that can so engulf the human psyche and soul.
Based on the outpouring of grievances I’ve seen come forth on Facebook tonight — from his colleagues at Texas A&M, from my classmates, from strangers who passed him by on campus here and there — it’s clear he was dearly loved and is greatly missed. My heart aches for his family and friends.
You can read more about this teacher, this mentor’s life at this memorial page set up by one of his colleagues, Dr. C., whom I also happened to work for as a research assistant my senior year. As I looked through the page, I remembered that near the end of my freshman year, I’d been gifted one of his books (signed, too) by the then-department head at a departmental honors ceremony, for making straight As. They gave it to me because I’d only taken two COMM courses, and this guy was the only one of my two profs who had a published book at the time. At the time I thought, “How funny! Why would I want another book on rhetoric?”
Now, I’m not so sure how I feel about my copy of his book. I suppose it’s nice that you can hold the physical impact of a person’s life in your hands, if only a fragment.
If anything, this shocking news is rough reminder to be a source of joy and light in others’ lives. You just never know what people are hiding beneath the surface. Catholicism says suicide is a sin (although the Catechism also details, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance”) and I don’t know what Judaism says about such a death, but I think we all know that it is a terrible tragedy when someone feels driven to their life’s end. I hope he has found peace.
That same professor I worked for posted this full prayer online earlier, and I thought it was a lovely tribute. Dr. A. came to the class Dr. C. taught, Religious Communication, when I was a student, and gave us a guest lecture on Judaism, and shared a kaddish with us. It was mesmerizing. And at a time like this, there really aren’t enough words, just prayers.
The Mourners’ Kaddish:
Yitgadal veyitkadash shemey raba
Be’alma di’vera chir’utey
U’vechayey di chol beit yisrael
Ba’agala u’vizman kariv ve’imru amein
“May God’s illustrious name become increasingly great and holy
In the world that God created according to God’s will,
and may God establish God’s kingdom
In your lifetime and in your days
and in the lifetime of all the house of Israel
Speedily and soon. And let us say amen.”