My college adviser would have been 61 today. Four and a half years ago we lost him to lung cancer.
By "we", I mean his students, former students, colleagues, few family members and friends. I can testify that he was terrifically important to the first, second and fifth categories, at least, all of which I would say I fell into at one time or another during the eight and a half years I knew John.
He was a brilliant man and a complicated one. He could be a total pain in the ass, and I say that as someone who loved him. He had a thick, hard, cynical shell that covered the heart of a true romantic. Also a disappointed one. As his student, I was hardly intimately familiar with his romantic history, but we were close enough that over the years that I pieced together some of it. "Fuck love, fuck romance, fuck beauty, fuck warmth," he would sometimes say. That was the full length version. "Fuck love," was the short, frequently uttered version. But more than once I saw that man with tears in his eyes when something moved him deeply.
He was a die hard Red Sox fan and Yankees hater. The funny thing was that he'd grown up an hour or so north of NYC. He used to say that when he was growing up, rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel. His proximity to the city meant that he got to see shows on Broadway from a very early age. His father loved the theatre and passed that on to him. John would tell me about the shows he envied his father seeing, but I envied him the shows he saw that I never got to.
His doctoral adviser was the preeminent theatre history scholar in America, and John was quite knowledgeable, but he never published enough to make him a rising star of the faculty. He was the best teacher in the school. He loved the students, in his own very curmudgeonly way, and gave a tremendous amount to them. He loved teaching and directing far more than writing and publishing. He attended every single show put on in the student theatre; the other faculty members infrequently, if ever, graced the audience. He also directed there with some degree of frequency.
My senior year rolled around, and I had had very few performance opportunities in my large, crowded theatre school where there were about 300 actors and the same 50 got cast every semester. He had stumbled upon a perfect part for me that summer, and that fall, despite the fact that he didn't have enough time to do a show with what he was teaching that semester, he made the time to do the show because he thought I deserved a chance to play the part. He slept about five hours a night that semester. It was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. I, in turn, worked my ass off. I even cut a class or two in the College of Communication (my other major) so that I could nap and be fresh for rehearsal. I never cut a theatre class because he would have chewed me out something fierce if he'd caught me skipping class. He took education very seriously, and expected his advisees to be stellar students. Most of us were that way inclined to start with; that was part of the reason we ended up with John.
In addition to being my adviser, he was also my boss for my last three years of college. I worked in the School of Theatre Library. It was tiny - when I worked there I was the only one working - and it was only open about 15 hours a week. I did a tremendous amount of reorganizing and cataloging, but he'd often come hang out with me while I worked and would sometimes accuse me of not being entertaining; that was far more important to him in this case than my being productive, though I did manage to do both.
I was actually scared of taking a class with him; he was a notoriously difficult grader and I wanted to keep my grades up. The follies of youth. My final semester senior year I finally took one of his classes, Musical Theatre History II: Oklahoma to the Present. I kicked ass, in a decent measure because of all he had taught me since I was a scarily energetic 18 y.o. freshman who sucked up everything he told me and sometimes hung out in his office listening to cast recordings. "What do you mean you've never heard The Most Happy Fella?", he'd say. "Sit! Listen!" He'd provide me with a synopsis and continue grading while I heard the show for the first time. I complained about the typos in the synopses and he made me proofread all of them. I didn't mind; I was happy to be trusted with the job.
After graduation, I moved to NYC. We stayed in touch by email, and then when I got a cell phone and had free long distance I would talk to him regularly. A couple times a year he would visit New York to see the shows and we'd get coffee, or a drink, or catch a show. It was a bit unusual, perhaps, that one of my best friends was my fathers' age, but there you have it. He understood that I was pretty intimidated by guys my own age well into my early 20s. He wasn't the kind of professor to go after a student, especially not one 30 years his junior, and I often felt that our respective reputations insulated us from gossip.
We lost touch just a little my first semester in grad school, Fall 2003. We were both crazy-busy. We still talked, but not nearly as regularly as before. The last time we ever spoke was on Valentine's Day, 2004. He'd just gotten out of the hospital with pneumonia. He knew he had lung cancer, but he told very few people. I was closer to him than many of his students and former students, but he didn't tell me. I told him I was worried because he'd been in the hospital. "I just want to know you're okay," I told him. "Well, I'm not okay," he admitted, "but I'm not going to die tomorrow, either." 17 days later, I was visiting New York on Spring Break from grad school. I was sitting on a stool in the bar I used to go to with him when a good friend called to tell me he was gone.
Since then, there haven't been many days I haven't thought of him. I'm sorry he never met EG. They would have liked each other - my good friend the loveable curmudgeon, and my love the curmudgeon-in-training. One thing I sometimes reflect on is that he now knows the answer to a debate we often had. He was a confirmed atheist, so when the subject of life after death would come up, he would posit that there was no such thing. I, a devout Catholic, believe there is. The funny thing is that we had a related argument on who death is worse for - the person who dies or those left behind. I took the position that it was worse for the latter, he thought the former. It struck me as odd that he would take that position. After all, I would point out, if you're right, and there's nothing after you die, then you have no feeling on being dead. You have no feeling at all anymore, according to you. I, on the other hand, am still alive and I miss you. Now, if I'm right, and there's life after death, and you go to heaven, it's still worse for those left behind because you're in heaven, so you're doing better than we are. The only way it's worse for the deceased is if there's life after death and there is a hell and you go there.
Whatever the answer to that argument is, he knows now. He died March 3, 2004, and that October, the Red Sox won their first World Series in almost nine decades. That's almost enough to confirm my belief in life after death right there. After all, with no wife, no children, no one person on earth who mattered to him more than any other, I'm fully willing to believe he would use whatever influence he might have in the great beyond to help the Boston Red Sox.