Saturday, September 03, 2005

In Memoriam of a Professor, Colleague, Friend

Yesterday I received notice that my former professor, Gustaaf Van Cromphout passed away due to a brain hemorrhage.

Gustaaf's knowledge was immense, but his generosity of spirit was even greater. I have never met a man who was so learned and yet so humble (in the true way that Lewis describes in Screwtape--not a false humility but rather a lack of concern for personal glory.) I had 5 or 6 classes with him in graduate school, and I used to say that if he taught a class in the New York City Phone Book I would take it--and learn more in it than in any other!

He served as a reader on my dissertation and never failed to be supportive. Once, I shared with him that it could be slightly disheartening to take a class with someone whose breadth of knowledge so far exceeded my own that it could make me feel as though I could never "catch up." He asked me how old, I was, smiled, and said, "I have a few years on you, Kenneth [he always called me Kenneth], when you reach my age, you will know all the things I know..." It was such a typical reply, affirming, challenging, teaching.

Once, at an MLA conference, I spoke to a participant who did not know me and only knew him by his books say, "Well if you have Van Cromphout for a professor, you probably understand [Melville and Emerson] better than I do."

The day after I passed my candidacy exams, I greeted him in the department office and he pulled me to one side, awkwardly asking me to come by his office later. I spent most of the morning in fear, wondering if there had been some last minute problem found with my dissertation. When I got there, he looked somewhat embarrassed, took off his glasses and said, "You know, Kenneth, I did not want to say anything in the office where there were other students around, but you called me Dr. Van Cromphout this morning, and now that you have defended your dissertation, you should really call me Gustaaf." It was at that moment, more so than getting the actual degree, that I realized I had crossed some academic or professoinal threshold.

I last saw Gustaaf in March, when I was at NIU to give a paper at their conference. He came in on a Saturday because he saw I was on the program and wanted to say hello. He spoke of how few of the faculty were still there from my time of study, how much he missed some of his own colleagues who had moved or passed on. We chatted briefly, and I hugged him gently, careful of his burgeoning arthritis, honored that he would come to see me almost a full decade after I had graduated.

Afir Nafisi said that leaving a place always brings grief because we mourn for the person we were while we were there, knowing we will never be that person again. Perhaps part of my own grief is the realization that a place and time that were instrumental in my own life have now dramatically changed and past. But that is only a part. We did not keep in constant contact, so he wasn't exactly a mentor. He was--and still is--my role model, I guess. Even though we didn't communicate regularly, I am surprised (though perhaps I should not be) how much it saddens and hurts me to think that he is no longer there.

"If I am sorrowful," I said, "God lives none the less." And His will is better than mine, yea, is my hidden and perfected will. In Him is my life. His will be done.
--George MacDonald; Annals of A Quiet Neighborhood (410)

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