Thursday, May 1, 2008
When words fail me (A tribute)
(Photo credit: The Student Printz/Media Credit: Sebe Dale IV
This is not a post about gluten-free anything, but it is one I need to write.
On Tuesday, my doctoral dissertation adviser and mentor, Dr. Arthur J. Kaul, professor of journalism and mass communication at The University of Southern Mississippi, died of cancer at his home in Hattiesburg.
Art directed my dissertation, "View from the Bird Watch: Media, Memory, and America's Mercury Astronauts." He taught me ethics and journalism history. He made me embrace research and scholarship again. He was a dear, dear man, and a dear, dear friend.
I am still reeling from the news. I spent most of Wednesday in a puddle of tears, and even now, as I try to type this, I do it with a heavy heart. In fact, I couldn't bring myself to write this blog post until I saw his obituary in print. I just couldn't believe it was true.
I spent three years in the company of this wonderful man, laughing, crying, occasionally arguing, even once in a while drinking, but mostly learning. His profound impact on me as a professor is in my every class: in law and ethics, where I remind my students, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." In feature writing, where I recommend Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Gay Talese. or Bob Greene. And in general, when I remind student to "Subvert the Dominant Paradigm." That was the bumper sticker for years on his pick-up truck.
I hope his wife Nancy won't mind my telling you this: I loved Art Kaul. Very, very much.
Last time I saw him was about a year ago, in Hattiesburg, at a friend's graduation party. I brought him some literary journalism books he'd inspired me to collect. He's had a horrible fire at his house, and a lot of his collection was destroyed. I'd pushed some of my collection aside for him, and it took me two years to get it there, but I delivered it in person.
My visit with him was short and sweet, but I got to hug his neck and tell him how much he meant to me. Art being Art, he just smiled and didn't say anything, but Nancy said, "Oh, he knows. And he feels the same way."
We talked for about an hour in January, when I was struggling with our Ralph Ginzburg paper. It was like old times, him quizzing me on the properties of literary journalism, me trying to mold and shape something that just didn't quite fit. By the end of the call, I had it, and when the paper was finished, we added a "fond footnote" to Art for his suggestions.
When Randy and I present it in Lisbon in two weeks, we will dedicate the work to his memory.
Here is my favorite Art Kaul story, and it involves my first class with him at USM. One of my classmates, Laura Berthelot, wrote a research essay on Hunter S. Thompson, with a bibliography of work on the author. She managed to leave out one of Art's critically acclaimed Hunter S. Thompson essays (he was considered one of the contemporary scholars of note on the late Gonzo journalist). At the bottom of the page, he wrote, "In Hubris," and cited his last articles. Laura whispered to me, "What does that mean?" "it means," I whispered back, "you fucked up."
That, though, was Art. In Hubris. He was a humble man. I think he'd be embarrassed by this post. He'd be embarrassed that across the U.S., his many friends and former students are mourning his passing by telling Art Kaul stories.
Students always kid me about having so many pictures of my former students in my office. Some in frames, some on the file cabinet, but I am a sentimental old fool when it comes to those pictures.
Today, I have but one picture of Art and me -- it's at my Dad's house in a frame. It is the picture of Art hooding me at graduation in December of 1996. I wish I had a couple more, from the times we went out after ethics or literary journalism class, from my graduation party, from times we just got together to visit.
There are two lessons from today's post, for me, and for you. One, don't ever let the chance to tell someone THANK YOU or I LOVE YOU pass you by. Two, if there's someone out there who has made a profound impact on your life, make sure he or she knows it.
I didn't tell Art Kaul how much he meant to me nearly enough in the 15 years I knew him. He helped make me the teacher and scholar I am today, and I can only hope I pass it on as gracefully and forcefully as he passed it on to me.
On Monday at 11 a.m. (10 a.m. Hattiesburg Time), there will be a celebration of Art's life in Hattiesburg. Because of finals, I can't be there, but my heart will be on the front row, remembering this great, great man and teacher.
Thanks, Art, even though I didn't say it nearly enough. And much, much love.