Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Mon 10/3/2005 5:04 AM
Random Thought: In Memoriam

I lost a dear colleague and friend last week to the ravages of pancreatic cancer. His name is Fred Morris. Very few of you know of him. You should have. For me, he was a fellow traveler and kindred spirit. He tooled about in a motorized wheel chair, but stood so tall I really never noticed it. Sometimes he'd hobble around on crutches, but there was no hobbling of his spirit. I regret I could not be at the "Celebrationof a Life" memorial service on campus. At the time I was hosting a presentation in the "Witness To The Holocaust" program I had put together to compliment my course on the same dismal subject. Fred would not have wanted it to be any other way. I wrote a few words to him and sent them on for someone to read in my stead. Had I been there, I would have said how much he was an inspiration to me and how much my memory of him will continue to be a benediction to him.

We talked often. I'd bounce into his office to bounce teaching ideas off him; he would bounce ideas off me. We'd celebrate when a struggling student made a small, giant step and cry the loss when one stumbled and refused to get up and go on. We'd cheer each other on and encourage each other when the going got rocky for either one of us. We'd shore the other up when we weakened. Our conversations were often interruption by a faint knock, a slow opening of the door, a few fingers appearing that weakly griped the door's edge, a single, hesitant, peeking in eye of a student in need, and a needy, inquiring "You busy?" The student would be met by an inviting twinkle in his eye and compassionate smile on his face. Our focus immediately would shift. Nothing was more important to Fred at that moment--or any other moment for that matter--than that student. We'd look at each other. There was no "wait a minute" or "I'll be with you in a few minutes." Be it mid-paragraph, mid-sentence, or mid-word, I would quickly get out of my chair and leave with a "Later." And, would return in a day or two and pick up where we had left off. Now, there are no more "laters." Now, there's a hole in my day's schedule and in my soul.

I did not have that one last "later," that one last conversation we both so desperately wanted. We had agreed it was to be a celebration of life, not a bemoaning of death; a joy of what had been, not a sadness of what would have been. We scheduled to have at discussion at his bedside in his home, but had to reschedule, and reschedule again, and again, and again until there were no more "and agains." It was not to be. Both the cancer, advancing at a blindly rapid pace, and the equally ravaging chemo therapy constantly and successfully conspired to deny us. I will miss our searching talks about each other, teaching, students, and life. I will miss his laughter and his smiles. I will miss his "ugly puss" and his beautiful heart. I will miss his love of life. I will miss his good counsel. I will miss his support and encouragement. I will miss our loving bantering in the hall:

"When are you going to play some good music on that boom box of yours? You'll chase the students out of the classroom with that noise," he'd yell out with a guffaw.

"Hell, you'll kill them before they have a chance to hear these great tunes if you don't stop racing down the halls in that dragster wheelchair of yours," I'll yell out in a laughing retort.

Now, there will be no more of that.

I will miss his unconditional love of each and every student and his endless faith in each and every one of them and his boundless optimism for each and every one of them. Though our styles of teaching were different, our visions were not. We always agreed about what was at the core, or should be at the core, of we academics do. We agreed that if there is one central reality in all of education, it is this: every student--every student--regardless of major, GPA, SAT score, scholarship, physical condition, tattooing, athletic ability, gender, body piercing, skin color, accent, sexual preference, ethnicity, sorority or fraternity, special needs, etc is a sacred, unique human being. He or she is an invaluable piece of the future that is entitled to be treated with respect and dignity and consideration. And, nothing--not fund raising, sports records, research, publication, curriculum, institutional renown, title, reputation, resume--is more important in academia for the administrator, staff person, faculty member, and student than that realization.

We always talked about how it's so easy to find fault with students. It's easy to treat them as an annoyance and intrusion. It's easy to dismiss them. It's easy to cast them aside. It's easy to criticize them and make them feel incapable and unwanted. Anyone can do it. It doesn't take much effort to do it. You don't need any training for that. What takes effort and skill, what takes patience and kindness, what takes perseverance and commitment, what takes empathy and faith, what takes a lot of hard work and dedication, what takes consuming time and effort, what takes hope and love, what takes awareness and "otherness," what takes heart and soul is picking each student up and making him or her feel good about where he or she is, who he or she is, and what he or she is capable of doing, and who he or she is uniquely capable of being.

Many, far too many, academics don't understand that; many, far too few, do. Fred Morris did.

Fred was one of those rare people who left the world a better place than he found it and who has defeated the cancer by continuing to live on in the souls he touched. He will in mine.

Damn, I'll miss him.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
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