So Much More Than a Memory

Good early morning,

It seems to be that no matter the time I choose to call it a day, I will find myself awake at 2:30 a.m., pondering more than Trump’s tweets. Perhaps that is because he’ll soon be up composing the latest 140 character blasphemy or alt reality, while casting accusations of fakery at everyone else. Perhaps, at least tonight, it is because my modified GI tract has decided to work in warp speed. Perhaps, and even more likely, it is because I am feeling the loss of a mentor and the passing of a giant influence, to my very core, on whom I have become as a professor and colleague. Dan Riordan was the chair of the committee who hired me at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. It was his unique and indescribably affable voice that first reached out on the phone and asked me to come to a little town in West Central Wisconsin in April of 2003. It was Mary and he who welcomed me into their home for a Sunday evening dinner with Bruce Maylath, and it was Dan, who excitedly pointed out a pair of bald eagles in a giant nest over their bank, caring for the eaglets, whose squawking and less-than-majestic looks stunned me beyond words. Dan’s welcoming and kindly smile, his ability to make you feel comfortable from the first moment, made my first foray into tenure-track academia a comfortable experience versus another John Belushi lying on the floor in Animal House reprisal, lamenting the loss of 14 years of college. Dan and Mary graciously hosted me in their home that spring and summer as I moved my life from the U.P. to Wisconsin, and it was Dan who gave Maggie a reference so I could rent my first apartment. Dan even gave me a temporary job working on the latest edition of his textbook, providing me both experience and cash as a still struggling new faculty person.

During my first year, the adjustment to becoming a faculty member was difficult. What I know now was coming out ABD created more than a difficulty of time management. It created a difficulty, perhaps crisis, of identity. While I was still a student, I needed to transform into a professor, a respected faculty person. Simply put, I failed in a rather epic way. I was working hard to figure it out, or so I thought, but during that first semester, my Internet Writing class was, and perhaps still is, the most complete failure in any classroom situation I had ever experienced. There were some outstanding students in that class, and not only did I fail them (and there were mitigating circumstances), but my response for that failure was to blame them and take little blame myself. It was not a good rhetorical strategy, but more importantly, I created a dilemma for myself, one from which I would never really recover. If not for one specific Technical Communication student, who was a single mother with a young daughter, whose moral support meant more than she ever realized, I might’ve quit at the end of that first year. There was another student who begged to get into my first year composition course. She too was a wonderful student and someone with whom I am still fortunate enough to be connected. They helped me survive. However, at the end of the first semester, it was Dan who sat down with me in the Acoustic Café and offered insight and comfort as I reeled from the serious ass kicking that semester provided. While the second semester went marginally better, I made some foolish mistakes outside the classroom. Most of those mistakes and downfalls were the consequence of alcohol, both in Menomonie and back in Houghton. To this day I probably have not apologized as completely as I should for a stupid voice message I left during Winter Carnival. This is where my being the student in one place and a faculty in another created a predicament that would have long-term consequences. In the infamous words of Dean Wormer, “drunk and stupid is no way to spend one’s life.” This is not an exact quote, but truer words have never been spoken. Ironically, one of those students would become part of our advisement board, and rightly so, because she had been a brilliant student, was certainly an outstanding employee, and one who had actually helped me in the business place. I treated her unfairly when I said something in front of that very board, somewhat calling her out. She had every right to dismiss me as unfair and rude. I am sure to this very day, she is as brilliant and as valuable an employee was she was a student. She is a phenomenal person, and a person to whom I will never be able to make amends as well as I wish I could. Indeed, my first year in Wisconsin should be deemed a serious learning-lesson. And while I did recover on a number of fronts, somehow getting an outstanding teaching award 5 years later, there are still things I regret deeply.

The group of students Dan had created through his commitment to each and his superior ability in the classroom is still something to remember. As your  former student, Priscilla Fugar, also one of that amazing group who rightly took me to task, noted so aptly, you had this way of listening and hearing them (and us your colleagues) and then smiling and responding, “yeah, right.” I can hear it as clearly as if you were here speaking it. As we continued to develop programs, internships, and other ideas, you continued to look for new ways to learn, but also so teach, always giving back, not only to your students, but also to all of us, your colleagues. Through the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL), I got to know other faculty, some who became my most valued colleagues and friends. Dan, your insight of the Stout history and culture was unprecedented, but your willingness to help others understand it was invaluable. You understood the struggles of new faculty and unselfishly gave to so many. I not only watched it, I experienced it. Your desire to keep achieving and then bring it back for others is a rare gift and one I try to now emulate here in Pennsylvania. As you never “siloed” what you knew, you taught me the value of cooperation/collaboration and it is something that has influenced everything I have done here at Bloomsburg. Yet, that brings me to your influence and help, both in getting me here, 998.6 miles from Menomonie, but also how you supported me in these last eight years.

As noted, my first year’s missteps created an exigency from which there was no reasonable escape, and the position of a dean made any such consideration moot. As I went through the summer of 2008, again you were there in ways no one else would even consider. You listened and even in your amazement of what the dean had done, you reached out, noting that we should meet on a regular basis or schedule. You listened carefully and your responses were always measured and thoughtful. That year could have ruined me both professionally and personally because of the stress, but you were my sounding board, you were a life jacket for me. You helped me see beyond the immediacy of the circumstance. You helped me walk a tight rope and you provided a quite stellar recommendation for my eventual position here at Bloomsburg. When I left Wisconsin, you did not leave me. You were always kind in taking my phone calls, of reviewing my abstracts, and sharing your wise counsel, offering insight and support from the inexhaustible wealth of knowledge and experience, yet always in a folksy and unassuming manner that delighted in helping another. You took time to fly to Bloomsburg and offered yet again your valuable and unparalleled advice, serving as an expert evaluator of our nascent program. You were kind enough to stay at my house and share both your expertise and joyful company. While I did get the Dean’s office to foot some of the bill, and you made me promise to get reimbursed, I never kept the promise. The investment in the program and the chance to bring you to my new world was repayment enough. As you worked through the process of seeing and building a program, your willingness to speak with my  colleagues, being with my students, as you had done so many times at Stout, meeting with my Dean all made more difference than you could have ever known, but I was so proud to tell you when we had completed what we had and send you the emails. In some ways you became my experiential post-doctoral father. That is no simple thing. When I came back to Menomonie to manage issues, either visiting Lydia and then finishing up things after she passed, again you were always there. You cheered me on and the last time I drove back in January, within hours of returning from Europe, even as you faded, you welcomed me into your home (both of you). It became a sort of inclusio. It was an opportunity to bring something full-circle. I remember standing in your driveway after our wonderful two hour visit and I held my hands in front of me across the driveway as tears filled my eyes and I told you thank you and that I loved you. You told me you loved me back. What a gift of words, a gift of colleagues, but more importantly a gift of mentor to student and, if I can be so bold, a gift of wonderful friendship. It was followed up by the most wonderful email in which you complimented my spirit and humor. I believe I still have that email.

Dan, you are so much more than a memory, you have nurtured and created someone who has come far since that fall in 2003 when I was a fledgling and failing first year tenure-track ABDed professor. When I imagine possibilities, indeed, even now I will ask myself what I would imagine you offering as wise counsel? What are the insightful, piercing, probing, but important questions you would ask in your supportive and visionary manner? I was once told that if you profoundly touch 5 people in your life, you are a successful person. What happens with the number of students, colleagues, friends, and professionals is profoundly larger, exponential of the mere handful (and that is not hyperbole) What is the term we might use appropriately? I know how you would respond. It would be self-depricating, a sort of “shucks, how kind of you to say so . . .” I can see you tilting you head and smiling, but being as gracious and gentlemanly as always. As you have touched my life, as you have transformed me, you are so much more than a memory. If I can somehow even begin to be noted, to pattern my life within the classroom after you, I will be honored. I know that there are times I have considered assignments, and in fact, I have bounced some of those off you. You always smiled and again noted, “how neat; tell me more about that.” Again, the interest, the support, the willingness to push me in perception and pedagogy. Your work with the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning would come shining through, once again helping us to imagine the consequences of what we did to make our students better, more prepared, more thoughtful.

I am sitting in Fog and Flame, one of the coffee shops that has appeared since you were here. You would like it. I can see you at the table helping yet another person, taking time out of whatever you might need to do, putting another person first. Yet, there was that other side of you, the father and husband. The way your eyes would light up when you spoke of your children, your grandchildren, or Mary, your wonderful wife and partner of 50 years. You were more of a model there too than you realized. Your class as a father, grandfather, and husband taught us more than you know. As I have sat here and reflected, there have been smiles and tears, but most of all there is gratitude, an overwhelming sense of humility because I know I learned from one of the best. I hope to share with my students, with others who might follow me. While there was barely a decade difference in age, it seems that I found a master who belied his age. I found a friend who supported me in ways too many to count. I found a mentor and doctoral father who was able to meliorate this struggling, but well-intended beginning academic. Well done good and faithful friend . . .  I promise to keep working to take all you have so graciously given and become even better. I am so blessed that you called me to come to Menomonie and UW-Stout that April 14 years ago. While it is hard to let you go as we once again were in the month of April, it was time for you to finish your amazing journey. As I looked at that last picture of you and Mary, my heart was breaking, but her face said it all so well. We all struggle to let you go, but in my case, those are  moments of my own selfishness. We love you deeply and that will not change. You are much more than a memory because you did so much to change of us all. Not because you wanted to change anyone, you merely wanted to be supportive of us, regardless of our place in life. No person was unimportant, you listened and you cared. In the process, you not only changed us, you became part of us and we are better for it. Bless you, Dan; I love you. You were an amazing leader and you created a band of many who carry on for you.

Thank you to everyone for reading this.

Michael

Author:

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration. We are working on a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share here.

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