As you may know, Tom Magliozzi of the NPR radio show Car Talk died this week at the age of 77. He and his brother, Ray, hosted the hour-long show about cars and car repair that was also about much more and had become a staple in many homes. It was in mine and still is. I listen every Saturday, or at least when I am in town. I love those weekends when I can sleep in on Saturday morning and not have to do anything or go anywhere. Not that that really happens, mind you, but I like the idea of not having to do anything. Then I go ahead and do a lot of things work related, some not so work related. There are a lot of cafes in the area.
Tom wasn’t the only person connected to me in some way to die recently. A few days ago I received the fall issue of the Ursinus Magazine. Ursinus College in Pennsylvania is my alma mater. On the cover was a picture of Bobby Fong, Ursinus president who died unexpectedly of a heart attack just two months ago at the age of 64. In addition, in the “In Memoriam” section were Blanche Schultz, Richard BreMiller, and Jim De Catur, all professors of mine from the mid to late 1970s. Blanche Schultz and Dick BreMiller taught Mathematics, Jim De Catur English. I owe them all quite a bit. Blanche talked me out of joining the Navy, BreMiller flunked me in an Intermediate Calculus class, which forced me to face certain realities, and De Catur laughed till he snorted as I relieved myself out of a third-story window in the rain in a bed and breakfast outside of Brussels. We were drunk, as was Peter Perreten, another Ursinus English professor and good friend who was with us. I can’t remember why we were traveling through Belgium, but I know at some point De Catur left us to join his wife and kids in Germany. Peter and I continued south to France and Italy. I pledged to use lavatories from then on.
A college president and three of your professors dying in the space of a few months gets you thinking. First, you run the numbers. Other professors of mine have died, all having been influential in my life to one degree or another, especially Joyce Henry, English professor and theatre director who arranged to have her friend, Colleen Dewhurst, speak at our graduation. Joyce was a force unto herself: sharp, tough, funny, compassionate, and sexy. She had the good sense to give me space trying to figure out how to play Jacques, Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage” character from As You Like It. It’s tough being melancholy when you’re 20. Then there are Richard Bozorth, another English professor and former dean of the college; Richard Richter, former president and a visionary leader with a dry sense of humor and gentle wisdom; Calvin Yost, who taught Milton; and George Story, who taught American Literature. I can remember Jonathan Edwards and an angry God in that class.
These were people who took their profession seriously, had a vocation to teach, and cared deeply about the lives entrusted to them. They crafted authentic, creative, and spiritual lives centered around liberal arts education in a small but very special college of 1,500 students. They helped create a college experience that has shaped me and thousands like me, forming us into compassionate adults with a shared sense of community and solidarity. It may have taken some of us longer to mature, but hopefully that has made us more patient and understanding of others.
In a way, Car Talk did the same thing, forming a community of listeners spread throughout North America, perhaps even farther (I remember one caller from Australia). And isn’t that what life is about–relationships, community, shared memory–the narrative of existence? Death may be necessary because it provides a frame for life, a structure for the narrative. Ritual provides a frame for death, which is why, in one sense, NPR put a tribute together for Tom with Ray as narrator. Then they replayed it in ritual fashion over the weekend. It was good that they did that, just as it was good to run the In Memoriam section in the college magazine.
I suppose in the end all of this is about motivation. Motivation and appreciation. I am motivated to reach out to people before they die, before I die, and appreciate them for being part of my community. But why not do the same for others, for people who are not in my community but who are nevertheless human beings worthy of respect and love? Tom and Ray have given us a shibboleth for doing so, a secret password to recognize each other, one that they used at the end of each show: “Don’t drive like my brother!” That’s how you knew Car Talk was over.
And I don’t even have a car!
Haven’t had enough? Go to http://about.me/brancatellirobert or amazon.com/-/e/B001KHRH5I for the Mercury trilogy. Photos courtesy of Car Talk. Note to Self: Do not eat canned beets with expiration date of December 2013. Anymore…