If you’re my age, you’re possibly having the following experience from time to time these days.
You haven’t thought about someone in a while, they’re not on social media, and you wonder whatever happened to them. You do a Google search. And you find they’ve passed on.
I’ve started the past two years that way. My former doctoral dissertation adviser Dr. Philip T. West of Texas A&M University passed away on Jan. 2 last year. I met him at a school public relations conference in Phoenix in the summer of 1981 and three years later I became his student.
He was a scholar, but no ivory tower academic — a U.S. Navy veteran and a former insurance executive and PR man, he had a good working knowledge of the “real world.” He loved electronic gadgets, Blue Bell coffee ice cream and American literature. And he was a heck of a dissertation adviser, equally adept at telling his advisees what they were doing wrong and protecting you from difficult members of your own committee. (Anybody who’s ever worked on a doctorate will appreciate what that means.)
His advice and counsel was valuable to me long after I finished my degree and started a career in academics. We were in touch less often over the last decade — a little ironic since in that same time period so many people have reconnected with one another via social media. But Dr. West wasn’t much on the “look at me” kind of thing, so I suspect I wouldn’t have found him there anyway.
He was a great role model and many of the teaching methods and strategies that I use are a result of his influence.
Fast forward to a couple of days ago, when I got to thinking about another person who was an influence on me in an even earlier and formative time.
A search revealed that my former colleague Janos Shoemyen had died back in December in Gainesville, Fla., at age 93.
The term “colleague” is probably a little presumptuous of me, as I was a lowly graduate assistant in the mid-1970s in the editorial department of University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) when I got to know Janos, who was one of the top editors in this statewide organization.
Janos, a native Hungarian who fled to the United States as a young man after World War II, was a wizard at — as he put it — “correcting the natives’ English.” And he was a great help to me in my job, which was working with professors to turn their sometimes arcane research and incomprehensible writing into feature stories for newspapers.
Away from the office, Janos wrote fiction under the nom de plume Lawrence Dorr. He lived on a working ranch, raising horses and cattle in nearby Alachua with his wife Clare, an elegant English woman whose family tree had roots in colonial South Carolina. They invited me out there for a memorable summer day’s outing.
It’s been a long time, but I remember talking with him about writing on a number of occasions — we both loved Flannery O’Connor’s stories and novels. A reviewer once called him “a Christian Hemingway,” and it’s a pretty good description. His writing was spare and muscular, but suffused with what the Catholic novelist J.F. Powers termed “the presence of grace.”
A brief example from the beginning of a short story, “Once You Were No People,” from his 1973 collection “A Slow, Soft River”: (see photo):
“The land rose only a few feet, but in Central Florida this was enough to turn the scrub palmettos into the threatening crest of an ocean wave. The man leading the way carried his son’s .22 presumably against snakes — it was closed season — though he knew there was little chance of meeting anything. It was too hot even for snakes, but he would have felt foolish trampling the fields without a firearm in his hand. This feeling, like the heirloom cufflinks packed in his immigrant’s suitcase, had survived the 4,000-mile journey.”
He encouraged me to write fiction, something I never caught the bug for, but I have held on to his advice. “You have something to say,” he exhorted. “Say it! Write it down!”
As I think about Janos and Dr. West, I’m reminded of a line from the wonderful sportswriter Robert Lipsyte’s recent memoir, “An Accidental Sportswriter.” In recounting a list of people who have been influential in his career, he mentions several who “are dead, but not to me.”
I thought that was a very felicitous phrase and it pretty much sums up the way I’m feeling right now.