Professors and others teachers often know more about their students’ family backgrounds than vice-versa. That’s part of the job. Teachers need to know when a student’s family life poses an obstacle that calls for accommodation, and students often cite family obstacles as inspiration for their own work. Professors can also provide career advice, celebrate students’ successes and help students in other ways. In contrast, professors usually mention their family only to illustrate an idea.

Here today I’d like to say a bit more about my family, to level the field so anyone who cares might know a bit more about where I came from. I did some oversharing two years ago for the ANH Academy’s Career Journeys, and now I want to post this about my father who died three weeks ago, after three weeks in hospital and hospice care. My job allowed me to stay with him there and take lots of time off, so I’ve been able to think a lot about parents and family background.

For good reasons, discussions of family background usually focus on problems to overcome. Philip Larkin’s famous poem set the tone for my generation, and stories of all kinds are dominated by the trauma plot. There are powerful reasons for that, and schools are doing more than ever to provide trauma-informed teaching. It’s helpful to think of everyone having an invisible backpack with stuff that harms or distracts us, so we can face up to all that — but everyone’s backpack also contains helpful things that propel and guide us.

This post is about the good stuff. My father lived past 90. He was grateful for a wonderful life, proud of his work and family, and he died peacefully after plenty of conversation thanks to brilliant palliative care. Because of him, my mother and many others, my own invisible backpack is full of positives that propel and guide me, with relatively little that harms or distracts.

You can read about my dad in the family’s obituary, Dartmouth’s announcement or other stuff online. This post is to flag that, but mainly to share an abbreviated version of my notes for what to say at his memorial service earlier this week. My sister, brother, daughter and a family friend shared beautiful things about other aspects of my dad’s life. My own perspective that I can share now is this, which I hope might be helpful to others:

What to say at the memorial service, July 9th 2023

I am Roger’s younger son Will. Today you will hear from his three children, me and Kathy and Seth, and from Roger’s colleague and friend Sidney Tarrow, and from my daughter Beatrice representing the grandchildren.

Over the past few weeks, we have heard from many of you about different aspects of Roger’s life. I am grateful for all the stories and memories. He cared so much about all of you gathered here – his apartment was full of notes and gifts and photos of you.

I am here now to share just a few aspects of him as a father: some things he did, and some advice he shared.

The things he did as a dad reflected who he was as a person.

If you knew him as a neighbor, a friend, a teacher or a colleague, you’ll know he was playful and funny, but also devoted and caring. He was like that at home too. When I was little and would get sick he’d distract me with jokes about stomach bugs and butt thermometers, then just sit and hold my hand. All he wanted was for me to feel better. He just radiated love, so I felt it then and I still feel it now.

If you knew him, you know that he showed love through his time and attention, writing notes and doing things. I found a letter he wrote to his mom Gigi about life with two little kids in New Haven, where he said he worked mainly when the sun wasn’t out. On hot sunny days, we went to the beach, and on cool sunny days to the park. Later, when a new highway connector threatened to run right through New Haven’s East Rock Park, he became chair of a save-the-park committee to lobby against it — successfully. Kids play there now, as we did then.

If you knew him, you’ll know he liked the eccentric professor act, Abe Lincoln beard and all. But it was purposeful — he was genuinely enthusiastic about each thing. He wanted you to see what he saw, to understand what he understood. When he caught himself lecturing a bit too long, he’d say “don’t worry there’s no final exam”.  He’d say, “you can always tell a professor, but you can’t tell them much.” And he’d prove that wrong by asking and listening and learning something new, which he’d pass on to the next person.

The advice he gave us reflects what he’d learned. At home he rarely told me what to do, but he surrounded us with opportunities and a sense that what we did could be important. He’d criticize things by saying they’re “not serious” – meaning temporary, not consequential. Being “serious” was high praise. A joke could be seriously funny, or a recipe seriously delicious. Whatever we did, he wanted it to be intentional and helpful for the long run.

The advice he gave was open-ended like that. About jobs and careers, I remember he said one should “find work with people you like”. That seemed crazy, because how would I know my colleagues ahead of time, but it turned out to be great advice. Different kinds of people do different kinds of work, and within each field one should move on to join teams who like and respect each other. 

The most important advice he repeated often was given to him in 1961 by his great teacher Leo Strauss in Chicago. The story Dad told to us is that he’d had just submitted his dissertation and was going to teach at Yale, so he went to Strauss for a final meeting. Strauss was famously brilliant, and you’d think he might tell a star student to go kick butt and set the world straight – but instead the advice was “Roger, always remember there’s a silent person in the room who knows more than you.”

Dad repeated Leo Strauss’ advice like a mantra, to himself and to me and to others. Whether or not it’s actually true, it’s a genius move. Dad wanted himself and all of us to keep learning from what everyone has to say, to temper enthusiasm for our own ideas with humility and openness to new insights. He lived by that advice for most of his life, until his ability to learn new things was impaired by his cancer operation in 1999, stroke in 2000 and then the seizures that ultimately caused his death .

From 1999 to now, after each hospitalization he’d bounce back to the stack of Science magazine and other journals, reading as much as before but it was harder for him to direct his thoughts and absorb new information. He could still access and relay things from the past, so he did that — with the most vivid and urgent idea being the risks of lead poisoning from how water is fluoridated that he had encountered in 1997-98.

I’m saying this now because during his last week in the hospital, that layer of ideas faded, allowing him more access to earlier memories — once again he became the person he was for me in the 1970s and 1980s. His recent obsessions faded away and he talked about being a young dad, proud of his kids, proud of his two very different marriages, content with what he’d accomplished in life. He kept saying he’d had a wonderful life, was at peace with the world and ready to move on.

What Dad lived for, what he most wanted for us, was a flow of new ideas and experiences. He showed love with his time and attention, enthusiastically sharing what he thought would be most useful and interesting in the future. That is what he lived for, what he gave to his children, and what he believed was most needed for the world as a whole. That is also what gave him peace in end. He was happy and proud of us, as I am happy and proud of him – the best a dad could be.


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