14 February, 2015

"Thom Brown's lighthouse beacon continues to shine bright and far"

by Steve Specht
February 15, 2014

First of all, I want to express how truly grateful and humbled I am to have been asked by Thom's family to say a few words in his honor. Thank you Civita, Megan, Amy and Finn. Peace be with you.

Perhaps Thom never told you that I tend to be a bit long-winded in Faculty Senate.

We all know that SO much has been said, and SO much can be said about Thom and his influence on us all. I will focus somewhat on the academic but of course it is impossible to separate the personal from what we do (and who would want to anyway?).

Two weeks ago, I went to Richmond, Virginia for the annual meeting of the Southern Humanities Council. My colleagues Linnea Franits, Mary Ann Janda and Tyson Kreiger attended and presented at that conference as well. An eclectic combination of faculty methinks; reminiscent of "the Butcher, the Baker and the Candlestick Maker," but after all, the subtitle of the Southern Humanities Council is "An Interdisciplinary Community." At the conference, I led a panel discussion of "Tinkers", a novel which tackles the existential challenges of the notion of legacy after one's death. I also read two of my own short stories.

But today is not about me or the Southern Humanities Conference. Today we are here to honor Thom. We are here for Thom's family...and for each other. So why do I bring up the Southern Humanities Conference? What is the connection with Thom Brown? ...there are several (in addition to the fact that the conference was in Virginia).

The colleagues who joined me in Richmond represent, in a way, some of what was important in Thom's life and ours. Linnea Franits is interested in disability studies and social justice. Thom was very much interested in there too. Mary Ann Janda is a seasoned, outspoken and well-respected senior colleague, as was Thom. And Tyson Kreiger is a relatively new faculty colleague. Thom was always dedicated to mentoring junior colleagues and to finding ways to assure that they developed into the best educators and scholars that they could be.

The Southern Humanities Council is an interdisciplinary community, and Thom was certainly interdisciplinary. He was a psychologist, a writer, a historian, an educator, a counselor, a philosopher, an activist, a lover of music, a humorist and, of course, a colleague and a friend. I knew how interested he was in writing. Thom's exploration of and dedication to his own writing was, in part, what inspired me to "give it a try" at this conference. And he was always encouraging. I thank him for that. Over the past dozen years I have been at Utica College, Thom was always my "go to" guy for subtleties in word-smithing when I was stuck.

Although the term is a bit overused as far as I'm concerned, I must say that Thom was the epitome of what we like to call a "lifelong learner." Just last semester, Thom have an interesting Nexus talk here at the college describing some of his research efforts over the years. And at a time in his career when he didn't have to try anything new, Thom was excited this semester to be teaching a course he developed dealing with psychology in film. This semester, Thom was also putting the finishing touches on a book chapter on which he had been working. Thom was a teacher...and he was a learner.

Thom also embraced technology and used social media in the way that it should be used. MANY of us have chuckled at Thom's humorous Facebook posts, and have learned from his clever posts about anniversaries of the births of famous psychologists and historical figures, and have paused in thought at a philosophical quip or spiritual post of Thom's. My Facebook account has been buzzing this week with posts from faculty colleagues, current and former students, friends and folks I don't even know sharing their loving and inspirational memories of Thom. I got a message this week from someone who went to elementary school with Thom, letting me know how much he appreciated my posting of the photo of Thom's tree on Facebook. I think I speak for MANY of us in saying that we will truly miss Thom's posts.

Thom was also a very active and thoughtful blogger as well. He belonged to a group called "Personal Bloggers Are Us." Fellow bloggers from around the world read his words with keen interest. The word "inspirational" has been the most common to describe Thom's blog writing (as well as his teaching). Here is some of what Muriel Jacques this week on her blog from London:

He always had a kind word for each of us, and made a point of reading all my posts. He was sending me words of encouragement at every possible opportunity. Thom just understood what we were writing, and was happy when I was eventually published in a national magazine. But he would also have told me to continue even if I hadn't. Because that's who he was: supportive and deeply human. I also loved his eclectic posts and his sense of humour.

And I have learned that there is no such thing as online grief. Silly me.

I am also left with a sense of unfinished business. I had one thing to tell him, and I never did. It was: Thank you, Thom

It is dark and rainy in London, but I need a walk right now.


When our panel at the Southern Humanities Conference discussed legacy after death two weeks ago in Virginia, I had no idea how close to home that discussion would hit. On Tuesday, I told Courtney - an education student in my History of Psychology class - that teachers are somewhat advantaged when it comes to legacy. I told her that even though the students who she will soon be teaching will have never met Thom Brown, they will be influenced by him, because she has been influenced by him. And her students' students will also be touched, if only indirectly, by the love and inspiration of Professor Brown. That's a big part of what comforts me now. The ripples - no, the wave - of Thom's passion and dedication and talent as an educator, colleague and friend will go on for a long, long time...forever? Thom left this world a far better place than when he entered it. He positively affected MANY lives, locally and globally.

Thom Brown's lighthouse beacon continues to shine bright and far.

If I have gone on for too long, I apologize. But it is perhaps I do not want to say good-bye. None of us do.

I can think of no better way to conclude my comments this morning that to share the advice that Thom himself wrote recently on his blog site (advice that is relevant to more than just faculty and students):

"So I ask my faculty colleagues to be demanding but fair. Set high goals for your students, and hold them accountable for reaching those goals. At the same time, be cognizant of the pressures on students and work with them to reduce [those pressures]. Of students, I ask that you be demanding of yourselves by resisting the temptation to take the shortcut, be demanding of your fellow students by insisting that they work by the same rules as you, and be demanding of your professors by asking that they be fully engaged in their courses. For anyone, faculty or student, to settle for anything less is tolerate a level of mediocrity that reflects poorly on us all. Let's not sell ourselves short."

Godspeed, Thom. Thank you, and may you rest in peace.