27 May, 2015

A Tree Grows At Utica College: Remembering Thom Brown

by Dave Roberts
Originally given Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Courtesy of Linnea Franits

My name is Dave Roberts and I am an adjunct professor of psychology at Utica College. I am also an alumnus of the college, graduating in 1977 with a B.A. in Psychology. I also had the privilege of being in the first classes that Thom Brown ever taught at this college. I also had the privilege of being the caretaker for his last two classes at Utica College, after he died. I was there for the beginning of his time at Utica College and the end. The significance and surrealism of that moment will stay with me until I die. Since Thom’s death, there is not a day that goes by where he is not in my thoughts. Such is the impact that he has had on my life.

I think I took every class Thom had to offer. Theories of Learning and Behavior Modification are two that come to mind. I still have B.F. Skinner’s About Behaviorism prominently displayed in my bookcase. I would have taken a Home Economics course, if he taught it. Thom was one of the most demanding professors that I ever had; he set the bar high for his students. But his passion for teaching and love for his students made it easy and effortless to expend the energy, and, damn, I just wanted to excel in his classes because of the respect he commanded. He always treated us as capable of accomplishing anything we set our mind to do. In retrospect, Thom taught me that if we treat people as competent and capable, that they would, for the most part, respond accordingly. I have applied this teaching in my work and in my life.

I also had the privilege of being Thom’s research assistant and I remember many days in the lab recording data from the endless number of pigeons that our department seemed to have in the basement of Hubbard Hall. Thom’s preference for pigeons was well known, and not only for their research value. I recall Thom telling me that he preferred pigeons for research because “Rats bite, Pigeons don’t. “ Not only was Thom a scholar, he was pragmatic as well. Thom didn’t inform me however about the perils of holding a pigeon with its butt end facing me, immediately after a session in the Skinner Box. It only took me once to realize what an ill advised move that was. That was the only time I ever questioned the value of food as a reinforcer. But Thom, also understood, that some things you just have to discover on your own.

After I graduated from Utica College, I lost touch with Thom, but never forgot what he taught me. When the college hired me in 2003, we seamlessly picked up where we left off.

Thom was a great teacher, father, husband, writer, scholar, friend and mentor to all who had the privilege to know him. But above all, he was a great human being. Because of who he was, he would have made a profound impact no matter what he chose to do in life.

Thom transcended the myriad of physical challenges he faced like he handled everything else, with grace, class, dignity and humility. He was whole, in spite of the challenges he faced, and in my mind, embraced. And as Carl Jung once said, “I’d rather be whole than good.” Thom was the epitome of wholeness.

Through my friendship with Thom, I met and developed a strong friendship with Civita, who is just one of the classiest people on the planet. I also eventually met their daughters Megan, who ended up taking a class with me and Amy whom I recently have come to know. I am also glad that she is continuing her father’s blog. In her writings, I see the shadow of her father.

It is fitting that we are dedicating a tree in Thom’s honor. After all he wrote so many blogs about the previous tree outside of his office. There is rich symbolism and teachings that can be derived from all of nature if we are open to it. Thom understood that better than anybody and his reverence for human life extended to his reverence for nature. Thom also knew that turning to nature in times of challenge could bring about a measure of peace, if only for a moment in time. I have found this to be true in my own life.

I recently discovered that the magnolia tree represents nobility and perseverance. I can not think of a better choice of tree to plant in his honor, because I can’t think of two more appropriate choice of words to sum up the legacy of a man who left an indelible impression on the Utica College Community, and whose message will be carried on for generations.

Perhaps we did not choose this tree, perhaps it chose us.

Wishing you all peace.