By: STEPHEN SALISBURY
The comedian George Carlin once joked about what he wanted to have on his tombstone. “I’m thinking something along the lines of, ‘Geez, he was just here a minute ago.” For so many of us who have experienced a loss, the profundity of that statement, although intended to be humorous, resonates.
One of our most joyful and exuberant instructors here at IU South Bend would, I think, love that I would use such brevity in reference to his passing. His jocular sense of humor would appreciate being mentioned in the same vain as Mr. Carlin.
I’m referring, of course, to adjunct faculty member and Associate Editor of our on-campus publishing company, Wolfson Press, David James. “Professor James,” as I liked to refer to him, passed away at the age of 71 on Saturday, Jan. 20, after having suffered a massive heart attack on the steps leading to the second floor of the Education and Arts Building, the previous Wednesday.
James was not a bona fide professor in the truest definition of the word. He did not have a Ph.D. He had earned his bachelor’s degree at Notre Dame in the early 1970s and his master’s in liberal studies right here at IUSB. But what he lacked in credential, he made up for in exorbitant enthusiasm as an instructor and a collaborator.
He was truly one of the most effusive souls I ever knew. The last time I saw him we were standing on the dock outside Wiekamp during an emergency evacuation drill of some sort this past summer. The thing that made him such a great acquaintance to have, was although we hadn’t worked together much on campus, whenever he saw me he asked me how I was doing and what I was up to at the moment. He made you feel valued, and that is a rare characteristic in today’s culture.
The value and worth of the human individual was Professor James’ driving passion throughout much of his life. As a student at Notre Dame, he took a stand against the Viet Nam war. He was a world renowned musician, having won the All-Ireland Championship three times on the hammered dulcimer. Revered in the region’s Irish-music scene, this man who was tiny in stature, used his musical talents to sing protest songs at rallies supporting workers’ rights, LQBTQ issues, and anything else having to do with human and civil rights in the region. Having studied political science as an undergrad, he finally took a stab at political office by running for the South Bend School Board in 2016. He lost, but fared very well for a first time candidate.
One of my most cherished experiences with the Professor was three summers ago when I served as a peer mentor in his “College Success” class during the Summer Bridge program. The first day, in walks this older gentleman. He had on his signature ball cap and was carrying a satchel and a thermos full of coffee. He looked kind of like a little leprechaun with a long pony-tail flowing down his backside.
He always had a huge smile on his face and he approached whatever topic he was trying to focus on with such an air of wonder and excitement. You couldn’t help but be taken in by his personality.
I say “trying to focus” deliberately because he was one of the most free associative instructors I’ve ever seen. He would start talking about one thing and then bring up something completely unrelated. It was not uncommon to hear him say, “Whoa, I need to get back on track here.” But, what was so fun about that, was that he had lived such a gregarious life, the little gems or tangents he would go off on, yielded so many wonderful stories.
He had an insatiable curiosity and zest for life and learning. Toward the end of our six-week course, he showed the students a video he had made just that weekend before of him jumping in-tandem out of an airplane. He was making the point that you are never too old to approach a new experience with reckless abandon.
That was how Professor James seemed to live his life; with reckless abandon. He never gave up learning. He was taking an art class this semester. He fought passionately for the rights of all individuals and he genuinely cared about those who crossed his path every day. One day he was here and the next, he wasn’t. I think if he could send us a message from wherever he is now, he would say, “Smile! Time is short. Don’t miss out on all of the life that is around you. Make sure you value all those around you. They deserve it. You never know when they will be gone.”