Tuesday, June 28, 2016

`It Is Common Things Which Touch Us'

For the third time in five months I have written the obituary for a senior member of the engineering faculty. All had been elected to the National Academy of Engineering, an honor comparable in its field to the Nobel Prize, if the Nobel Prize had anything to do with excellence. Academia is often a kindergarten of backstabbing resentment. When I ask a faculty member to assess the life and legacy of colleagues who have died, I sometimes get two answers, the one public and polite, the other private and savage. In the case of the three dead engineers, I heard none of the latter. All might be described as brilliant, hardworking men who managed somehow to be decent human beings – a combination that seems to grow ever rarer. I remembered Richard Wilbur’s “For Dudley” (Walking to Sleep, 1969), which begins:

“Even when death has taken
An exceptional man,
It is common things which touch us, gathered
In the house that proved a hostel.”

Wilbur wrote the poem after the death of his friend Dudley Fitts (1903-1968), the poet, teacher and translator from the Greek. To honor the “exceptional” dead is a sacred trust. Their fate will soon be ours, for death is the truest democracy:

"All that we do
Is touched with ocean, yet we remain
On the shore of what we know."

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