Remembering Joe C.

Much as I wanted to, I wasn’t able to attend Joe C.’s funeral Monday in Phenix City, Ala. The best I could do was to send personal condolences to his family via Facebook and to log on last Thursday evening–patchy though the connection was–to the webcast of a memorial service set in Park U.’s Breckon Sports Center, the same building where I worked with him for several years in the early aughts. Joe C. was the women’s basketball coach; I was the SID and Asst. AD. Our offices sat at the back of the building on the first floor–the only two offices tucked away back there, sharing a quiet hallway (quiet, other than during home events) with the concession stand. Often it smelled like popcorn, hot chocolate, nacho cheese. And when Joe talked on the phone or met with players–which happened often–I was near enough to overhear inaudible, muffled waves of dialogue. Day in and day out.

We were hired at the same time: July 1997. In fact, I interviewed that summer for the women’s basketball coaching position he was offered. That’s when Park instead hired me as their first full-time SID. D. and I had just moved to Kansas City that July–a few weeks after my mother died out of the blue–mainly to see to Ph.’s care and more generally to figure out this: “Now what?” Joe C. was the one colleague in the athletic department at the time who had kids within a couple of years of Ph. Feels now like an overstated memory to mention how Joe’s fathering modeled something for me, even tacitly. I can see now influences and affinities that operated only in a background way at the time.

I haven’t kept an office–day in and day out–alongside any other colleague for a full seven years, and who knows if that will ever happen again, especially considering the any-which-ways we rotate offices at EMU. Certainly I have known colleagues as mentors and friends for many years and across different institutions, but remembering Joe C. as a colleague and friend brings me back to what seem now, after his sudden death a week ago Sunday at the age of 59, like vivid and formative early influences. In this context, it’s appropriate to mention that one of Joe’s nicknames from way back (not sure whether it took hold at SIU or one of his NBA stops) was “garbage collector.” Garbage collector is, of course, a fitting name for the post player who rebounds and puts-back or relays the missed shots of others. Reminds me, too, of I.A. Richards’ definition of rhetoric as “misunderstanding and its remedies.” Basically, Richards’ rhetor is a sensitive “garbage collector,” a scrappy big–if I can blend these contexts–who wrestles for position, throws occasional elbows to clear stasis from the lane, and clears the glass, rebounding and thereby remedying others’ misses. A crucial professional role, isn’t it? Every department, every program needs a garbage collector. Now, I don’t want to trail off any farther than I have on this unusual point. Suffice it to say that Joe C. was the best at balancing a kind of quiet-but-commanding disposition, underwritten with a rare mix of qualities that coalesced into remarkable depth of character–compassion, conviction, humility, tenacity, good humor, toughness.

In 2001, Joe invited me to be his proxy at Native Vision–a stand-in at the camp held that year in Whiteriver, Ariz.–because he had been called to a Knicks camp on the same dates. I’ve returned to Native Vision almost every year since, invited by the camp’s organizers to chip in with Joe and others leading the basketball section of the camp. So even though I left Park U. in 2004 to take up the CCR program at Syracuse, I continued to see Joe every summer and as recently as this past June. That Ph. also attended Park in 2009, just before Joe resigned from coaching there was yet another reason we kept in contact. In fact, there were half a dozen times when it was reassuring to know that Ph. had run into Joe C., that they’d sat together at church, that Joe was looking out for him. What measure of influence or impact is this? I don’t quite know how to name it or how to reckon with its importance, other than to say that Joe dealt in magnitudes of kindness and generosity (of time and attention) far exceeding much else I’ve known.

And so what can you say when someone like Joe C. Meriweather–not that anyone else was quite like him–makes a premature exit? What besides remembering as hard as you can, telling others, scratching together a best-I-could-do-today panegyric, and vowing to become a kinder garbage collector? What other than pausing to notice, with a blend of sadness and anger, the unfair swirls snarling when you least expect them in time’s cross-currents? Ten days gone by and I don’t know.

But I do know this: I am lucky to have had Joe C. as a friend, and I sure will miss him.