Bill, Another Time

“It is as if life were just a dream placed in the window to cool, like a pie, then stolen” (13).

I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, Lorrie Moore

Although I can’t believe it and the words don’t come readily, I thought I should try to peck a few lines on the sudden, tragic loss this week of Bill Hart-Davidson, a great and giving friend and colleague and mentor to countless people, and to me. He died on Monday, unexpectedly, due to a cardiac event while out for a springtime run.

Throughout the week I’ve read and deeply appreciated the memories others have recounted on social media (mostly FB), accounts repeating in the sense that nearly every one of them underscores Bill’s kindness and generosity. These qualities with Bill seemed predispositional, baked in, more settled than even a first principle, call it an ur principle, or a fiber of being. He was kind, generous. To me this meant that he always treated me better than I expected, or deserved, to be treated; he listened for and understood better than I could, the filaments of my ideas. This in turn sourced his encouragement; it felt almost like he could, by listening as he did, describe your meandering, nascent ideas back to you more lucidly than they had existed before. Almost a superpower in academia, we could call this regenerative listening, to take another’s criss-crossed wayfinding and to plant a few low-key pathway lights.

After I learned on Tuesday about the unfathomable lightning strike of Bill’s untimely death, I heard myself describing him to a few people who I see most days and who could tell I was carrying on, academia-in-April-style, with a sharp and heavy pain: he lifted others by the hundreds, juggled fire and more, threw disc golf with the love of his life in their magical backyard, ran and biked and yet never appeared tired, played bass, never missed an EWM tournament pick ’em, and associate-deaned so wholeheartedly and with rare optimism that we were all better for it.

I don’t remember meeting Bill before 2009, but he was then and there in that moment, my first semester at EMU, what was a short drive down I-96 from MSU, a fast friend, thoughtful and engaging and abundantly convivial. In truth, he was more the longtime friend of Steve K. and Steve B., two of my new-at-the-time EMU colleagues. They would golf, for example, and oftentimes invite me, but I wouldn’t go, golf not really appealing to me. But this hospitality extended to so many other occasions: a lunch meeting at MSU that spring (of 2010) to talk with Malea Powell about whether NCTE could be persuaded to preserve the infrastructure (or at least the data) from CCC Online Archive, or New Year’s Eves at The Compound throughout the 2010s when I could tag along and enjoy seeing again so many of the MSU WRAC crew. There was a time when, at EMU, I was hailed from across the parking lot as Steve (which Steve, nobody could say), and this was a low key running joke Bill and I shared, how to be friends with the Steves while not surrendering overmuch to Stevenesses.

In April 2011, I flew on Spirit Airlines to the Atlanta CCCC. I stayed only a couple of nights, crowding into a roomshare with Bill and Steve K., claiming the rollout couch, and making the most of the conference on a spare budget. The trip back to Michigan was by car, twelve hours along I-75, with a stop-off in Lexington, Ky., to visit with Jim. On that drive, we came up with plans for what would be the first of several WIDE-EMU conferences, a local, free, one-day conference on a football-free Saturday in late September or early October, hosting first at EMU, then alternating, MSU, EMU, MSU, EMU. Bill taught me the value of these affordable, accessible structures of participation, about how articulating them made them so, about how they sewed connections, rapport, goodwill, and senses of belonging to something bigger than only local programs and institutions in isolation could offer. Proof of concept was among Bill’s maxims, and WIDE-EMU proved again and again the richness of low cost sociality for the field.

When I took to the mid-career job market in 2017-2018, Bill had just blurbed Network Sense, a continuation of the ways he’d steadfastly encouraged that work over the years, and I asked if he would be willing to write a letter on my behalf, which he did. Later, when I was sitting with a difficult decision–one of the most difficult decisions of my life in that it would require me to move 500 miles away from Is., who was then in middle school, he was there, available to talk on the phone, to weigh pros and cons, and to think across those sometimes hard to follow dotted lines from minutiae to the biggest of big pictures and back again. He was more generous with me than I deserved or could ever repay. And I always felt like had I asked for more–of his time, of his perspective, of his guidance–he’d have given it. Is there any purer form of friendly mentorship, or uplift than this?

Recently Is., who is now a high school senior, committed to MSU and so will be in East Lansing this fall, dormitory living, a first-year student, middle of the mitten verdant as only a new Spartan can be. All those years ago, I grew up an hour north of Lansing, and with a wish for return, also because I don’t mind at all the long cold gray winters, I’d given my best attempts over the years to find and follow a path along the Red Cedar River, first as a PhD applicant, then as a professorial one, kindly and gently declined in each case. In addition to witnessing Is.’s beaming green about the years ahead, among the things I most looked forward to about her being at MSU was reconnecting with Bill, catching up with him for a beer or over lunch, talking, listening, being excited about ideas, feeling smarter than before; I’d been so looking forward to this as the best-of East Lansing, taking some reassurance in knowing that Bill’s friendly, timeless wisdom was nearby.

I know I am not alone with the magnitudes of upheaval felt across the past several days. And through that jarring sadness, especially for those who loved him most, for his closest colleagues, friends, and former students, especially for the Steves, especially for L. and L., all of whom deserved more time1I remember a time, probably at the #beerrhetorics gathering following one of the WIDE-EMUs, when someone asked Bill whether he was working on a book, and his wry response was that he was, that it was for the time being called Otra Vez, a phrase that was especially flexible for sometimes meaning ‘another time,’ sometimes meaning ‘again,’ sometimes meaning ‘anew.’, in Bill’s memory and honor, I wish for clearings mapped in soft hewn outlines to allow for the fitfulness of grief, and for remembering well and again every, every of the best parts.

Notes

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    I remember a time, probably at the #beerrhetorics gathering following one of the WIDE-EMUs, when someone asked Bill whether he was working on a book, and his wry response was that he was, that it was for the time being called Otra Vez, a phrase that was especially flexible for sometimes meaning ‘another time,’ sometimes meaning ‘again,’ sometimes meaning ‘anew.’