Reflections on Gary.
In this edition: In memoriam. RIP Gary Eckles. If you have a reflection of a deceased mentor of yours feel free to leave it in the comments.
Thanksgiving is a holiday of ironies. It is celebrated because of a 1621 gathering in recognition a land deal, one in a long line of dispossessions against American tribes. At that meeting, I am reminded by reading the opening passage to Tommy Orange’s novel There There (2018), was Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags. Massaoit’s son Metacomet, remembered in the history books as King Phillip, would later be dismembered after waging war against the colonists. There are, of course, other equally sanguinary “feasts” which marked out November as a time of thanks-giving. Massacres, wars, dispossession. These are intimately bound into the history of the Thanksgiving, one of the brand-name holidays in America. And so, our traditional day of gratitude, of giving thanks for what life has given us, is marked by blood.
This year there was another, perhaps in some ways smaller, wrinkle in our national day of thanks. Coronavirus left Thanksgivings in the U.S. in an awkward place. The virus was a looming presence behind the holiday. The loss of so many loved ones, so many family members, has left many people with little to feel glad about. Not to mention that many places in America have re-entered lockdown, or are on the precipice of doing so. The very act of congregating in gratefulness presents a menacing act in a way that is perhaps truer to the original occasions of Pilgrim-Indian tête-à-tête. An editor of mine at CS Monitor wrote to encourage others to “practice gratitude” during a time when many families skipped the holiday outright.
The phrase “practice gratitude” is foreign to me, I admit. Practicing gratitude, to me, means something like saying “please” after I tell someone to fuck off. But I want to follow her lead in a perverse way. In a time when the expectation is that we will practice appreciation I find that I want to be a little cold, to practice distance and detachment. However, I also find myself wanting to explore an empty space, to be warm. That tension is something that perhaps only one person I have known would truly have appreciated.
In place of some finely-wrought and mind-shatteringly genius reflections about politics or history, I want to offer a brief reflection on a mentor of mine who perished this year. I am not particularly grateful for the death. But I am glad I knew him. It is a relatively rare thing to find room to reflect on the scope of your relationship with someone who played a mentor role to you. I have been peculiarly lucky, as well as depressingly unlucky, in my mentor relationships over my life so far. I would put Gary Eckles into the first column.
He was an expert in rhetoric, debate, and communication theory, who taught for decades at a long list of Virginian institutions of higher learning: Thomas Nelson Community College, College of William & Mary, Old Dominion University, Christopher Newport University, and West Virginia Wesleyan College.
A sentence I pulled from his obituary says, “Gary was a true friend and father figure to many.” That phrase, “father figure”, implies something I want to deny. Speaking only for the relationship we had, it was one of equals. He ensured that.
I wanted to take this opportunity— whether or not anyone takes it is up to them— to leave a space for people to leave reflections on mentors they have had who are now deceased. Given the furor and frenzy of the year, it seemed like a good idea. If someone springs to mind, please leave a comment below.
And so here, to close out this morbid edition, is a reflective comment I wrote for a former mentor who recently kicked it:
November 11, 2020
To me it was Professor Eckles. I never did get used to calling him Gary, even though he insisted and I eventually relented. He had convinced me to enroll in the College of William and Mary. I had stumbled into one of his classes at TNCC and ended up chatting with him after a class. Two hours later, among many musings about anarchism, Thomas Jefferson, the proper way to prepare osso buco, "secular taoism" (something, I think, completely unique to him at the time), and more than a few rants about the inherent evilness of administrators, and I was charmed. It was his range and the seriousness of his mind that grabbed me. It was his generosity that allowed me to notice those things. By the end of the year, I had enrolled in William and Mary at his suggestion and I was eager to get started working with him. Unfortunately, due to his accident, he left before that semester began. But we stayed in touch and I spoke with him on the phone every six months or so and I even got to see him a few times in Charlottesville when I would pass through. He was perhaps the only person in my life I could earnestly describe as a disciple of truth. Professor Eckles— Gary— you will be missed!
Daniel Thomas Mollenkamp (Former Student)