Sunday, December 23, 2007

Robert Galloway Kirkpatrick Jr.

In the course of attempting to find the proper term for the phrase, "These aren't the droids you're looking for," Barry (over at Enrevanche) and I discovered a common friend in our past. Friend, teacher, and mentor. Robert Galloway Kirkpatrick Jr's name appears on the title page of my bound MA thesis in the library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because if there is much value in it, he is largely responsible for it. And I have to say that he is largely responsible for more than that in whatever I may ever have contributed to any classroom in which I sat facing students.

Barry happened to witness our old teacher in what wouldn't even have been an atypical moment, as his quiet good sense reduced Bill O'Reilly to not much more than sputters. He was, in my recollection, one of the finest examples I've ever seen of the effectiveness of simply allowing the truth to do its own work against falsehood and wrong-headedness. The transcript of that exchange is available here, but I'll warn you that the hosting site is, rather sadly, on the side of O'Reilly, and posted the transcript by way of rebutting a Washington Post article (the link for which seems to have expired) that itself is written in admiration of Professor Kirkpatrick's exchange with the talk show host.

One of my own favorite memories of the man (and there are plenty to choose from) comes from a conversation we had one day, over lunch in the shaded courtyard of his Chapel Hill home, during a pause from the detailed attention he gave my thesis from start to finish. We were talking about the wonder of children's acquisition of language and he used a recent example from his own life to illustrate how idioms work, being constructions whose meaning is markedly different from what the literal meaning of the words might imply to a non-native or very young speaker.

The example centered around a recent train trip he had taken with his family, and while I'm sure I won't remember it perfectly, I think I can convey the gist. As the time to board the train approached, he had sensed the growing nervousness of his young son. He reported that when he finally pressed the young man as to the cause of his growing apprehension, the answer created one of those indelible memories that form the center of family stories to be told and retold, and also gave him an important insight into the nature of idioms. "If we're going to ride on the train," his son asked, "how will we get up there and what will keep us from falling off?"

I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing three years ago. 64 seems young to me now. If there is one thing abundantly clear in the recollections of him published in the faculty newsletter and the campus newspaper, it is that he touched every life he encountered with a depth that was rare and very nearly universal. I wouldn't even be surprised to find that, after a little time, the professor's words sank in through even Bill O'Reilly's professionally thick skull. Quiet truths, meticulously laid out and supported, have a way of doing that. And that, in itself, is probably one of the most important things I ever learned from Professor Kirkpatrick.

That, and how to make a really, really good tuna salad sandwich.