By early May of 1992, I’d been actively seeking employment for several months. I was less than two months from defending my dissertation, but prospects for employment in academia come fall were not promising. I’d sent out dozens of applications, and the results to date had been meager: in January, I’d had a few face-to-face chats at the national math meetings in Baltimore that ultimately led nowhere, while in February I’d bombed my only on-site interview, at a regional state university in Indiana. I was already contemplating remaining at Illinois—I thought I had a pretty good shot at getting assistantship support for one more year. Maybe I could make progress on extending results from my doctoral work, too.
At that relatively late moment in the hiring cycle, two glimmers of hope appeared. First, I snagged another interview, this time at a liberal arts college in the northern half of the Hoosier State. And I’d recently sent my materials off for an opening in Kentucky—a tenure-track position at Georgetown College, just a little north of my old stomping grounds in Lexington and only about an hour away from my parents. It was probably the last viable opening for 92-93 to hit the desk of my Director of Graduate Studies.
After final exams ended, I headed home to be with my folks for a few days, and as usual, I snuck in an overnight visit to Lexington to see James. On the way back to Florence, I made an impulsive decision to swing by Georgetown’s campus, just to remind myself of its layout (I’d been there at least a couple of times during college to see my sister’s basketball team face GC) and figure out where the math department was located.
The three-story George Matt Asher Jr. Science Center sits at the right base of the circle that leads up to Giddings Hall, the administration building. It didn’t take long to determine the Mathematics, Physics, and Computer Science (MPC) Department resided on the middle floor of Asher. Since graduation had already taken place, the floor was very quiet, except for one man doing some year-end clean-up in a physics lab. After introducing myself, I explained my reason for being there. He showed me around a little, not put out in the least by the interruption of his work. He then offered to take me to Giddings to meet the Academic Dean; I wasn’t sure how to say no. After a brief conversation with said Dean, I took my leave of campus, thanking Dr. Bart Dickinson, the quietly enthusiastic physicist, for his time, and wondering if I’d see him again.
Well, yeah. The interview in Indiana went sorta okay at best—the chair there told me they might offer me a one-year visiting position. Not very long after, though, Georgetown called, asking for an interview on the first of June. I still hadn’t figured out how to give a good interview, but the people in the department were uniformly nice, and somehow I soon found myself in possession of a tenure-track job offer. Bart became my first department chair.
I lived in an apartment in Lexington for my first three semesters at GC, but in December of 1993, I took the plunge into home ownership, a small three-bedroom new build about three miles north of campus. I learned early on that Bart and I shared a denominational background, of which he reminded me occasionally with invitations to attend First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I was slowly working myself back into church-going after several years away, and as 1994 progressed, I found myself in the pews of FCC on Sunday mornings more and more often. Bart sang tenor in the choir, and began checking to see if I would be interested in joining. I’d never been a member of a choral group, but over the years I had learned enough to do decently well with the bass part of many a hymn.
It was on a warmer-than-average Wednesday evening in January 1995, not long after the start of the spring semester, that I decided to give choir practice a try. Bart might have been the only person there I knew, but everyone was super welcoming (several of the folks I met that night are still around and will be singing alongside me tomorrow morning). I was placed in between two of the other three basses on the back row. As rehearsal progressed, I couldn’t help but notice a woman in the row in front of me occasionally stealing glances my way. Of course, I noticed her, too: an attractive redhead, one of a very few people in the room around my age (At 30, I was definitely on the younger side).
I did know her name, and who she was. I’d recently become newsletter editor of our state math organization. One of my duties the previous fall had been to gather news from campuses across Kentucky. Martha Lutz was my contact on the math faculty at nearby Midway College, and she’d written back with an item or two for me to include in the fall issue. Around the same time, she served as Worship Leader one Sunday and had her name in the bulletin; I put two and two together, so to speak.
Twenty-five years ago tonight, when rehearsal ended, Martha and I said our first hellos to one another. (Okay, possibly not quite the first.) We wandered out to the parking lot and talked for a decent while beside our cars. The interaction felt comfortable, natural; it was immediately clear how kind, how smart she was, and that she was someone I’d be happy to get to know better. I didn’t sing with the choir on Sunday, but returned for practice the next Wednesday and began joining in on Sundays thereafter. On the third Saturday after meeting, we had our first date. In less than eighteen months, Martha and I were married in that church.
Bart’s plan had worked brilliantly.
It took me a good while to realize we’d been set up. Martha had been a member of the FCC choir for a few years by the time of our meeting. She did eventually mention that Bart had been telling her about “this nice young, new mathematician” in his department, but of course he hadn’t let on to either of us his ulterior motives in trying to lure me to practice. While Martha and I would have eventually crossed paths without the nudge from Bart, you never know if the outcome would have been the same. Over the last few years, Bart’s children have told us it was his only effort at matchmaking, and also among his proudest achievements.
Over the years Bart and I had various points of connection. For a while in the latter part of the 90s, he and I co-taught a Sunday School class for college students at FCC. It rarely attracted more than three or so people, but it allowed me to see up close Bart’s humble yet deep faith. When there was an office crunch on our floor of the science building in my second year on the job, Bart volunteered to move into a storage room adjacent to the main physics lab, letting me have the office he’d used since the late 60s. With the exception of the year I spent on sabbatical in New York, he and I are still the only ones to have occupied 120 Asher Science Center.
A few weeks into the Fall 2003 semester, it became apparent that Bart was suffering significant short-term memory problems, significant enough to warrant an immediate retirement. As it happened, Bart’s son Jonathan (who had been a freshman at GC my first year there) was wrapping up a PhD in chemical physics in Virginia; he wound up being the search committee’s choice to fill the hole beginning the following fall.
For the next few years, I generally saw Bart only at church. In our conversations, he was as friendly as ever, but I can’t say with certainty that he regularly knew who I was. After a while, it became too difficult for him to continue with the choir. Unfortunately, his condition kept worsening, to the point that he eventually became homebound.
It was only after Bart’s memory issues arose that it dawned on me that I’d never offered him any kind of thanks for the pivotal role he played in my good fortune. I subsequently compounded my error by deciding it was too late to try to make amends—I’ve come to see that even if he wouldn’t have remembered my words, there was no reason not to tell him, either verbally or in writing. It’s in the top tier of my life’s regrets.
In the fall of 2013 I taught an 8am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One Thursday in early November, I was gathering my thoughts before class when Jonathan came in the room with the news that his father had passed away early that morning. I understood this was a mercy for Bart, a thoroughly fine and decent person who’d been dealt a cruel fate over his final decade. Nonetheless, I broke down immediately. I hurt for Jonathan, his mother, and his siblings, but I imagine I was also selfishly grieving for myself, over the letter never sent, the words never spoken.
The funeral was the following Sunday afternoon, in the church sanctuary. The family asked the choir to sing one of Bart’s favorite anthems, “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name” (truth be told, it’s a favorite of mine, too). It wasn’t necessarily easy, but we did it, and I believe fairly well.
There’s so much in our lives, both good and bad, that comes completely undeserved. The love of one’s life. Dementia. Close friendships. Cancer. On those occasions when it’s something on the positive side of the ledger, perhaps we should celebrate, appreciate, and maybe even find a way to reciprocate. I’m very fortunate to have been on the receiving end of kindnesses so frequently. I could stand to act like I recognize this more often.
I guess there’s no time like the present to begin, so today I’ll celebrate a quarter-century with Martha in my life, and acknowledge my debt to Bart Dickinson, for thinking to look out for me.
Thank you for helping make my life so much richer, Bart.
Addendum: Speaking of kindnesses, I’m grateful to Jim Bartlett, who has a post today describing what was happening in the world on January 18, 1995, at his blog The Hits Just Keep On Comin’.