I spent my first years of young married life in Tallahassee, Florida. It’s where I finished college, finished a Master’s degree, got divorced, got remarried and got divorced again. All of that activity propelled me to a new life in California. Tallahassee became a distant memory.
When someone asks me about the value of a Master’s degree I always confess that although it’s been a necessary ‘check-off’ on my resume, I never used much of what I learned during that program in my long and varied business career. But a side effect was that I learned how much I love to teach college students.
I was only 24 when I stood in front of a classroom for the first time, a grad student who had never done one minute of public speaking or teaching. One of my department’s very charismatic teachers was well-known for a mass enrollment course–Introduction to Mass Media–and he kicked it off using a big multimedia rock show. It was his hallmark. But he was going on sabbatical and I was assigned his course. I’m sure he had something to do with it, too, because that course was HIS baby.
Here’s what I remember about Dr. U: He had big 1970s eyeglasses that magnified his eyes. A broad smile and crackling wit. He talked about his wife, Karen, all the time. He had a couple of sons. He was a vibrant personality and a helluva teacher. He was a BPOC –big professor on campus. And he was my graduate adviser. It was the mid-1970s and he still had a bit of a 60s vibe to him. But that was then.
You know how it is, life moves on and so do we. Once I left college, I didn’t think of Dr. U again.
Until M and I got back together after 26 years and, apropos of nothing, he mentioned a conversation he remembered having with Dr. U.
“Don told me once that he didn’t think you knew just how very good you were and that when you figured it out, you’d be a force to reckon with,” M told me. That surprised me: I never really thought I’d made much of an impact on my professor. I’d never thought about it, period.
It was also surprising that M. remembered him and the conversation all those years ago.
And then, somehow, in that way they have, my college department’s fundraising arm found me, recently. Oh, I know how they found me. Because I’m Facebook friends with a current professor there and he passed along my info. (Thanks, Jay!) So I ended up on the newsletter mailing list and that’s how I disovered that Dr. U had died this past summer.
I expected a big obituary in the Tallahassee paper, in keeping with his stature as I remembered it, and his achievements at the college. Online, I found a very small obit and a Facebook page dedicated to his memory. He died young, mid-70s, of cancer and it looks like he spent his final years in an assisted living facility. He and the wife that seemed so beloved in the 1970s had long divorced.
It’s odd to revisit someone’s life after 35 years have passed. The things that seemed so big and significant to us back then maybe weren’t so big and significant in the greater scheme of things. People in our past freeze in time as we last saw them, at least for me. Years pass and we assume they stay mostly the same and their trajectory continues on the path we were familiar with.
Turns out, that’s not true.
Who knows why this devoted-looking couple split up. Or why the community didn’t seem to sufficiently honor the memory of someone who had once been so significant at its biggest university. Why even on the internet, that place where nothing every dies, there’s little evidence that he even lived.
Who knows? These things are mysteries.
What I do know is that although I might not have thought of him after I left school, his spark for teaching ignited mine and in that way, I’ve carried a little of him with me all these years.
I know I’m not the only one this charismatic, energetic teacher influenced, just one of hundreds, if not thousands.
It makes me wonder about all the other unsung –or insufficiently sung–heroes in the world, who inspire young people in ways we never acknowledge.
I may not have thought about him before, but I’m definitely thinking about him now, and thanking him for the gift he gave me.
So, rest in peace, Don Ungurait. I know that you’ve probably re-done the way St. Peter greets new arrivals. There’s now a huge light show and newbies are greeted with the first chords of this song by Peter Frampton, played so loud their ears ring.
Yeah, I remember.