Reflections at the Memorial Service for Professor Wayne Knoll
January 15, 2014
Anne, I know I speak for our entire community when I express our most sincere condolences on your loss. In a university community that has felt deeply the loss of a dear friend, teacher, and colleague, we know that none of us has felt his loss so deeply as you. You will forever be in our thoughts and prayers.
When I was just getting started in the work of administration, I would often hear lines like: “No one is irreplaceable….” Eventually I came to learn the line attributed to Charles de Gaulle: “The cemeteries of the world are filled with indispensable men.” I guess these words were intended to motivate or remind me to seize the moment; perhaps to encourage a sense of humility or perspective.
It didn’t take me long to realize though, that the statement just wasn’t true. The longer I lived in this community the more I came to believe that every one is indispensable; no one can be replaced. As colleagues retired or passed away, I never stopped feeling their absence, never stopped missing their presence. And they are alive for me, here, every day.
I was one of the fortunate undergraduates who came to Georgetown in the mid-1970s and found my major in the most extraordinary department. The women and men who comprised our faculty in English, some of whom are here today, others who have now passed on, were some of the most incredible people to serve on this Hilltop.
Michael Ragussis taught me Modern Poetics and became my advisor; Ray Reno taught me Shakespeare; Jason Rosenblatt, Milton.
I think of Roland Flint often. On Monday, the Gospel was from the first chapter of Mark and I always think of his poem, “Follow,” when I hear those passages.
When we, as a university, are facing a tough issue that requires our most serious engagement, I often ask myself: “Would Jim Slevin or Leona Fisher or Paul Betz be pleased with this decision?”
John Hirsh and John Pfordresher have sustained and deepened our attention to the Catholic imagination.
Joan Holmer and John Glavin have taught us all how to embody the virtues of citizenship in the Academy—Wayne Booth called these the “habits of rationality”—honesty, courage, persistence, consideration, and humility.
And I feel Roger Slakey’s presence with every word I write.
In the Fall of my junior year, 1977, I took a course entitled “American Literary Expatriates of the 1920s” taught by Professor Wayne Knoll. We read Eliot’s The Wasteland, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast. And we read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
I guess it is obvious that it was an unforgettable experience—the kind of experience that you carry with you for the rest of your life. Of course, these works we read and discussed were extraordinary—but even more extraordinary was the sheer unbridled passion of our teacher. Every one of his students over the past four decades can attest to the pure joy that characterized our time with Wayne.
Wayne didn’t just make the work come alive; he made it feel urgent; it wasn’t just important—it was essential—so much more was at stake than just seeking an understanding of the text. It was like we hadn’t lived until we came into contact with the works he introduced to us. We all can recite moments when in class, when a comment or insight would excite Wayne and he’d exclaim: “Oh…if Faulkner were here with us, he would be so proud!!!” And he made us believe it.
Wayne served our community in many ways. Following the retirement of Jesse Mann, Wayne became our NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative, a position he held for a quarter-century, bringing both his love for Georgetown Athletics and his commitment for sustaining the appropriate balance for our students engaged in intercollegiate athletics.
But he was most at home in the classroom, sharing his love for writers and works that came alive in his hands.
Reading The Sound and the Fury with Wayne opened me up to literature—I had never read anything quite like that work and we began a conversation on Faulkner that led in the spring of my senior year to do a tutorial on Faulkner with Wayne: the two of us working through the great novels—Light in August, Absalom, Absalom, Go Down Moses, As I Lay Dying, and the less heralded, The Wild Palms and The Unvanquished. Throughout that spring we met and talked about Faulkner.
The idea that shaped our conversations were remarks Faulkner gave in Stockholm when he received the Nobel Prize:
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
No one here is replaceable. Each is indispensable. As long as we walk this campus, we will feel Wayne’s presence, we will know we shared this ground for four decades with one of the most passionate, joyful, giving, and loving human beings we have ever had the privilege of knowing. A man with a great soul, an inexhaustible spirit of compassion, a man who gave each of us a belief that we will not only endure, we will prevail.