Posted on 29 March 2013.
Clockwise from left: The late Professor Emeritus of English Dick Cole, Professor Emeritus of Religion Sam Maloney, Professor Emeritus of Religion Max Polley, Professor Emeritus of Greek George Labban. (Davidson College photo)
“Life is a journey. Time is a river. The door is ajar.”
—Jim Butcher, Dead Beat
In a time when death has been moving prominently in my circles on campus and beyond, I found some strange, hard comfort in reporting and writing a 50th-anniversary story about the college’s Humanities Program, which for me felt so full of life and memory as I approached my own half-century marker.
“Humes” was born the same year I was, so the program and I were both 18 when I ventured unsuspectingly a Gilgamesh lecture in September 1981. Two very academic years later, I emerged with a deep sense of the broad sweep of my own Western culture in the world. It was a very personal and at the same time a very universal view of things as they are. A broad, deep view represents perhaps the essence of the liberal arts—the word “liberal” springing from the root word for “freedom” and the word “art” harking back to “fit together, join.” Thirty years on, I still subscribe to this very personal, very universal view of humanity through the humanities.
For the Humes program itself, I first thank Max Polley, professor of religion, now emeritus. Max “The Ax” was my freshman adviser and Humes professor then. One day he convinced me, of little faith and flagging in spirit after a disheartening first term, to stick with it. I did. Max lives at The Pines at Davidson now, where I recently visited him and other founding fathers of the Humes program: Sam Maloney (religion), George Labban (Greek) and Dick Cole (English).
With varying degrees of firmity, in age as in youth, all four men were in fine form when Bill Giduz and I went to take their picture and interview them in late February.
I had never formally met Cole before, but was immediately drawn to his quiet, sharp, humble, gentlemanly humor. He touched on a story in passing about his time as a World War II cryptographer. In passing, mind you, he touched on this grand adventure, just one out of a lifetime of them on his pages of the divine human comedy. What panache, I thought, what class and wealth of spirit still. Natty dresser, too.
A week later, Cole got a hard diagnosis. On March 23, he died.
“Gone on ahead,” is the best euphemism I’ve ever heard for dying, one I learned from President Emeritus Sam Spencer. “Gone on ahead” places everyone and everything in its proper context, which is to say in the fullness of time—and maybe even the fullness of culture if you squint just right for that very personal, very universal view of humanity through the humanities.
All this to say thanks. Thanks, Dick, for sharing your life, so well-lived, in such a meaningful way. Thanks, Max and Sam and George, for continuing to do so during the time we’re here together. George, down the hall in the health care wing — his door is ajar — watching very loud commercials of very pretty gals on a very large television…. Sam Maloney, in shoutin’ good form as he plans a solo cross-country auto trip for his 89th birthday…. Max, in customary dry, good-humored spirits as he cares for his beloved wife Jackie, companion for two camping trips across Europe with small children, and so much more.
So much more.
Life is a journey. Time is a river. The door is ajar.
John Syme is a senior writer at Davidson College, where he writes the Daybook blog. This article is reprinted from that blog with permission.
Read The Davidson Journal story on Humes
March 24, 2013, DavidsonNews.net, Obituary: Dr. Richard Cargill Cole, 86.