Friday saw the passing of Bob Kingdon, my mentor, advisor, boss and dear friend of 22 years. Bob was a scholar of the first order, and a man of the absolutely finest character who set an example that is hard to match. He will be deeply missed.
Unlike most senior scholars, Bob went to conferences not just to see his old friends and to schmooze with the other top scholars in the field, but to sit in on first talks by second-year grad students and see what the kids were up to. He would return brimming with enthusiasm and saying he hoped it was okay that he had passed my contact info to a young student doing the most fascinating work. Numerous scholars told me they never got respect from their own professors until Bob attended one of their conference talks and then contacted the student’s professor to say what interesting work they were doing.
Bob accepted criticism of his work not just with grace but with gratitude, and was always concerned for his students first as humans and only secondarily as scholars.
He had been physically limited since his brain hemorrhage of a couple of years ago and asked for my help preparing a book based on a series of lectures he gave at Princeton in 1999. Only a couple of days before his death, he emailed me approving in principle my last proposed substantive changes. He was truly a scholar to his very last days, his astounding memory and precise mind active to the very end.
A Man of Great Kindness
He came to Geneva while I was doing my dissertation research. We met outdoors somewhere and he said “How are you doing?”
I said, “Fine thanks, and you?”
He waved off the question and cut to the chase: “No, really. How are you actually doing? Is everything going okay.”
I said, “Well, better actually.”
He said, “That’s why I asked. My first winter in Geneva was one of the hardest and most depressing of my life. I was afraid you might be struggling.”
In fact, I was, or I had been. An on again and then off for good relationship, coupled with the rainiest autumn on record in a city where I hardly knew anyone had indeed made for a rough landing in Geneva.
Bob was always concerned with the person first, the student/scholar second and was always kind and caring. After I met Theresa, I told Bob at one point that I wasn’t sure a career in scholarship was for me. He wrote me a long letter about how he thought I would be a good professor and hoped I would find a position at a top research institution, but he concluded, “those are just my hopes for you and my most important hope is that you be happy.” Though Theresa and I were still a new couple, he went on to say that it looked serious to him (perhaps even before we thought of it that way) and he told me he hoped I would be able to have it all, “but if you have to choose between an academic career and Theresa, you should choose Theresa.” Which I did.
An Open and Curious Mind
Bob on first appearance might have appeared like an uptight oldline Presbyterian, but it didn’t take long to see something very different. An incredible openness, curiosity and pleasure in things that were new and different. When my wife dyed her hair blue, the older generation was almost universal in their shock and dislike. Bob was the exception. We met on the street and he saw her blue hair and exclaimed, “Your hair is blue!” We braced for the condemnation that everyone else his age issued, but instead he said, “I love it! It’s so festive!”
I saw him a lot when we lived in Berkeley because he usually spent a few weeks a year there visiting his sister and other family. We got together regularly during his stays and occasionally he stayed in our student garret when his sister’s house was full. One day I was returning a video at the video store right next to the radical Black Muslim Bakery. The guy behind the counter was a huge black guy, easily 6’4″ and broad-shouldered. Bob was staring and staring and I could see the guy behind the counter getting tense and starting to get upset. He had this growing “Why is that old white dude staring at me like that?” look on his face.
As I was wondering how to defuse the tension, Bob, in enthusiasm and wonder, said “Your beard is incredible! I’ve never seen anything like it. It looks like it was painted on or something.” The guy flinched like he had been hit in the gut, then stood two inches taller and broke out in a huge smile. His whole worked rocked and he said “Why thank you!” with a look of both delight and utter amazement. Bob then followed up with conversation, always human, always curious. Did you shave it yourself? How long do you have to spend on it each day? What gave you the idea? Did you have a pattern or figure it out on the fly?
By the end of it, the guy was absolutely beaming, walking with a strut around the video shop and looking even taller than is normal 6’4″. There’s something about that incident that always sticks out in my mind as an indication of a mindset that I think contributed greatly to his scholarly abilities and his ability to connect with people.
A Seeker of Truth and a Man of Character
Beginning about my second year of grad school, since I was often close at hand as his one of his three research assistants, Bob started asking me to proofread his articles and conference papers he was writing. At first, he mostly ignored my comments except for minor stylistic or factual errors. Over time, though, as my knowledge of the field grew, he came to trust my criticism more. To some extent, it was really beside the point. The hallmark of Bob’s scholarship was precision and exactitude. He was not a scholar to make grandiose claims that he couldn’t support. He was a man who tended to extend his hypotheses out in tiny increments as he studied and researched and polled other scholars. So it was rare there was a great deal for me to say on any of these occasions.
But then came the day when he gave me a paper to read that, it’s fair to say, I thought was way below the level of his usual work. I was taken aback and somewhat unsure how to proceed. It had clearly been done in haste. I knew that he had in fact worked on it late into the night, possibly until dawn in fact, to meet the deadline. Though scholars of his stature often get exceptions on deadlines, Bob was not the sort to ever ask. Even at 70 years old, he would rather work all night than ask for an exception.
So the paper was rough and there were numerous factual errors. But what really concerned me was the tone. He was presenting before a conservative Christian audience and he seemed to be pandering to them, looking to please and, I thought, whitewashing the work of Calvin and the Consistory.
I was faced with a dilemma. Do I risk offending the person who controls almost every aspect of my academic and economic life, the person who can offer a thumbs up or a thumbs down on my disseration? But I asked myself what I would want if I had given a paper to a friend, and I decided that I would want blunt, honest feedback before I gave the paper in public, unpleasant though that feedback might be. So I sucked it up and decided to tell him exactly what I thought.
My critique began with “Well, this certainly is a kinder and gentler John Calvin” (in reference to the first president Bush, of course, who had given a speech about a kindler and gentler America). I then went on at great length with point for point responses. When I printed this out and saw that my response was longer than his paper and most definitely not kind, I hesitated. It seemed so… brash, maybe arrogant. Was it mean? No, I certainly did not intend it to be mean, but it was awfully blunt. And it was honest.
I finally decided I had to send it to him (though probably I should have done a rewrite to make it a bit more politic and polite). I remember dropping it in his departmental mailbox (this was before email kids). I did not believe that Bob was the vindictive sort, but I had not really tested that theory. As I dropped it off, I said to myself “Well, this will be the measure of the man.”
Riinnnggg… riinnnnggg. I pick up the phone.
“Tom. This is Bob Kingdon” he said in his characteristic clipped speech that could indicate either anger or joy. “I received your response to my paper,” he continued in flat, clipped tones. Uh oh.
“I have not had time to give it the full attention it deserves,” he continued, “but I wanted to call right away and thank you [emphasis his] for the tremendous effort you put into this. I can see right off you saved me from some howlers [his phrase for embarrassing errors]. I’m a little embarrassed to have asked you to read such a rough copy and I’m sorry for the extra effort it took for you to edit this document. I should have set it aside for a day and reread it, but I am enormously grateful for all your comments. You’ve spared me considerable embarrassment. I would never have asked you to do this if I had realized how much time it was going to take from you. I need some time to go through it more carefully and I’ll get back to you if I want clarification on any of your arguments, but for now I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am.”
I had said he response would be the measure of the man. I hung up the phone and said to myself, “Well, I guess he passed that test.” It was pure, guileless and genuine thanks.
I can’t say that my character is as strong and my interest in truth so pure. I don’t think I’m particularly bad at taking criticism, but I know for certain I am not that good at taking it. That incident happened somewhere between 15-20 years ago now and it has set the mark I shoot for.
Being, uh, less than perfect, I have had several chances to test my own reactions in the face of criticism and see how I measure up to that same test. I have to say, my test results have fallen short of Bob’s summa cum laude performance, but having that one example, and indeed other subsequent examples from Bob since that case was not at all out of character for him, to return to has made me a much better person. Since that day, whenever I have been subjected to criticism, I always try to stop for a couple of seconds, get beyond the punch to the gut, and think of Bob and his response and I try to remind myself that the proper attitude is gratitude and the proper response is to say “Thank You!” I can’t say I’m good at it, but I’m a lot better at it than I would have been without his example to guide me.
I could multiply the stories endlessly. Bob pulling a sheaf of papers out of his desk from an abandoned book project saying he wished he could find someone to give them to since he’d really like to see that book, but he would never write it himself. Bob, who never made any effort to be the hip, col professor sitting on the floor at a party to demonstrate some Hawaiian musical instrument. Bob, the scholar, always being right at home with everyone. In Geneva, some people had trouble understanding why a full professor who had received an honorary degree from the University of Geneva and many other honors, always made a point of having at least one dinner with the security person at the Archives, a person 30 years his junior, with no university degree and no real interest in history (and also my good friend, Daniel). Or the day Bob walked into our shared office and literally jumped in startled surprise when he saw me at my desk, on the first sunny day after a long stretch of rain: “Oh, I didn’t expect to find you here! I thought given the weather you would have taken the day off and gone climbing.”
The core of it is that Bob was that though Bob was one of the great scholars of his age (they had an entire special conference to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his first book), he was fundamentally human and always put people first and scholarship second.
Some years later, I took a new job. Theresa asked me how it was going and how I liked my boss. I said, “He’s no Bob Kingdon, but he’s fine.”
She looked at me and said “Sweetie, very few people get to work for one Bob Kingdon. Nobody gets to work for two.”
And that may be the best way to sum up what was one of the great privileges of my life: having Bob as a mentor, professor, boss and friend for 22 years.