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, a man of the absolutely finest character who set an example that is hard to match. He will be deeply missed.
Bob returned from conferences excited about some new second year grad student who he had met, 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.
When someone close to me dies, it often takes me a long time to process it and write a proper obituary. After my uncle Frank’s death, it took me four years. One night I found a very short note he had written me and just started to sob and finally put something down. After my grandmother died, it wasn’t until a couple of years later that a sort mythic story came to me in a dream and I realized that was to be my obituary to her. I suspect that it will be the same with Bob and it’s much too early for me to really have perspective on this and write the sort of thing I would like to write.
However, following on Kathleen Comerford’s memorials on Facebook, I wanted to put down some stories, but some seem rather long for a Facebook comment (which get cut off after not so many words). A few weeks ago, I decided to finally put something on the public side of this domain (which we have long used among our research team) and write down short blog entries about odd or amusing things I found in the course of my Consistory research. I should have started years ago, but I didn’t.
In any case, this seemed as good a place as any to put down some stories about Bob, who more than anyone since John Calvin is associated with the Consistory. I’m going to cut and paste a couple of things I put on Facebook and add one more story to the body. If you knew Bob and want to add something to the comments, please do so. Just know that what you write here is public.
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.
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 died her hair blue (well, highlights, but still), Bob was rare in his generation in declaring it marvelous and festive. He said it looked wonderful and seemed to think that coloring one’s hair a nice celebratory color was an excellent idea, not that he had any hair of his own to color, mind, but in principle.
I saw him a lot when we were in Berkeley because he usually spends a few weeks a year there. 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 and the guy behind the counter was this huge black guy. 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 “What the hell is that old white dude doing staring at me?” 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 broke out in a huge smile and said “Why thank you!”
Bob then followed up with conversation – 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. 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
This is one of my two favorite stories about Bob. I’ll put down the other one sometime too, but it’s long and somewhat personal. Anyway….
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, though, 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 and in fact. I knew that he had in fact worked on it late into the night, possibly until dawn in fact, because the deadline was due. So it was expectedly 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 kowtowing 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 the length and reread parts of it and saw the not so gentle expression, I hesitated on what to do. 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 off (in his departmental mailbox I suppose). 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. I have not had time to give it the full attention it deserves, but I wanted to call right away and thank you for the tremendous effort you put into this. I can see right off you saved me from some howlers,” which was his phrase for blatant 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 correct some of these obvious errors. I should have set it aside for a day and reread it, but I am enormously grateful for all your comments and the considerable embarassment you’ve saved me by catching these problems. I need some time to go through it more carefully and I’ll get back to you if I want clarfication on any of your arguments, but for now I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am.”
It was pure, guileless and genuine thanks which was not at all what I had expected. It was much better than my best case scenario (which was that, though a bit perturbed, he would recognize it as a good faith effort). I hung up the phone and thought “Wow! I guess he passed that test.”
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 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 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.