Today I attended a memorial mass celebrating the life of a friend and colleague, Dr. John Alfred Pierre Dennis, Jr., who died on February 9, 2008 (b. 10/21/48). Dr. D, as he was known to students, was one of those people whose spirit literally seemed to linger in the room after he left – making it a better place than it had been before he entered. There are other articles where you can read about the tragic circumstances of his death (he was murdered in his home by a former mentee), or the triumphs of his professional life (for example, he was one of a relatively small number of African-Americans with a PhD in history from Stanford University), but I wanted to take a moment to share a few personal remembrances.
Although I had known John enough to say hello for several years, which with him meant a hug and a kiss on the cheek every time I saw him, we had our first personal and bonding conversations in the spring of 2006 when we both attended a retreat for faculty on the Russian River in Northern California. We discovered we shared in common a passion for teaching, an affection for European history, and interestingly, taught the only two courses on death at Saint Mary’s College. John taught his as a January Term cross-curricular offering with historical, cross-cultural, philosophical, and spiritual dimensions and called it, “Death and Dying.” Mine was a semester-long course called “The Anthropology of Death,” and was crafted along the lines of many such anthro courses at many institutions – a review of the history of funerary and ritual theories, a little endocannibalism, a little mortuary archaeology, and all of the famous case studies you can probably think of off the tops of your little ethnographic heads.
Believe it or not, a scholarly interest in death is the kind of thing that academics can bond over, and we talked about our efforts to convince students (and sometimes colleagues) that the study of death, far from macabre, was a great way to study life. We agreed that to understand a culture’s response to death was to gain insight into what it valued most about life. I thought of that today as I sat, literally in the last little folding chair in the far, far, back corner of the packed to bursting chapel and listened to ways that Dr. D’s death prompted the College community to celebrate and remember his life. They mentioned his love of music, dance, and the arts; his sense of teaching as a calling from God; his eccentric (yet classy, in my opinion) taste in clothing colors; and above all, his ability to inspire others. John had spent many of his years at Saint Mary’s teaching students in the High Potential Program, which identifies, admits, and then works tirelessly to support students, from disadvantaged and under-prepared backgrounds at the College. One of the speakers at the service described John as the person who stood in the space between the students and their dreams, helping them identify those aspirations, believe in them, and achieve them.
One of the last extensive conversations John and I ever had was after I gave a talk in the Academic Integrity Seminar he was teaching (students attending are those who have been found guilty of a violation of the academic honor code). He came up to me afterwards and clasped my hands and said, “Cindy, you are a wonder.” That’s exactly what he said. Somehow John could say things like that and you would feel the sincerity of his praise penetrating down to your bones and inspiring you. I’m sure I beamed, and in that moment it hardly mattered that at the end of a long day I was certain I was anything but… I can only imagine how that ability to so quickly and easily make meaningful connections benefited his students.
So, Dr. John Dennis, I offer you this blog entry, as my own way of commemorating and honoring what was important to me about your life and death. It scares me that you were killed by one of the people that you tried to help. It pleases me to say you were my friend. It inspires me to continue the work you felt was so important in teaching, mentoring, and promoting appreciation for cultural diversity. It deeply and profoundly saddens me that we will not dance together at next year’s Christmas Party, but in my mind’s eye, you will always be rocking out to “I Will Survive” as we did in December of 2007. With love, Cindy.