Death is the golden key that opens the palace of eternity. – John Milton
It’s interesting to see the different ways in which we respond to different losses in our lives.
When I was small and my grandparents died, I knew that it was sad and I knew that they were people who were important, but the idea of them dying struck me as just, well, something that happened. During high school people died- people I went to school with, to camp with. Two of them died of cancer, which seemed so horribly unfair. Then, during high school and then college, there were violent deaths. A car crash killed three brothers, two of whom I went to camp with; they, like the boy who died of cancer, remain forever memorialized at Skogfjorden. Another killed a boy I went to high school with; I barely knew him, but to see his name flash in and out of the paper like every other stranger was bizarre. A recent graduate of St. Olaf died my sophomore year in a murder that, at the time, made national news for its shocking story, known as the “Craiglist murder”. My junior year, another relative died- a cousin of my mother’s, and a woman who I liked but, for the most part, honestly did not know. Each of these events struck me at the time, but then I moved on, not sure how to reflect on people who, though I knew them, were never great fixtures in my life.
This time, that is not quite the case.
This morning I learned, a couple of days after the fact, that one of my absolute favourite professors at St. Olaf has died. Professor Rich DuRocher, professor of English, internationally known scholar of John Milton, writer of numerous essays, articles, and books about Paradise Lost, other works of Milton, and many other awesome things in literature, was one of the many great professors I had during my four years there; if I were asked to pick the best, he would be it.
I first had Professor DuRocher for Milton and Ethics, one of those classes that people who don’t take them never quite understand. During that class, we read Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Camus, Samson Agonistes, and many of Milton’s other poetry and prose works. We talked in that class about writing, the value of words, the meaning and importance of God, and pretty much everything to do with human nature. My papers for him were never nearly as good as I hoped they would be, but he made me think about things even more deeply than I had before, and I’ve always been pretty well known as a deep thinker. We also had a Milton Marathon, reading PL in 12 hours or less, out loud in turns to the assembled crowd. It was perhaps both the geekiest and most fun thing I did in a class.
I later took a class on Literary Criticism with him and, while I admit to not having understood most of it at the time, he exposed us to many writers and ways of thinking that, whether I agree with them or not, I likely never would have considered otherwise. Things like post-modernism, post-structuralism, the death of the author, and ways of looking at things from a post-colonial, colonial, gender-based, class-based, or any other sort of view. The question of objectification of men, women, or anyone in our society was another concept he made me think hard about that I hadn’t before; in that class, as well as in Milton, he encouraged debate, disagreement, and deep thought. The fact that both of these classes were at 8 am in the morning never stopped me, either semester, from looking forward to them.
The sheer volume of writing that I read because of Rich that I would not have been likely to read on my own is, I think, his biggest academic influence on me. The beauty of Paradise Lost in particular made me feel pathetic in my own efforts as a writer, but in a good way.
Academically, however, was not his only way of affecting me. In both of his classes, he invited his students to breakfasts and dinners at his house, to coffee out of his countless Milton Conference mugs and homemade muffins and egg bake. We would meet to discuss our final projects or papers, but we would end up talking about life. I last saw Rich at graduation this past May. After several months of recovery, he was happy and, as people with cancer always seem when you last saw them, well. Most importantly, Rich had faith; a devout Catholic, he still saw the world as a place full of possibility. He was hoping to return to teaching and looking forward to seeing what I and my classmates would be doing. When I told him what I was doing this year, he was both excited and surprised.
I hope that I might someday have half the influence on half the people that Rich DuRocher has had on those who knew him. While his death from cancer was premature, he lived quite a life, and I can only hope to do the same.
The official news story on the St. Olaf College Website can be found here.