As requested, we have posted the eulogies that were given at Dennis' funeral at the Honors College.
Bryan Shaw called me and passed along the sad news last Thursday. I was in the car on my way back to the office. My response:
"That can't be. I've still got a lot of beers to drink with that guy."
I called Dennis Hall as soon as I got off the phone with Bryan. When you've seen two men named Dennis, in there underwear, boxing each other in a hotel room. Well. You just know this sort of information would be important to either of them. He was at work and as shocked as I was at the news. We spoke for a bit, but had to get back to our schedules, as meaningless as that seemed for both of us during those moments.
In the days between then and now, I've updated the site that was inspired by Dennis. I have added a eulogy there and have added all of your memories, kind words and, of course, more of Dennis' Canned Wisdom. All tolled, there are now 77 nuggets of wisdom collected. I'm sure Dennis would have acted publicly mortified, but secretly ecstatic about the additions.
Despite these efforts, I still was having a rough time. Hell. I even asked my girlfriend, Laura, if digitally recording his answering machine message was creepy? I needed to connect with Dennis again.
It finally struck me that I save all my email and that there must be some from Dennis in the archive--a possible treasure under these circumstances. What I found was that the conversations that Dennis and I had shared were centered around us making plans and doing things together. Events for the college. Events involving a fine, local drinking establishment. Or just getting together to shoot the shit.
I realized that I had, indeed, shared many a drink with that guy. I realized that there is not one other professor from my college experience that has gotten so much as a phone call from me since I've left. Not so much as an email. And I have a box full of memories from Dennis.
I'd like to share one with you.
In a message he sent back in 2004, he shared this with me:
"I've been thinkin' a lot lately, and I am beginning to see myself as the R. Crumb character MR NATURAL. Whadda ya think? Where can I get one of those long white robes? Time to start a cult...er...a religion, I mean. d"
He liked to chat with me about R. Crumb. He knew he could always get my attention talking comic books. What I never told him was that I've never even read an R. Crumb comic in my life--I just liked having something we could talk about.
So I looked up some things about Mr. Natural. And found this description of the character:
Mr. [Fred] Natural wears only a smock and a pair of humongous shoes. His weight varies widely from one appearance to another. His background is obscure -- sometimes he's said to be a former taxi driver from Afghanistan, sometimes an escaped convict. He makes his living as a rather worldly guru, sponging off of any disciple who will give him a meal or, better yet, pay cash for his wisdom.
I think Dennis was right. He was the living embodiment of Mr. Natural.
The reasons that we are all hear today, the reasons that we all loved Dennis, were his blatant honesty, his ability to say anything at anytime and the lessons he taught us in his own unassuming way.
See. Dennis had a way of making the learning process more like an evening with just the right amount of booze and your best friends, than it being a chore.
In a sense, he made it seem as though he was putting one over on academia, who had unwittingly let one of the inmates run the asylum.
This was his gift.
Like Mr. Natural he did have a beard (at least during my days at the College.) He would have looked good in a smock and humongous shoes. His past was surely mysterious. He very well might have been a taxi driver from Afghanistan and surely wanted everyone to think he had been a guest of the penal system "back in the day."
He did make his living as a rather worldly guru, sponging off the Pierre Laclede Honors College, openly accepting free meals (and free drink) from all of us.
In all these ways and many more, he did get paid for his wisdom.
With each of our discoveries. With each of our realizations. And with each of our successes.
And I. Like the rest of us in this room, always felt like we were getting the better end of the deal.
What I realized as I drafted this very memorial. Was that Dennis was teaching me one more lesson. One that I hadn't learned after the passing of my grandparents. Or my great Aunt Mim. One that could only be taught by the loss of a friend. That this permanent disappearing act can happen to any one of us.
Any one of the inmates in the asylum.
Thank you, Dennis, for that one last lesson.