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Monday, March 16, 2015

In the Heart of a Campus

Sometime after 11 a.m on Wednesday, March 4, Trinity's heart stopped beating. Life came to a standstill when popular professor Dr. Michael Kearl suffered an apparent heart attack in the area of campus between the library and Northrup Hall. Students and an instructor stopped to render assistance until TUPD arrived to take over resuscitation efforts. After being taken to the hospital by ambulance, the campus learned through a campus-wide notice at 1:25 p.m. that Dr. Kearl had died.

Though we shared the same campus for over 25 years, I don't feel like I knew Dr. Kearl well enough to memorialize him. He seemed to abide me in the execution of my duties. He would probably say "Tuttle. You don't have better things to do than blog about me dying?"

I will let others memorialize him with their greater personal knowledge and insight. Like most others, I respected him as a bigger than life campus figure with a caustic wit, swagger, and booming voice. I was a little afraid of him. He was world-renowned for his sociological website, A Sociological Tour Through Cyberspace. More specifically, Dr. Kearl was famous for his sociological study of death. In a 1984 Trinitonian article on the topic (I hope to link this soon), Dr. Kearl was quoted, "A good ending really helps the overall effect. If we are designed to die with a meaningless epilogue, it could wreck the meaning of the rest of the story."

That part I can write about. It seems morbidly ironic, and somewhat poetic, that this international expert on death and dying would die publicly, in the heart of the campus, in front of mostly students. I learned from Reverend Nickle that Dr. Kearl railed against our society's relegation of details of death to the unspeakable, hiding them in sterile hospitals and nursing homes. To die in front of students was perhaps the greatest final lesson Dr. Kearl could give his students. Perhaps not. Certainly a comfortable and peaceful time and place would have been better. As that 1984 article noted, "Kearl is an authority on death, though he has yet to experience it." It happened how it happened, so I want to think that for him, this was his "rest of the story," and that it offered incredible punctuation to a rich life of teaching and learning.

1984 Trinitonian piece (courtesy MK Cooper)
One could imagine his spirit fluttering, wishing to take notes and deliver a final soliloquy to a classroom about what took place. Imagine how thrilled he might have been to come back from a near-death experience - taking his research to unparalleled heights. 

On that day, though, I was phoned by a colleague, who believed a student had collapsed. As I arrived to the scene my heart skipped several times: first to see it was not a student, but an older adult, second to see it was a campus colleague, and third, to see the intense life-saving efforts of the TUPD officers. I saw something else. People, mostly students, standing silently. One could hear the officers communicating and the computer-generated voice instructions of the AED.

Students stood out of the way, some embracing, most stone-faced, and some quietly crying. The dueling images of the life-saving efforts and the absolute student hope was moving and eerie. On this dreary, muggy day, students, many of whom who never took Dr. Kearl's courses on death, were pulling for his life. Some there knew him and were suffering profound and personal feelings of fear and loss. We eventually moved people away. To do so immediately would have robbed Dr. Kearl of the love being directed at him, as well as robbed the students of the experience to participate in a community of hope and determination. There was no gawking, no texting, no talking. Simply care. People prayed for a miracle. I will never forget it.

To be clear, it would have been much better had he lived. He had good years ahead of him and family, friends, and students who cared deeply for him. Beyond the obvious lessons - that life is fragile, and tenuous - there were more personal ones. Some students, I know, reflected on those they had lost, while others reflected forward, thinking about their parents and grandparents and their mortality.

Former Chaplain Raymond Judd used to speak about the heart of Trinity's campus being pierced when it experienced a loss. I saw that again. I saw Mike's friends and colleagues rushing to the site with looks of grave concern, shock, and pain. These same people having lost another colleague just months earlier. I listened as a student asked me (and he apologized for being morbid - which he wasn't) whether or not they would learn what the outcome would be. I learned that TUPD is well-trained, and that on this difficult day would be challenged again, hours later, having to be focused differently, nabbing a campus robber. I learned that parents, upon receiving notice, would express condolences, care, and concern for Dr. Kearl's campus and personal family. I learned the Trinitonian staff is pretty good.

I learned again, about the incredible character of our students. The following day some of his students went to his class to simply sit in silence. The student government president, Sean McCutchen, would send his own message to students in a spontaneous campus email. It was sweet, honest, and inviting:

I was one of the many students that passed through campus and saw this tragedy. I have to admit, I'm still trying to process all of this even though I never had a class with Dr. Kearl. Trinity is such a close knit community that when we lose someone, it almost feels as if we lost a family member... If you want to just talk with another student, I'm more than willing to listen. I say this not from some false sense of heightened self-importance, but as a student and as a representative of the student body.

I would learn the next day of students wishing to formalize through their pre-med organizations student CPR training. Anything to take away the helplessness some felt the day before. I learned that one student was going to really miss her teacher. I learned another was worried about another professor, and would value every moment with him moving forward.

I will never walk through this spot on campus and not think of Mike Kearl. I suspect others will feel the same. Dr. Kearl was a bedrock of the faculty and institution. And the students were his top beneficiaries. Most of all, I am reminded that the heart of this community isn't its endowment, its strategic plan, or its buildings. The heart of Trinity is its people. It includes faculty, students, staff, parents, and alumni. Trinity's heart broke a little on March 4.  For a moment, we were reminded. That doesn't change things. But it's not a bad epilogue.


KGC said...

Thanks for this, Dean Tuttle. I watched our students as they watched Professor Kearl being cared for. It was obvious how much they cared about the person who had collapsed, even before they knew who it was. I was so proud of them.

MegDep said...

David, this is a wonderful post. I adored Dr. Kearl when I was a student at Trinity, and I loved interacting with him via email and in-person at homecoming events after I graduated. He was fascinating and audacious and caring and hilarious. I know he would approve of your tribute here.

Meg Johnson DePriest '91

Martin Hajovsky said...

Thanks for this Dean Tuttle. I'll never forget my class with Dr. Kearl back in 1985 (or 86). What a wonderful professor and great man. He died as he lived, in the heart of the campus we all love, providing a teaching moment on death and dying. I can't see a picture of him without hearing his bemused laugh. For someone who taught on death, he sure loved life, and taught us all to do the same.

Martin Hajovsky '87