Sunday, November 25, 2018
My Dad taught at SUNY Brockport, a small public liberal arts college in Western New York. As a kid, I saw some of the faculty from time to time, whether sneaking downstairs at parties my parents hosted or accompanying Dad to work (or to Wegmans). I was much too young to have any idea of what they were like as scholars or teachers, but I got a pretty decent view of how some of them were as people.
My favorites were always the ones with sly smiles and wry humor. They were the ones who made you feel smarter just by being around them. They didn’t try to impress, because they didn’t have to; they knew what they knew, and they mostly enjoyed watching people and cracking gentle, left-handed jokes. You could learn a lot about someone by the way they treated a child.
Rich Sorrell, a longtime history professor at Brookdale, was in that mold. I liked him from the first time I met him, because he had that same blend of ironic and courtly that I recognized from childhood. He died this weekend, teaching right up until his final week.
Rich had a story for absolutely every occasion. American history was his field, but he construed the topic broadly. He would throw out lines about Woodrow Wilson in the same conversation as references to the Doors and people who worked at Brookdale twenty years ago. But every reference was with a smile, and usually as part of a story designed to make a current situation seem less scary.
A couple of years ago, right before final exams, a group of lost-looking students stopped me in the hallway to ask where his office was. I led them there, knocked, and said something like “some of your charges are looking for you.” Rich immediately smiled, extended his arms, welcomed them in, and started doing that courtly thing he did so well. I could see the students exhale with relief. I left feeling like that was the best thing I would accomplish that day, which, in fact, it probably was.
Rich helped with the Foundation for years, too. He had hit the top faculty rank decades earlier, but he kept showing up out of a sense that it was the right thing to do. To use an archaic term, he was a gentleman.
He was a veteran of Western New York too; we WNY expats tend to find each other. Every so often we’d laugh at what New Jerseyans call “winter,” which just isn’t the same. If it isn’t snowing sideways, it isn’t worth getting worried about.
His wife, Sally, worked at Brookdale for years, retiring only a few years ago. Each year I’d worry that he’d follow her, and each year I’d be relieved that he didn’t.
He had the gift of perspective that the best historians have. We didn’t always agree, but when we didn’t, he had a wonderful way of placing the issue of the day in some broader context to allow us both to laugh at it. A gentle laugh is a fine thing.
His family, students, and colleagues will miss him terribly. He was a warm and gentle scholar who cared about his students right up to the end. If he were to have the last word, he’d embed it in a funny story, and then laugh that warm laugh that told you it would be okay.
It will, eventually. Until then, I’ll just imagine him telling a story, the corners of his eyes crinkling with anticipation as he approaches the punchline.