It’s a Herculean task for most of us to disconnect from the relentless demands of daily life to take some time for self-reflection. Finally, in my quiet space, I was startled last week when I received a call from someone I hadn’t heard from in 49 years. Before I reveal whom the surprise caller was, let me set the stage by taking you back in time.
In the late ’60s, I was a philosophy major at Fordham University in the Bronx. While there, I became good friends with one of my professors, Dr. Robert Mulvaney. Dr. Mulvaney taught a host of philosophy courses and I took every one. He had all the qualities of a great teacher: funny, brilliant, erudite, demanding, understanding and, most of all, inspirational. He was fluent in several languages and impressed me with the fact that he often read the Greek philosophers in their original tongue.
I fondly recall so many of our conversations, the topics of which included Aristotle, Plato, Hegel, Marx, existentialism and most everything else under the sun. In his legendary course on education, I remember one especially challenging essay question: You have been appointed president of the university. Please now give your acceptance speech.
Dr. Mulvaney and I developed such a good rapport that it didn’t strike me as unusual when, as a senior, the university afforded me the rare opportunity to team-teach an accredited course with him entitled Philosophy of Education. To avoid any conflicts, as many of my good friends enrolled in the class, the course was pass/fail. Team-teaching proved to be a significant learning experience for me; and hopefully also for the brave students who exercised faith in me by taking the course.
In 1970, shortly after my senior year, Dr. Mulvaney left Fordham to become a professor at the University of South Carolina. It was a tumultuous year not only on our Fordham campus, but on all campuses throughout the country. During our commencement in the spring of 1970, my friends and I organized a peaceful walkout to protest the war in Vietnam. We later held our own low-key celebration on campus during which we awarded Dr. Mulvaney a plaque with the following inscription: “Free at Last: in appreciation of all your hard work and inspirational teaching on behalf of us, your students.”
Despite Dr. Mulvaney’s departure from Fordham, he and I kept in touch. In the summer of 1971, I visited him and his wife, Jane, at their home in Columbia, S.C. As an added bonus, I assisted him with his summer school Introduction to Philosophy class.
We hoped the efforts we poured into the introductory philosophy class would inspire students, and make a difference in their hearts and minds. But, beyond the class, the Mulvaney household itself was a vibrant, exciting place. Jane was an actress who taught theater. She always had her students over to work on their acting skills. I met so many talented and interesting people that summer; it was an unforgettable experience.
In the fall of 1971, I decided to make a career change. Believing that I could positively impact the lives of even more people if I became an attorney, I shifted my attention to law school and an eventual career at the Legal Aid Society. Maybe it was this shift, maybe it was the passage of time, or maybe it was both, but my interaction with the Mulvaneys unfortunately devolved to receiving a yearly Christmas card. That is, until three days ago.
When my cell phone lit up 72 hours ago with a return number I did not recognize, it was not an unusual occurrence. I get phone calls from unfamiliar numbers all the time—clients, politicians, friends, advertisers, pollsters and a whole host of people and organizations. But this call was different. The very soft voice at the other end of the line belonged to Jane Mulvaney. What a pleasure it was to reminisce about the good times we had shared so many years ago. Even though we hadn’t seen each other in a long time, she said that she and her husband had often talked about me. She even remembered an incident that occurred during my stay that I had long forgotten.
One day, I had noticed smoke billowing out of their neighbor’s kitchen window. Without thinking, I ran next door and put the fire out with the help of a fire extinguisher. I didn’t consider it a big deal but the Mulvaneys thought my actions were courageous. Knowing that someone thought of me in that light, I must confess, is even years later very gratifying.
If our call had ended there, it would have been delightful. But Jane had something important to tell me. Her husband had suffered the loss of most of his memory. It didn’t happen immediately but it happened nonetheless. This brilliant man who spoke five languages now only has a vocabulary of three words. He is in a special facility in Massachusetts. For Jane, every day is a struggle. The doctors aren’t exactly sure of the cause of his condition. Is it the existence of neurofibrillary tangles where the nerves of dying cells literally get tangled and destroyed, or is it the presence of protein deposits of beta amyloid plaque which have built up in the brain? At this point, does it really matter?
What does matter is the mark that Dr. Mulvaney has made not only on my life, but in the hearts and minds of his family, children and thousands of students whom he touched throughout his decades of inspirational teaching. What will forever remain with me is the end of my conversation with Jane. She understood how deeply shaken I was to hear the news of her husband’s illness. In an effort to console me, she ended our talk by reassuring me that no matter how bad things got, the image she had of her wonderful husband, cemented by 57 years of marriage, could never be tarnished by this merciless disease. Indeed!
My heart goes out to you, Jane Mulvaney, and to everyone affected by this dreaded illness.