Clif Grubbs’ Memorial Service by Daniel N. White

by Daniel N. White
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
April 6, 2010

Clif Grubbs was an economics professor of long standing at the University of Texas at Austin, and I was fortunate enough to take a class from him many years ago. Clif was a truly extraordinary person and an outstanding instructor, one of the very few that made a real impression on me and one of the two or three instructors I ever had who I still remembered fondly years after. One day in 1996 I saw an article in the paper about his death, and I called out to UT and got the details about the memorial service, held about a month later out on the UT campus. I attended the service, and it still lingers in my memory, and it and my reaction to it tells a lot about us as a society and myself as a person. Don’t know how much good it says about either.

Most university professors are fundamentally fairly dull people. It is remarkable that persons so well read and educated are as dull and mainstream in their thoughts and lives and actions as professors are. Sociological fact of life is that the job selects people of a certain type, and the job shapes people over time to fit it. And with the tenure process, where the new hire gets selected or rejected by the existing faculty, the natural and unavoidable human process of selecting people like us to join us in our very own club operates in full force. University professors are such a dull bunch because they have for decades selected other dull people like them to be in their club. That and their job is fundamentally to be bureaucrats in a large bureaucratic institution whose job is to train the future bureaucrats of America for their jobs in other American bureaucracies, corporate or government.

Nobody ever accused that large and voluble and passionate person Clif Grubbs of ever being dull. Nor was he cut from any bolt of bureaucratic cloth, either. Much too strong a personality to ever succeed in a bureaucracy, much too opinionated, much too broad and deep a sense of justice and decency to be a good bureaucrat. Clif had a big streak of warrior in him, and fought a lot against UT’s administration. None of this helped his career at UT, and his getting tenure was almost a fluke. But it’s a great Clif story.

One day in 1968 or so Clif decided to do his bit to stop the war. Clif had come out hard early against the war in Vietnam (Couldn’t call Clif no sissy pinko. He’d been a jarhead platoon commander in Deuce on Okinawa and had been recalled to active duty as a company commander in Korea just in time for Inchon and Chosin duty.) Clif decided to give all the males in his classes that semester an A in order to help any of them who needed helping with their GPA’s to avoid the draft. He realized that wasn’t fair to the women, so he gave them all A’s too. He then managed to get his grade sheet, with a note explaining why he was doing what he was doing, hand-delivered personally to LBJ at the White House. Clif’s path to tenure at LBJ’s hometown university was considerably blocked by that no doubt, but matters improved when a couple of years later he got the Danforth Foundation national award for university teaching excellence. Even the petty braindeads in UT’s administration didn’t have it in them to explain to that organization’s prominent and powerful that Professor Grubbs didn’t have tenure yet after so many years as an associate prof because he’d pissed off LBJ on Vietnam. Clif got his professorship, and stayed at UT the rest of his career.

Bill Moyers had been a student of his, and did an affectionate piece on him for Bill Moyers Reports 25 years afterwards. Title was “The Volcanic Professor”–and Clif was volcanic, a force of nature, fiery and fuming and fulminating all the time. Clif was damned smart too–he was one of exactly three people in the entire world I know of who predicted the imminent collapse of the USSR–did that in 1979 or so, and was laughed at. (The other two persons–the French demographer Emmanuel Todd, and the Russian dissident Andrei Amalrik.) Clif was right but the satisfaction of that probably didn’t mean too much for him, as events in his personal life–death of one of his beloved daughters in a military plane crash, divorce and end of his marriage after thirty years–meant that his dotage was unhappier and darker and more solitary than was good for a person. Clif stopped classroom teaching in ’92, kept a few grad students under his wings for another couple of years, and died in ’96.

Memorial service was held in one of the fine old main esplanade buildings. Room might have been a dancing salle when it was built–long narrow room with the detailing and grace and proportion that the Paul Cret designed buildings on campus all have that everything built since lacks. I cleaned up from work and went. Room was full of folding chairs, seated about 200, and all the seats except two in the very back row were already taken. I grabbed one of the remaining seats and started to look around. Audience of silverhairs, almost entirely Caucasian turnout–maybe a couple of Hispanics, don’t remember seeing a single black face there. Recognized a few UT profs, all of whom had by now retired. Only people of working age was the parts manager at the local Volvo dealership, and a couple three grad students, the last ones Clif had taught, a little younger than me, sitting on either side of me.

The goal for all of us in our lives, they say, is to have a well-attended funeral, and Clif managed that, filling all 200 seats in that room. But save those earlier mentioned, the audience was all retirement age or better, with varying hues of silver to white hair, most all showing plainly varying degrees of physical decrepitude and decay. Most of us tend to have most of our friends our age, but I always thought you had at least some younger and some older than you. Wasn’t the case here. Nobody much any younger than Clif showed up–did Clif lack for young friends, or was the younger work cohort too busy and thoughtless not to show up for the service? What about his younger colleagues in the Economics Department? His neighbors couldn’t all be retirees, no way. The audience being all white–well hell some of that is from Clif being part of the time when the academy was almost entirely white–UT kept that tradition going longer than most, same with its student body for that matter. Clif was no bigot or racist, and he’d lived in this polyglot city for four decades or better, and he hadn’t made a brown or black friend one, ever? God-damn but that says a lot about American society, and how segregation screwed up normal human relations, not just during the Jim Crow days of Clif’s youth, but for decades later the social and personal separation of the races continued, and kept us separated and apart until the day we died. But most of all, where were all the students Clif has taught for the last four decades? Clif, national and campus award-winning instructor, had two former undergraduates–me and the parts manager–show up, and three grad students. That’s it, after a lifetime of wholehearted talented loving effort in the University of Texas at Austin classroom. Five of us of all the thousands he taught remembered him, and his efforts, and admired him enough to pay our respects to him and his kin in person that day. That’s all. That’s the horrible truth about being a teacher, and the real level of respect for you and your efforts and your profession in our society. And it hurt to see that. It was one of those times when you were embarrassed for all humanity to see something that ugly about us shown that openly, to see the actual truth revealed and see the public myth killed quickly cold dead.

So I came almost late and grabbed the next to last seat, with some grad student grabbing the last one next to me. Just before events started, this quite elderly couple showed up. Quite elderly husband was supporting his wife, who was exceedingly frail and tottering and obviously unable to walk any distance without her husband’s support. The wife was struggling along, and had the biggest butterfly bandage I’d ever seen stuck on her nose–she’d obviously taken a bad fall not too very long ago. The couple inched towards the back, and as they got close I saw that they were going to try and fit into a windowsill in the back of the room. I stood up, said “Ma’am!”, and pointed towards my chair. Big smile of relief told the story before her and her husband’s profuse words of thanks did. Grad student next to me followed my lead and gave up his seat for the husband, and we two moseyed over to the windowsill to lean into it for the duration of the service. Everyone else in that room saw them, they had to know there was a full house, none of them volunteered their seat for a physically incapacitated elderly woman. But they weren’t tuned in or paying attention to a dreadfully frail old woman tottering along held up by her not much better off husband. That blindness, moral more than psychophysiological, bothered me too, but I remembered that I never saw that much in simple human decency and worth in most of the academics I saw as an undergraduate, never thought that most of them were worth any much as human beings, that they mostly too much enjoyed their status and perks and position and didn’t mind exercising them. That and for all their intelligence, they weren’t that observant a bunch, either.

The memorial service was good–I learned a bunch about Clif that I never knew before–but I didn’t feel like hanging around with that crowd afterwards, free wine or no, and I made my way up to Clif’s daughter, gal about my age, expressed my condolences, promised to drop her a note (which I did, a very nice one, which she liked and wrote me back on), and left.

Julius Caesar came, saw, and conquered. I came, saw, and was greatly discomforted. The Bible tells us that with much learning comes much sorrow, but the real curse of knowledge is the loss of the comfort of certitudes you learn are false. Dear me, most all the shibboleths about the values in and of education and teaching took a dreadful beating that day, when most near none of Clif’s students showed up. That, and you have to wonder how much worth a shit most baby-boom Americans are that an entire age cohort didn’t show up at the funeral, and same for Gen X, too. Not attending funerals is worse than a gauche breach of manners; it is a defacement of millennia of human culture and decency, and that two generations in our society aren’t bothered by doing that is as severe an indictment of our ugliness as there could be. Looking too at myself–funerals make you do that, hard generally–Lord I was so lame as a human when I was young. It just had never occurred to me when I was an undergraduate that Clif or any other professor might be interested in me as a human being and interested in my company to where I never made any effort as an undergraduate to socialize and maybe befriend any of my professors, Clif first and foremost. The fact that I didn’t lack for company in doing that then, or ever since I’m sure, that that human disconnect is the case for most American undergraduates then or now doesn’t excuse my failure, my stupidity, not to do that, and my attending the memorial service does not make amends for that failure. Partly I didn’t know better and partly I wasn’t raised better and partly I wasn’t at all comfortable living in my own skin those years and kept far too much to myself because of that, but maybe the biggest part was my own human failings. I just wasn’t worth much as a human being in my youth and that’s it and I may be better now but that might not be saying all that much. All the opportunities I lost in my youth because of those failings are long gone, hell I probably never knew of them at the time any enough to realize they were then and I can now only guess at what they might have been. The big one on display there was my never making an effort to reach out to another human being and make an effort to befriend Clif, and that opportunity is gone for good. I was just so blind to it, so blind.

Clif, I’m sorry I didn’t do better to you and to me when you were alive. We might could have been friends, and we both could have used more friends at those stages in our respective lives. Clif, I’m sorry things turned out the way they did with hardly no students of yours showing up at the service. Clif, seeing what I did there that day I now know something about me as a person, my human weaknesses and faults, and our society and its grave faults, that I mostly wish I didn’t. Except that that knowledge, that discomfort, makes me realize that I have to do better, better as a human being, which is so hard in our ugly society. I’ll try, Clif, I’ll try. I promise.


Letter of Condolence I Never Wrote, and Should Have by Daniel N. White