I just got some very sad news. Arthur Applebee, my dissertation advisor at Stanford, died yesterday of heart failure. Apparently he had been ill for about a year, and this came as no surprise to those close to him. But we had not been in touch, and the surprise hit me hard.
Arthur Applebee and his wife, Judith Langer, were a couple known to be especially close. To know one of them was to know the other. They were not only a married couple; they were colleagues who worked together in the area of literacy and reading and writing and assessment, and education generally. They were – and I have no doubt Judith still is – exceptionally good teacher/researchers.
I owe Arthur more than I can say. (And since they worked so closely, much of this applies to Judith, as well). I met them at a party once, some time after my advisor, Robert Politzer, became ill and his many advisees found themselves out to sea. If you know anything about doctoral programs, you know that in this medieval hierarchical world, a dissertation advisor is pretty close to a god. Over the years, I’ve heard many people make the statement, “Without …, I never would have made it through.” I echo that statement absolutely.
When he learned that I was one of the Politzer orphans, he suggested I stop by his office right away and fill him in on my dissertation plans. I had actually settled with an anthropologist as a replacement – a very good one – but it soon became obvious that what I wanted and needed was an educator. My whole focus was on education first, anthropology and the social sciences second, and I was not in a satisfactory place.
In very short order, despite Arthur’s initial unfamiliarity with what I was after – the uses Japanese foreign students were putting their American degrees to, he found his way in in no time. I was persuaded in that first hour talking with him that I had struck gold. He was encouraging from the first moment on.
Besides having a daunting list of academic accomplishments, including twenty-five books, he was a master at academic advising. He knew how to get me disciplined, how to prioritize the tasks I was faced with, what would fly and what wouldn’t. He had an especially keen sense of the practical and the useful and at the same time loved to get carried away by new ideas. He had a philosophical bent and I never had a conversation with him that wasn’t stimulating.
The best part of the story, for me, was that his intellect was matched by the calm decency he displayed toward everybody around him. He knew how to push, but he also knew how to respect your limits. He made me work, and I never went to a session with him unprepared. Somehow he created an aura where that just didn’t seem worthy.
When Judith applied for tenure at Stanford and failed to get confirmed, they decided together to take an offer in Albany, where they could work and build a program as a team. All of us who knew them knew instantly that was the right decision for them. Whether they continued to believe that, I can’t be sure. I went off to Japan, to another world, another life, and left the world of graduate school behind. Since I was not in their immediate academic areas of writing or assessment, where I might have run into them again over the years at conferences, we never met again.
His name came up from time to time and occasionally I would run into others who knew him. I never met anyone who worked with him who didn’t have high praise for his work and for his character. He was a very fine man.
He got me through the PhD. He urged me (how could I have hesitated?) to take the job which became the center of my life for eighteen years before I retired. As I sit here, nearly ten years after retiring, I marvel at the good fortune I had to run into Arthur Applebee at just the right time. Without him, the good life I have today simply would not exist. It’s easy, of course, to say I might have found another route to this place, but I honestly don’t see how I could have fared even half as well with what other resources were available to me at the time. My only regret is that I did not tell him this while he was still alive.
I have cut and pasted the photo above from a LinkedIn website. If there is a problem with copyright, I will of course search for another. I hope not. This smile captures the man so beautifully.