Last week, we heard that our college philosophy professor, Brian Shea, had died. He was an immensely powerful man, in his mind, in his body, and even in his voice. One time, I was in the kitchen and someone commented that some water had hit the grill, and Mr. Shea said, “Yes; you can hear it, sizzling.”
It took me several minutes to realize that this was a normal, mundane comment to make. His voice was so deep and penetrating, and he said everything with such profound assuredness, it came across like a pronouncement for the ages. And lo, 27 years later, I remember him saying it.
I wish I remembered more of the more important things he said. My fault, not his. I took several of his classes, including the philosophy units of Humanities, and also Ancient Greek and possibly Metaphysics; but even students who were more academically suited for those subjects were bowled over by his incredible intellectual prowess. He would hustle to the lectern, smile and say good morning, open his notes, pause for a moment with a fixed expression, like a raptor over its prey, and then he would begin to speak; and the ideas he wanted to impart would unfurl smoothly from his brain for the next fifty minutes like shining steel ingots rolling off a factory line. No stumbling, no backtracking, no scrambling to express what he meant. He always knew exactly what he wanted to say, and he always said exactly that. I have never since met a more articulate human being. And he was passionate about it, and sincere. He loved what he taught, and he loved teaching.
One day, he came into a seminar room when he was sick, and he opened his notes as usual and began to teach. Several minutes passed by before one of the students gathered the courage to tell him he was speaking in German. He apologized, got up, and went back to bed.
He was, to be honest, terrifying. You did not want to be on the wrong end of his scorn. My memories of him are from when I was nineteen or twenty, very skittish and foolish; but I think even the students who made their way to his inner circle remember how intimidating he could be.
He was physically tremendous. Not tall, I don’t think, and he was immensely fat, but mostly he was just huge. His body was huge, his head was huge, his eyes behind thick glasses were huge, and when he grinned, as he often did, his mouth was huge. And he was strong. A student once saw him encounter a small fire on campus, and he grabbed the fire extinguisher, and, apparently forgetting to pull out the safety pin, he simply squeezed the nozzle hard and made it work.
He seemed to have a special gift for witnessing students at their dopiest moments. If you were going to do something stupid, chances were good you’d turn around to see Mr. Shea in his chair, watching you and grinning from across the caf’, Dunhill cigarette smoke curling around his head like the vapors of an oracle; and if you were unlucky, he would make a pronouncement about your fate. Nobody was safe from his terrible wit, and so when you did become a target, there was no shame in it. It was almost a mark of honor: You’ve joined the club. You got noticed, and extinguished, by Mr. Shea.
For all this, he was kind. Most people figured this out sooner or later, despite his best efforts. One hapless freshman showed up for the semester with only one pair of pants to his name, and Mr. Shea quietly went out and bought him some pants. One unpopular girl was homesick and friendless in Rome, where every sophomore class spent a semester, and he — a man who prized his routine and his privacy more than most — invited her out to dinner and treated her like a sought-after guest. There are dozens of stories like this. He spent hours in the caf’, smoking endlessly and gossiping with Chef Pat and laughing his resounding, smoke-pickled laugh, and coughing like thunder, telling stories, and watching. You could hear his voice, and his laugh, and his cough, rise up through the floorboards when you went to the chapel, which was built over the caf. His voice penetrated everything.
He was the Director of Student Life as well as a professor, and he seemed to know about everything that happened on campus (and in the nearby woods). I remember him saying how apt it was when students described getting drunk as “getting wasted.” He deplored waste, wasted time, wasted effort, wasted intellect. It grieved him to see people being foolish with their lives.
Miscellaneous other stories are coming back to me, like how someone called him because there was a bat in the dorm, and without hesitation he said to my then-boyfriend, with menacing sang froid, “Damien, get the rake.” Nobody ever questioned his directions! Mr. Shea always knew what to do! Now I’m almost fifty years old and a few months ago, a bat got into our house, and the first thing I thought was, “Damien, get the rake.”
I remember a Mardi Gras party when the students had a traditional pancake fight, which was all fun and games until somebody (me) fired off an errant pancake, and watched in frozen horror as it missed its target and smacked Mr. Shea square on the side of his head and knocked his glasses off. I died that day. My heart stopped and didn’t start again for several seconds. I literally fell to the floor and scuttled away across the room before he would know the assassin was me.
But another student, who often played chess with him, said that he played like he lived: He started off with a huge amount of bluster and intimidation, attacking on several fronts at once; but if you put up even the slightest bit of offense, his strategy would collapse and fall apart. I didn’t see this side of him often, but I believe it. I know he was gentle when he needed to be. I know that, for all his prodigious intellect and encyclopedic knowledge of many subjects and his master’s from Oxford, he was Mr. Shea, and not Dr. Shea; and I know he lived in a room or two upstairs in the creaky, drafty “White House” nestled in the trees on campus, apparently surrounded by shelves with hundreds of video cassettes of every kind of movie, which he would lend out to students if they promised to clean out their VCRs first. He only rarely left the little college grounds. He didn’t like travel (and got testy when anyone in Rome spoke to him in Italian!). I don’t know what he spent his money on, besides Dunhills.
Every once in a while, he would startle people by making reference to how fat he was. I remember him complaining about how hard it was to find shirts in his size that didn’t have Winnie the Pooh or Donald Duck on them, as if being fat meant you were a child. Just one of the many indignities endured by the long-suffering Brian Shea.
Another: One Thanksgiving or Christmas Vacation, he had the task of calling every single student who had just arrived home, and telling them that one of the kittens on campus (there were not supposed to be kittens on campus) turned out to have rabies, and so everyone who came into contact with it (which was everyone) must get a rabies shot. I thought of him making the rule against kittens, knowing there were kittens anyway, and then grimly making his way alphabetically through the list of students, informing them one by one that now we’re all going to die unless we get our shots. I think probably all he wanted to do was sit in a sunbeam, smoke, and talk about philosophy, but somehow he was also very good at doing all the other things he was responsible for.
I just remembered one more story. After I graduated and got married and started having kids, I took a temporary job doing some work for the school admissions office. When I was at school, I was incompetent in a thousand ways, and hadn’t yet learned how to drive; so when I was leaving the grounds years later, I spotted him on the porch of the White House, sitting and smoking as usual. My great chance to show him that I did grow up after all! I rolled down my window and shouted, “Mr. Shea, look! I finally got my license!” He smiled and nodded. Then I drove directly into a tree.
Someone told me he said that, after students graduated, he forgot about them. Fair enough; there were so many of us. I don’t think anyone who ever met him forgot him, though. A powerful, gracious, frightening, practical, strangely humble man with a great heart and a white hot intellect like no other I’ve ever encountered. You can still hear it, sizzling.