Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Remembering Lawrence Clayton

Lawrence on Dunny

I went to work at Hardin-Simmons University in the fall of 1992.  I had been teaching sociology (along with consultation at several rural nursing homes and a regional hospital, plus maintaining a small private practice caseload) for the past year at Cisco Junior College when I was invited to teach as a visiting professor at HSU.  The truth of the matter was that it was a hard decision to make.  

While I wanted to be at HSU, I also felt really called to be at CJC, teaching students from the rural areas who had not had much exposure to things I thought important for development: women who had no concept of a role beyond wife and mother; men who had no concept of a role beyond football player or cowboy.  I am not disparaging any of those roles, but I just thought it important that those men and women had a choice beyond the opportunities offered in rural west Texas.  I will never forget the young man who had been exemplary in my class as far as discussion, who clearly "got it" but could not pass a single test.  I called him in, and asked him point blank, "Can you read?"  It was a changing point for me as an educator.

I made the decision to move to HSU, in spite of my doubts.  Dr. Lawrence Clayton was the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, in which the social work program was located.  I never met Lawrence until after I had been hired and showed up for my first day of work.  Funny, but that is the same way I met the department chair at CJC: after I had been hired and showed up for my first day at work.

I joined the faculty in October, and as Lawrence would pass me in the hall, he would touch his hat brim, nod, and say "Mrs. Allen."  I would respond "Dr. Clayton."  That first year, he slipped a copy of Christmas Pudding under my door, welcoming me to HSU.  Christmas Pudding was an annual collection put out by local writers.  Lawrence had a poem about deer hunting, and I was struck by its beauty, even though I am not a hunter.  The line was "I have hunted cleanly."  I struck up a conversation with him about his writing then, and how much I had enjoyed it.  Sitting in his office one day, I commented on a piece of leather work on his desk, by Bill Barton, a local saddlemaker.  Lawrence was surprised I knew who Bill Barton was, and gave me something else to read that he had written--a piece on Bill Barton the Saddlemaker.  I fell in love with that piece of writing, and that is really what began my friendship with Lawrence.  

When I began the doctoral program, he was a strong supporter, helping proof and edit my work for greater clarity--one of his many gifts in writing.  We co-interviewed Jose Angel Gutierrez and Joaquin Jackson about their experience in Crystal City, Texas, from their perspectives 20 years afterward. That led to my first publication.

Lawrence was a man who was easily at home with many different types of people--whether social workers or English professors; activists like Jose Angel, or Texas Rangers like Joaquin.  My son, a young adolescent at that time, adored Lawrence, and especially after he taught J to shoot and lent him a rifle for practice.  He taught J how to make a backstop to catch the lead, and drilled him on safety and gun etiquette.  I am not enamored of guns, but I appreciated the way that Lawrence respectfully handled weapons.

Lawrence and I co-taught a class on Oral History one May term, using a near-by African American community as the participants.  Lawrence's plan was to publish a book, and to continue the project until we had a more accurate picture of this historical and important Abilene neighborhood.  Transcribing the interviews was tedious and time-consuming though as I was in the dissertation research stage by then.

In what seemed to many of us simply impossible, Lawrence was diagnosed with ALS (more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease).  He made me promise two things: finish the book of the oral histories, and finish my doctorate.  He set aside the money for the book and said his secretary had the account information and would take care of the paperwork as soon as we finished the transcriptions and had it ready to go to press.  The last time I saw Lawrence, I had stopped by their house to take his wife, Sonya, a present.  I had gotten a new digital camera and had taken a picture of Lawrence in his office that I thought was quite good.  I made copies for Sonya and their daughters.  Shortly after that, he was no longer able to come to work and I never saw him again.  

I finally finished the transcriptions with the help of Jane/Gigi, and we edited the final copy, added the foreward that Lawrence had already written, and my introduction and conclusion.  Our photographer, Larry E. Fink, helped me with the final editing.  In addition to being a gifted photographer, Larry was an English professor and fine writer himself.  I took it over to the then acting dean with a request to print.  He said there was no money in the account; that it had all been cleared at Lawrence's death.  I explained that Lawrence said he had specifically earmarked it for that project.  Nope, it's been cleared.

I laid my head on my desk and cried...deeply grieving.  After losing a dear friend and colleague, now to find out that his project might die as well?  I went home that night and shared my despair with Randy.  Randy never took a breath, just said, "then I will pay for it.  It was important to Lawrence and it is important to you.  You promised him."

I had to revise my dedication page after that, to acknowledge Randy for his support in carrying it through, and for caring that the project meant something to Lawrence as well as to me.

It's been 10 years now since his death, but not a day that I don't recall and appreciate what he taught me.


Gigi said...

Though I did not know him well, I admired Lawrence greatly and always appreciated his intellect and his kindness. I remember Sarah taking his class and commenting that not only was he one of the best professors she'd had, but also that he was so nice and so encouraging. I can still feel the shock we all felt when we found out his diagnosis. I can't believe it's been 10 years.

frank_ezelle said...

Sometimes it can feel very awkward and self-promoting to send a person a link to one's own blog. However, I hope you'll share this link with some members of Lawrence Clayton's family--it would mean the world to them.