Service, The Chris Beyers Way

21 Oct

Way back in the first month of the new millennium, I was a newly graduated academic on the job interview circuit, with my share of campus visits behind me. One way I sought to alleviate my anxiety was to have more than one goal for the day-long interview. Even if I didn’t get the job teaching English at Assumption College – something ultimately beyond my control – I could at least collect amusing anecdotes to tell my grad school buddies.

Enter Chris Beyers.

Chris had volunteered to lead me on my campus tour – a walk-about that came less than two hours before the most challenging part of the day, my teaching demonstration. Just a few years removed from being in my shoes, Chris took my mind off this challenge with candid, yet balanced, observations  that made the campus feel more real and thus more comfortable.

Then we entered D’Alzon Library. Back in 2000, the college was putting up portraits of various faculty holding a prop – usually a book, but sometimes something more creative. (Years later, my prop would be my dog.) Chris gestured at one such portrait. “When I get mine done,” he declared, “I will be astride a noble steed.”

Mission accomplished.

Newly relaxed, I wound up with the job, and one reward for my achievement was 19 more years of Chris Beyers witticisms. I quickly became used to Chris wandering into my office, coffee mug in hand, and launching immediately into some hypothetical puzzle he was trying to solve, often one he was about to lecture in class. It didn’t matter that I often hadn’t read the work in question; my role was to listen closely and to appreciate the sheer presence of Chris’s personality. I came to see myself – a journalist after all – as the host of an Assumption version of The Today Show, and Chris as some fabulously witty guest from Broadway. (Nathan Lane often came to mind.)  When he left – usually shortly before walking across campus with that same mug of coffee, which somehow he never spilled – I felt blessed to be in a profession that put me in the presence of people as wise and witty as Chris Beyers.

Later the talk-show roles would be reversed. Our campus used to have occasional happy hour gatherings in one of the science labs – there were refrigerators there – and when the diligent hosts stepped aside, Chris filled that void. Not only did he take time to order beverages for the occasion – including craft root beer – but he also came with hypothetical questions to pose to whomever came, just to stir up interesting conversation and keep us from falling into the usual shop talk and departmental cliques.

I think of all those stories, and so many more, these days because Chris Beyers is gone, dying unexpectedly. My sympathy and that of our department goes out most to his son Will, a sophomore at Assumption. Meanwhile, his colleagues and students are left in shock and sadness; less than three months ago, Chris and I were at a local jazz club, listening to Peruvian jazz guitarist Carlos Odria, with me enjoying the observations of the colleague who always had jazz in heavy rotation in his office.

Now, inexplicably, an inspiring colleague and beloved friend is gone.

All this said, those who know Chris might be surprised that he’s appearing in a blog dedicated to community service. After all, Chris wasn’t exactly a “Cumbayah” kind of guy. As far as I cold tell, My friend’s interest in group-building activities didn’t extend much beyond coaching his son’s soccer team. Mission trips? He would’ve resisted the emotional bonding, and the  nightly reflections about feel-good moments of connection was something he probably would’ve challenged at times, making students situate their experience in a deeper social context. While he respected experiential learning, he often argued on behalf of the shy but engaged students who didn’t want to do “active learning” – who wanted to quietly absorb readings and lectures without jumping through the hoops of classroom activities hoops like seals at a public aquarium. (And, yes, Chris would’ve made that observation more crisply, and thus more witty.)

But Chris’s life represents the kind of service that is often overlooked in all the photo opps and feel-good stories of volunteerism.

For they also serve who work alone.

Take Fresh Assumptions, a Chris Beyers invention. The annual review featured the best work by first-year student writers – giving them, at age 18 or 19, an essay published in an actual book. In one sense, this was a communal enterprise that touched many a life. But what impressed me most was the solitary nature of the labor. When everyone else’s role was done, Chris was the one who had to edit the prose without robbing a student of her or his voice. He had to lay out the pages. He ultimately had to create the book, get it to the publisher – and get the books into the hands of the students-turned-authors. Chris was as private as I was public, but he proved time after time that they were two ways to the same goal.

I saw that pattern repeated many times with the kind of work Chris volunteered for over the years at Assumption. So, sure, service – along with teaching and research – are the three areas in which tenure or tenure-track professors are evaluated. But there is a huge difference in the degrees of service that professors do. Chris probably tackled more than most, and he seemed drawn to work that involved championing those with less power. He helped students with his creation of opportunities to serve as Writing Fellows – and even his challenging interviewing of students at the English Department Senior Colloquium were aimed to make them smarter and, ultimately, more confident going out onto the job market. He also consistently spoke with both sensitivity and passion for faculty who were either part-time or full-timers striving to negotiate the perilous path to tenure. The latter, of course, meant Chris was poring over what had to be hundreds of pages of documents of almost everyone going up for tenure and/or promotion in a given academic year. He extended the same compassion to fictional characters, delineating in detail the predicaments of people marginalized by race, sexism, or disability.

Chris’s willingness to serve was also reflected in the wide range of courses he’d agree to teach.

This came up the same week his colleagues learned of his death, as we evaluated how we could compensate for the loss of his versatility. Meanwhile, toiling in my own office to craft midterm exam questions, I had to fight the reflex to run them by Chris, just as I also felt the urge to stop by for more general insights, some about things scholastic, some about other matters equally engaging and sometimes entertaining. When the talk shifted to my own writing, he sometimes would urge me to stick with my own writerly voice, showing his poet’s ear.

The rhetoric of community service-learning and volunteerism in general often ignores the deep kind of service that unfolds in the jobs we are paid to do. There’s just getting by, or using cynicism as an excuse for not doing one’s share – and then the kind of service that occurs when a person goes above and beyond the call, month after month, year after year.

Whether boisterously making an argument in a meeting or in his quiet labors in the solitude of his office, Chris was that kind of person – making the most of his own gifts, putting them in the service of both colleagues and students.

For so many of us these days, the gift we miss the most is, of course, the gift of his presence. But his voice, and his example, will be with me always.

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