This weekend, I drove from Mississippi to western Illinois for the memorial gathering of one of my main college mentors, Robin Metz. The many hours by myself in the car on the the way there and back gave me lots of time to reflect, and seeing so many people come out for the memorial was gratifying. Robin taught for over 50 years and was still on the faculty of Knox when he died. Only in his final semester did he take medical leave and not teach a class. Until then, despite treatments for pancreatic cancer, he continued teaching until the end.
Many of us made it back, and many more sent their condolences and greetings. Former colleagues of his were there, as well as family and people from the community. I went to school with both of his daughters, so I was glad I could make it and have a chance to reconnect with them. I’d seen Robin and his wife, Liz, several times in recent years, but hadn’t seen Lisa and Ronnah in quite awhile.
Friends who gathered after the memorial to talk, eat, and yes, even dance to the one eighties song we could get the DJ to play (Prince), have gone on to do many things. Some of us are educators, some work in different fields. Most of us are writers, but we talked about the many English majors we knew who ended up in different fields. When we take a class or when those of us who are educators teach a class, we never know where the people around us will travel in their life’s journey. What made Robin Metz such a great mentor for so many people is that you always had the feeling that he cared. He was detailed in his comments on every story he ever critiqued for fiction workshop, but he also cared about you as a person, about your life and about the bigger questions in life. Robin never let you off the hook, and though sometimes we probably wished he would, it was also the part of him that made the most lasting impression.
I first met Robin when I hitch-hiked from St. Olaf College to Galesburg in what turned out to be a snowstorm. I had had come to check out the school I would transfer to. Meeting him, learning about the program he had started, meeting students, and seeing their active writing community sealed the deal. He was a huge presence in my remaining three years of college, and then when I moved to Chicago, he taught in the Urban Studies program, so we kept up our relationship for another semester. He was always there when I went back to visit, and he encouraged me to apply for a fellowship for grad school, which helped me to continue my work with translation. Then he asked me to come work at Knox for a couple of terms as his teaching assistant before I went to grad school. Over the years, he invited me back to Knox other times, and whenever I could, I would stop by and visit. I didn’t make that happen often enough.
For Robin, a class was never just about the class. It was an opportunity for meaningful discussion and was part of a conversation that had been ongoing all of his life and that you were invited into not just for the time you were in his class, but for the rest of his life and beyond. That is why so many of us made the journey back for his memorial celebration, and it is why all of us could share so many stories of the impact he made and is still making on our lives.