Share this article

print logo


Bearing a leaden heart and my baby daughter, I walked up the steps to the grand old Victorian house. The faint scent of blooming flowers hung in the air like incense.

I said another prayer, for Larry.

The simple reason I was there, earlier this month, was to look at Larry Chisolm's library. The books, enough to fill more than 100 packing boxes, spilled over four rooms in the house, marching down shelves and reaching for the ceiling.

He assembled it diligently, over a lifetime of learning and teaching that included 30 years at the University at Buffalo, where he founded an American Studies Department that set the standard nationwide. Now some of his students and friends were looking over the collection, and taking chunks of his library home to their own shelves.

It was what Larry wanted, before he died in April. "Books need people," I remember him once saying.

In August, Pat Shelly, his widow, called to see if I was interested. And here I was, standing on their steps with Lydia, my 20-month-old daughter.

Like Larry himself, the invitation to see his books had made me think. Of the gifts teachers pass on to their students. Of the debts students owe to those who helped them become who they are. Of how those debts might be paid.

As Pat opened the door, I was trying hard not to cry. She led us to the second floor, to a library next to Larry's study.

"Daddy," gasped Lydia. "Look at the books."
When Larry died in April, I found out from the newspaper.

A woman lost the man she loved, grown children lost their father, and generations of UB students lost a rare inspiration, a wise elder of our tribe.

Selfishly, my thoughts centered on what an idiot I'd been for not staying in touch after I graduated a decade ago and left Buffalo to chase a newspaper job.

For without Larry, I probably would not be writing these words today.

Larry was my adviser, witnessing the aimless drift of my semesters before explaining how I could meld my passion and my future in a journalism degree -- even at a university that didn't offer one.

Larry was my sponsor, helping stitch together a "special major" journalism degree out of the courses I'd taken and my years as a student journalist.

More important than all that, Larry was my cheerleader. He saw my struggle to find my feet, to believe that my aim was true, my work worthy of the world's attention. He offered a teacher's unconditional love.

You can do it, he said. You've got what it takes.

A decade later I returned to Buffalo, pleased to come home and work for a major newspaper. I called Larry, and we talked history. He congratulated me on the new job, my new baby.

We talked story ideas with relish. Deliciously, the student with the odds-and-ends major was now a real live reporter.

He said he would call me, for lunch. When he didn't I figured he was busy, but no problem. We could catch up.

For some reason, I acted like I had all the time in the world. We never spoke again.
Not until much later did I learn that days after we chatted, he was stricken in the American Studies office at the Amherst Campus. Soon thereafter he learned that there was a virulent tumor growing in the left side of his brain, and that he would not see another graduation.

His last months were filled with goodbyes, poetry, and love.

Earlier in their relationship, he had asked Pat, the university lecturer and therapist who had lived with him since 1986, to marry him.

She said no, considering marriage something of a "patriarchal capitalist plot" that they didn't need to join.

After he got sick, he asked again, she said. Honoring their love, she said yes.

On Dec. 21, the winter solstice, they were married at their house. "It was a good party," Pat said.
It was a good death.

Larry's five grown daughters were able to see him. He was at home, with jazz piano on the stereo and Pat and friends reading him favorite poetry: Pablo Neruda, Mary Oliver, Joy Hargell.

Though the tumor affected his speech, "he was able to tell me 'I love you' till the Saturday before he died," Pat said.

The end came early Wednesday morning, April 29.

Larry wanted his body to return to the earth. In Spencer, south of Ithaca, he had long ago homesteaded 90 acres with a pond.

He wanted his body left there, on a platform Native-American style, or wrapped in a sheet and buried. But the health code wouldn't allow it, Pat said.

So his body was cremated, the ashes spread over the soil in Spencer, where he had spread his mother's ashes.

In September, there will be another party, to remember -- and celebrate -- Larry.
Let people come and take the books, he told Pat in October.

The rest would go to UB's Lockwood Library, either on the shelves or sold to finance new acquisitions.

It was hardly surprising he would want to make sure his books ended up in good hands.

Anyone who had been in his classes saw how much books meant. He would often start by raising his 6-foot-3 frame, perching half-glasses on his nose and reading a poem from some thin volume cradled in his hands like a live dove.

Beauty to balance the dark deeds the class would explore, an antidote to the ugliness humankind could offer.

After Larry died, Pat said, she needed some time. Then she started calling people.

One who came was Leslie Rockenbach, a doctorate student, who was ecstatic to find all she needed to finish her dissertation.

Larry already had a profound impact on her life, Ms. Rockenbach said. Now she has some of his books, opening them every day to do her work. After she came home with them she established a library in one room of her apartment.

"His books are a reminder of who he is in my life, a constant joy," she said. Reading his remarks, jotted in the margins, is almost like carrying on a conversation.

"I see him in them," she said.
"Books were his tools," said Michael Niman. "They were also his weapons."

Niman was a student who became a colleague, eventually sharing an office. After Larry became ill, in October, Niman taught Larry's undergraduate course, New World Imaginations.

Following Larry's example, Niman said, when he teaches classes at UB and Buffalo State College, he tries to take care to "celebrate the poetic in life," Niman said. "Even if I'm teaching a segment on conquest and genocide, you can still fit some beauty in the class before sending the students home."

The American Studies Department is no longer the apple of the university's eye. It doesn't bring in research dollars like the hard sciences. After Larry died, the university eliminated the teaching slot of the man who founded the department.

His position might be gone, but "there is an army of students out there, teaching in college and high school, that have been touched by Larry," Niman said. "You can't really kill Larry.

"This isn't really about death, but about the continuation of life, through his teaching, his books, and his inspiration," Niman said. "Isn't that what being a teacher is all about?"
Everywhere I looked, from shelf to shelf, room to room, there was a world of ideas and knowledge.

Trying to discipline myself, I selected a dab of Native-American studies, a dollop of the history of popular media, a smidgen of American cultural analysis.

I could still walk, so I grazed over the Vietnam War, and tossed on some classic fiction. To top it off I selected a volume of William Gibson's cyberpunk short stories, a silicon cherry.

Lydia toppled a box of clippings, then busied herself with toys Pat found her.

For every book I carried, there was a conversation I wished I would have had with Larry, a yearning for knowledge he could ably have filled. But for all he did for me, I never told him thank you.

Not until after he was gone.

I stood in his silent study, surrounded by his legacy, and said out loud, "Thank you."

"Welcome," replied Lydia, shuffling a stack of dusty journals in the corner.

This time, I know, Larry heard me.