About Grieving, About Friendship… About My Friend Bob Calsyn

When you lose someone you care about, for a while you walk around in a daze. Of course, there is the sadness. But less often mentioned are the sense of disorientation and the random memories; the moments your eyes fill with tears and the fatigue you can’t seem to shake. For a while you are scattered and off-balance until, finally, the jumble of things settles down and life returns to “normal.”

I am writing this in the midst of the jumble. My friend Bob Calsyn died on Friday, September 21st. His wife Maria called from St. Louis with the news. I let a couple of my old friends know. They are Bob’s old friends too, from our days in grad school at Northwestern. And I heard independently from Dave Kenny, another NU alum. If Dave isn’t — I should say wasn’t — Bob’s best friend, then surely he was tied with the other contenders for first place.

I told Dave I was thinking of writing something about Bob and asked if he might offer some of his own thoughts. His remarks below are adapted from those he read at the memorial he attended in St. Louis on September 25th. (In each case that I quote him, his comments are set off from the rest of the text and begin with his name in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS).

What I’d like to do here is to tell you why Bob mattered to all of us. But the truth is, I need to tell you. I need to get this out to honor Bob — to honor the loss suffered by Maria and Bob’s children and siblings and all those who were closest to Bob. And, not least, to help myself with the jumble I mentioned at the start.

What follows is a series of recollections of a wonderful man and great friend, much of it in Dave Kenny’s voice; along with some of my own memories, a little of my own philosophizing about the nature of friendship and loss, and some things just about me. Someday, you too will be in the midst of the jumble. Maybe it will help.

DAVE KENNY:

I knew Bob for 44 years. When we met at Northwestern we had a lot in common: both oldest child of a large family, both lapsed Catholics, both of us had mothers who wanted us to be priests, and both of us had a strong commitment to social justice. We very quickly became friends. What Bob accomplished in four years at Northwestern was truly remarkable: earning his Ph.D., serving two years as a Conscientious Objector to the Vietnam War, doing a one year clinical psychology internship, and becoming a father, much of the time commuting 14 miles from Hyde Park to Evanston. The later incredible academic success of his sons Dylan and Chris was foreshadowed by Bob’s.

Bob, unlike me, continued in his commitment to social justice throughout his entire lifetime. He was passionate about ending homelessness and he worked diligently in this effort. I never told Bob how grateful I was that he let me play a small role in his work.

For the record, Robert Joseph Calsyn was a product of Rock Island, Illinois and Alleman High School; the child of working class parents. He graduated from Loyola University in Chicago before attending grad school. Bob served as the Chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, as well as being Director of its Gerontology Program.

There is something about schoolmates. At Northwestern, our group of graduate students was more than usually close. The Psychology Department was small, so we had lots of classes together, the way you do when you are 10 years old. We ate together, socialized together, went on double-dates; some of us roomed together. We passed through the same moment in history and the same stage in our lives in the same place. It was hard not to bond.

The men in the group played lots of softball and football and basketball against other Northwestern departmental conscripts. Bob usually played second base for our softball enterprise, which we called the Psyclones — a play on words since we were all studying to be psychologists. He played hard, but that particular game was tough for Bob, especially making accurate throws to first base. Still, Bob was an essential part of a pretty good team. Even if we’d have been slightly more perfect without him, we wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun or had the benefit of his “heart.”

In sports like touch-football Bob was fierce, taking particular pride in the devastating, bone-rattling blocks he delivered to opponents who couldn’t imagine them coming from a man who was no more than 5’8″ (173 cm) on a good day. Bob was no plaster saint. He knew the full range of four letter words and used them when necessary, as they tend to be in sports, especially in games played with the sweaty tenacity that Bob brought to them.

DAVE KENNY:

Our friendship endured and we saw each other in eight different states. Many of those visits were near water which Bob loved: the coast of Maine, Cape Cod, Long Island Sound, and of course, his beloved Anna Maria Island (where Bob and Maria had a vacation home). Bob was strange about water. He loved to watch and hear it, but he was not a fan of being in it. However, don’t forget that Bob grew up and spent most of his adult life near the Mississippi River. Maybe not going in the water made good sense.

I didn’t see Bob a lot after grad school. We’d visit occasionally, at first when I was teaching in New Jersey and he came to nearby New York City, later in Chicago, and a few times in St. Louis. Our relationship took the form of letters, then email and occasional phone calls. I got to read and critique some of his short stories; he helped with career issues for one of my children.

And yet, for me at least, a person like Bob lives inside of you in a continuous way even when there is no continuity in actual contact. He was always on an imaginary list of people who I thought of as my friends. Bob was someone who you were sure would be dependable, helpful, and unfailingly honest. He told you what he thought, not what he believed he “should” say or what he thought you wanted to hear.

We “knew” each other, could talk about anything. We knew where each of us was coming from — came from — in both a literal and figurative sense. He didn’t keep score. Bob was always there when you needed him, someone who was compassionate, gave sound advice, and was incredibly funny.

DAVE KENNY:

Bob had his own view of nutrition. He introduced me to Dairy Queen Blizzards. I remember him cooking donuts and beignets in his kitchen. We always had a 3PM cookie break when working together. For breakfast he would ignore his wife Maria — his Argentine bombshell — and sneak off to eat at Waffle House or Denny’s, not the healthy breakfast she suggested.

Bob and Maria (ca. 1994)

My friend retired from his faculty position in 2009. Not long after he was diagnosed with cancer. This made our contacts more frequent. Somehow Bob remained optimistic in spite of multiple tumor sites that never fully disappeared.

Bob continued to play tennis, the game he loved best, even though the treatment compromised his breathing. Singles were now out, so he played doubles. I didn’t see the down moments and I’m sure that there were more than a few. But his resilience, his ability to live life and to keep really “living it” and enjoying himself was astonishing. And he could still be there for me, as when I had a long conversation with him about retirement: whether to do it, when to do it, what it was like for him, and what it might be like for me. We had plans to see each other on the first weekend in October in St. Louis.

People find it difficult to talk with someone who is battling “Death,” a bigger than “Life” opponent with an undefeated record. It is, indeed, hard to know what to say. Mostly you listen, even if most of us think we must have some sort of magic words to deliver when, in fact, no such words exist. Bob made it as easy as possible.

The day after Bob died I heard John Adams’s musical composition, On the Transmigration of Souls, presented by the Milwaukee Symphony and Chorus. Bob liked classical music, so it seemed a nice coincidence; more than that, the composition is a commemoration of those lives lost in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. An interview with the composer on the New York Philharmonic website includes the following:

… I’d probably call the piece a ‘memory space.’ It’s a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions. The link to a particular historical place — in this case 9/11 — is there if you want to contemplate it. But I hope that the piece will summon human experience that goes well beyond this particular event.

‘Transmigration’ means ‘the movement from one place to another’ or ‘the transition from one state of being to another.’ … And I don’t just mean the transition from living to dead, but also the change that takes place within the souls of those that stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from an experience transformed.

I guess you hear what you want to, what you need to, what you can’t escape. Of course, I couldn’t help but think about Bob during the performance…

Bob managed to write a novel, all the while dealing with his illness. It is called Primal Man and you can buy it on Amazon. You won’t be disappointed. The story is a murder mystery that takes place in a university setting. This comes from a brief interview of Bob in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on September 4, 2011:

Q: Had you written fiction before?

Bob: No. but I’ve always read mysteries.

Q: This primal man is apparently an exhibitionist?

Bob: Primal man exposes himself to female students and throws them an index card that says, ‘Men are hunters, women are gatherers. Gather yourself home.’

Q: How does psychology figure in?

Bob: It helps you explore character. I was an administrator for many years. I thought writing a mystery was a more socially acceptable outlet than strangling my colleagues.

Bob was a confident man, but not arrogant. For all the scholarly articles he produced and all his advocacy for homeless, mentally ill people, he told me one day at the St. Louis Zoo that he thought of himself as a “journeyman.” Indeed, he considered each one of us who got Northwestern psychology doctorates in 1972 in the same light, with one exception. Dave Kenny was and is that exception, an internationally known academic who has changed the way people think about social psychology research, its design, and its analysis. But, I don’t believe Bob meant to disparage any of us, and certainly not himself. He simply knew that there was a pretty big difference between being Bob Calsyn or Gerry Stein and being Beethoven.

Bob didn’t care about or aim to be a great man. He was too busy living his life, loving his wife, doing his work. He was too busy delighting in his kids and grandchildren, playing tennis, and having a beer (but not at the same time)! The irony, of course, is that the way that Bob lived was a kind of un-self-conscious, rough-hewn work of art, something to be admired and emulated. As Marc Anthony said over the body of Julius Caesar in the Shakespeare play, “When comes such another?”

DAVE KENNY:

In thinking over my friendship with Bob, it occurred to me that Bob and I never argued and Bob never got mad at me. We disagreed all the time, but our disagreements did not result in arguments. Bob regularly told me that I was wrong, but he never did so in a way that said, “I’m better than you” or “You are a bad person.” He sincerely wished, as I did, that I was a better person. Bob did have lots of reasons to be angry at me: missing deadlines, drinking too much, not staying in contact… Bob would get angry at Republicans, at demagogues, and perhaps even his colleagues. But he channeled his anger against his colleagues by writing short stories and killing them off there.

Bob always was one step ahead of me. He left a high-powered college to go to a more low-key institution. He got married and had children, ended his difficult marriage, and remarried; he had grandchildren and retired — all before me. Now Bob, you have done it again and you have died before me.

Upon reflection, Bob was more of an older brother to me than a friend. He was doing things before me and giving me advice on how to do them. My big brother Bob helped me cope with all of the major transitions in my life, especially my divorce. We know that Bob faced a terminal disease and death courageously and remarkably. Again I will be following Bob, and I hope I can muster 10% of his courage, but I hope that mustering does not happen too soon.

Dave Kenny

We cannot know what others are feeling except by analogy to our own emotions. Those of us who have lost a friend may think we are hurting and we are, but surely the intensity and nature of the feelings experienced by those closest to Bob can’t be known, at least not by me. Everyone’s grief is different, formed by the tapestry of experiences they had with the departed — all the memories and struggles, the laughter, the kindness, and the human imperfections that are inevitable on both sides of any relationship.

For those closest, their lives will now be marked with the idea of “before and after;” before and after Bob died and how much that difference made. To all those who were closest to Dr. Calsyn, and to those (like me) who were a step or two back, my condolences.

That said, from the outside and some distance, it looks to me like Bob had a wonderful life. Too short, for sure, but wonderful. Not without pain or disappointment or hard times, but full of compensating joy, success, and love. He gave life and the people in his life everything he had. He traveled, competed, and he knew when to rest and take a walk on the beach. Bob didn’t “phone it in.” He lived more in 66 years than most of us would do in twice that time. Like the ballplayer who tries to stretch a triple into a home run and is thrown out at the plate, he was a thing to behold.

On the subject of baseball, I’m reminded of an old story about Babe Ruth, the most famous baseball player ever. Actually, it is about the Babe’s funeral, which happened on a particularly hot day in New York City. It seems that two of his old teammates, Joe Dugan and Waite Hoyt, couldn’t help but comment on the weather, especially since they’d served as their friend’s pallbearers and the heat hadn’t made that easier:

Joe Dugan: I’d give a hundred dollars for a beer.

Waite Hoyt: So would the Babe.

Here’s to you, Bob. How lucky I was to know you.

——–

The top image is the Calsyn Family (ca. 2001). From left to right: Bob’s son Dylan and Dylan’s wife Beth and their daughter Zoe; Maria, Bob, Soledad Van Emden (Maria’s daughter and Bob’s stepdaughter), Bob’s son Chris, Margaret van Emden; and John van Emden, Soledad’s husband. Since this picture was taken, three more grandchildren have arrived: Abigail, Ella, and Max.

The photos are courtesy of Dave Kenny. My very special thanks to Dave for his contribution to this essay, especially given the enormous difficulty he had returning home to Connecticut from Bob’s memorial in St. Louis. Thanks, also, to Judy Goodman, Steve Hanan, Angela Shancer, and Diane Tyrell for their helpful and speedy comments about an earlier draft; and for their friendship.