It was 20 years ago. I can’t believe how quickly the time flew by. I had arrived back in Canada after my first three years in Japan and was accepted to graduate school at the University of Alberta. My decided major was Comparative Literature and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I had just had a very intense three years of life in Japan. I worked as hard as I could, spent most evenings in a karate dojo, and arrived back in my hometown with a very newly minted black belt and a strong feeling that I needed to get something finished with my academic work if I had any hope of going back to Japan in any real professional capacity. My wonderful teacher, Taniguchi-Sensei had prepared my body and carved out of my soft mind a very stubborn spirit. I was ready to get the work done.
And then I met the next teacher who would change my life in another new direction.
Standing a little taller than me, even with a slight slouch (and I am 6’3), with huge hands, and a very gentle voice, he was fantastically kind and generous with me as his new advisee in my Masters Degree program. I told him that I didn’t know anything, but that I was curious and wanted to learn. Professor Blodgett laughed and made me feel so welcome.
Having had Taniguchi-Sensei stand on my legs when he stretched me out, and getting worked like a dog for 3 years straight, taught me a little bit about never advertising how “smart” or “tough” you are. Professor Blodgett, without knowing it, often echoed the same sentiment in his example of never strutting, showing off, or shaming someone for no reason. Even though he could. He just never did. It never seemed his style of flexing his academic muscles. Instead, on many occasions after reading something curious or wonderful, he would just say, “Isn’t that wonderful!”
And it was.
I had never been in such an academic environment before. Seminars with half a dozen, to ten students, we sat together and shared our research. Students sometimes taking “pot-shot questions” at each other. Professor Blodgett was always attentive, always with piercing questions, suggestions for more reading and insights beyond what was in the books in front of us. He spoke several languages, and those languages in different eras. He wrote poetry. He played the lute. He laughed. And if you heard that laughter, you’d remember it. Full. Booming. Joyful.
Professor Blodgett helped me in my reading of Chretien de Troyes and the Arthurian story of Yvain. I did a comparative study of Chretien de Troyes and the Heike Monogatari (Tale of the Heike), comparing bushido and chivalry. It was a great time to read and to study. Professor Blodgett was amazingly kind and thoughtful as he helped me pull my research together and wrap up my thesis. I owe him more than I realize.
The professor was widely decorated in literary circles. His CV of his own writings, experience, awards received, is lengthy and intimidating. But in my experience with him, he never mentioned any of it. If asked, he’d brush it a bit to the side and inquire about something else, pivoting from the worship to a place where we could all share the same moment. Always classy. Always including anyone in his sphere who was near enough to be included.
Fast forward a decade later and I am back in Edmonton after another stint in Japan. This time I’ve been away from Canada for ten years. My black belt is no longer freshly minted. It is worn with thousands of hours on the dojo floor. I finished my graduate studies and taught for the better part of a decade in universities in Kanazawa, Japan. I’m a bit older. My hair is thinning out. But I feel good. I feel more whole. Less the boy I was, and much more the man I’m supposed to be.
I went to Grant McEwan University in Edmonton for a job interview and then I saw him.
He had retired from his long tenure at the University of Alberta. He had been celebrated and now he was “free”. He was teaching classes at a university many might consider “beneath” his great station. But the man loved to teach, and he loved students. He was a professor’s professor, and respected all over the world. I told him I was interviewing in the English Department for a position, and his face lit up. He clapped me on the back and said something like, “I’m sure you’ll get it.” And then I did.
Teaching in Canada to university students is very different than in Japan, but like my professor, I love to teach. He inspired me to be a better teacher. There’s a lot I don’t know, but I am glad to be in the midst of a curious group, stumbling forward, looking for insight. It seemed unreal that I was in the same Department as Professor Blodgett, the academic titan. But there we were, regularly having coffee together, and then he says one day, “Now we are colleagues, Mark”. I think I must have choked. I don’t think I sprayed him, but I easily could have.
But that is how magnanimous Professor Blodgett was. He was kind, and he was inclusive. But in truth, the only way that he and I could have been colleagues is the same way that The Mighty Thor and Howard the Duck are a dynamic duo. I was, and still am, fantastically humbled by those words.
And it was nice to meet regularly for coffee on the Grant McEwan campus, and to talk. I remember we did not talk about academic matters so much, most likely because I was out of my stratosphere. But we did talk about students, and teaching, and family. There was a fair bit of laughing. The man loved to laugh.
And then that incredible year of our working “as colleagues” was over. I was back in Japan again, and the road opened up ahead. Professor Blodgett was off to see if retirement would actually stick this time, and was looking to move his home from Edmonton. We said we would stay in touch, and we did a little, by email. But I knew that this man was important and needed with those who he was close to. I said goodbye, and I meant it. With affection, and a thankful heart.
This week, Professor Blodgett passed away. Now my heart feels hard and sore. But I also feel deep gratitude for having known the man. I am deeply grateful for having been his student, and for “being in the moment” with him in times of laughter, and also in a few moments of crystal-clear realization of understanding a missing piece of what I needed for my own. He gave me the gift of seeing the world differently than I had, of learning of how to be in this world with a generous heart, and also of working hard to better perfect the way in which I expressed my mind both to myself, and the outside world.
Professor Blodgett lived 83 years. I grieve for his family.
Thank you Professor. With my hard sore heart. Thank you.
I do not think I will meet someone like you again.