Harder, isn’t it, when the loss of a best friend or a loved one comes at holiday time?
Maybe we already had a present picked out. And we are left wondering what gift for us might have been in the plans of our lost one.
Harder still, isn’t it, when an accident or health crisis suddenly shatters the expectations of a long, happy, comfortable, supportive association.
Gone. No time of reunion, no laughing with and at each other, no exchange of secret hopes and worries. Just an empty chair at the table, an unused bed in the guest room, and an unopened bottle of a shared favorite beverage.
Thirty years ago, Robert Whitton first gave me the unwelcome news that old age was chasing me down. He and I were teaching at UNC-Charlotte, riding together from our nearby homes in the morning and then to downtown Charlotte to our regular jobs when our classes were over. That day, after my last business law class, I walked to his math classroom to meet him for the ride downtown. He was not there. “We’re taking a test. He will be back in a few minutes,” one of his students told me.
Later, when we were in the car, Whitton asked, “Do you know what that student told me?” Then, without waiting, smiling devilishly, “She said that some ‘gray-headed’ man had come by the classroom looking for me.”
Until then, I had not noticed my fast-developing grayness. Whitton enjoyed reminding me of my early decline into old age. Back and forth to the university, such freewheeling conversations about aging, students, politics, people and ourselves, built the foundations of a trusting friendship.
He was a skeptic, but an optimistic one. If I outlined a political program or theory, he would poke holes in it, asking question after question to show why it would not work. I learned not to take offense at his probing. He was a mathematician. It was his obligation to challenge every theory. It was a compliment to a theory if it was worth his time to challenge it.
We watched and enjoyed each other’s families. He shared his famous family breakfasts and homemade biscuits with friends and students. I followed his passion to solve problems into classes on small engine repair and framing houses. I watched him set up a sawmill to turn downed neighborhood trees into useful lumber. I listened to his provocative ideas about how we could make the world better.
Twenty-some years ago, we both left our Charlotte neighborhood. Fortunately for me, he moved to Davidson, my hometown. He and his wife Amy gave me a home base for my frequent visits.
So our friendship continued. But teaching math at Davidson and teaching students to love math was his calling and became, after his wife and family, his first love.
His students and his colleagues loved him back. Last month, we found out how much. When he died after a car stuck him while crossing a street, the campus community packed the large college church and its adjoining chapel. As the beginning of the service I noticed a young man in a football jersey standing in the aisle. Then, I saw that both aisles were full of the Davidson football team in uniform. They had come to pay tribute to the skeptical optimist who made math’s problem-solving fun.
His friend, Cole Barton, quoting and adding to songwriter Guy Clark, said this: “I’ve seen the David, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa too-and I have heard Doc Watson play Columbus Stockade Blues–and I got to see Robert Whitton teach mathematics, too.”
Even in sadness, I am glad he taught me, too.
And so many others.