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Godspeed, Dr. Norb

Updated: Jul 24, 2022

July 2014. Catching up with my friend, my mentor.

On a bright spring day almost 30 years ago, I found myself walking up the steps outside McAlister Hall on the University of Central Arkansas campus in Conway, Arkansas, to meet a man who would change my life forever, although I had no way of knowing it at the time. He was everything I expected in a college professor: Bowtie. Tennis shoes. Greying hair and beard. Round glasses. And, of course, male.

“Tell me why you want to join the Honors College,” he says when we sit opposite each other in his office. The walls are packed with books, two or three books deep on some shelves. Sunlight streams in through the window. There are papers piled everywhere. The man perches his elbows on the sides of his chair, makes a tent with his hands, and rests his chin on top. He looks at me with kind eyes through the round glasses. Thank goodness the eyes were kind. Otherwise, how could I possibly convince this Princeton-educated man, this exemplar of academia, that I, a poor girl from Southwest Little Rock, Arkansas, should be a part of his Lively Experiment?

I have no memory of what I said in response to Dr. Norbert Schedler that spring day. I’m sure he’d heard it before. I’m looking for a challenge? I heard what you talk about here and I want to be a part of it? I want to be a college professor some day? I’m hoping I can get a scholarship that will help me pay for school? Probably that last more than anything. Paying for college, even in the 1990s when tuition wasn’t nearly as ridiculous as it is today, wasn’t easy for a blue collar family with three kids. I wanted to go to college. I was going to do what I needed to do to make it happen.

Whatever I said, it must have worked because about a week later I received a letter notifying me of my acceptance into the Honors College, along with a tuition scholarship. And thus my journey began. In the years that followed, I found my world expanded into possibilities I’d never imagined. I read Sartre, Kafka, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Marx, Plato, and Aristotle. I studied the Book of Job. I met figures like Dr. Jocelyn Elders. I took seminars on Chinese history, on world religions, and on the influence of media on society. I attended a lecture on Shakespeare’s women that absolutely changed my worldview about feminism. I completed a senior thesis on the last Empress of Russia and presented it at a conference in Denver, Colorado, for which I had to travel, alone, for the first time in my life. I visited the Chicago Museum of Art on an Honors College trip and got my first taste of real blues music in a downtown dive. I made friends who remain my friends to this day.

These are all experiences that influenced the person I would become, but none would come close to the power of the relationship I would forge with Norb. Norb and I debated. A lot. During the graduation banquet for the class of 1992, Norb told a story about me, in front of my parents, about a time in class when we’d gotten into another one of our friendly arguments. In perfect Socratic fashion, he posed a question to me that challenged what I’d boldly asserted to be Truth. My response? A dismissive wave of my hand and a hearty “Bah!”

“I’ll never forget the confidence in that gesture,” Norb said, chuckling. (My parents, of course, understood perfectly what it was like to be on the receiving end of that signature move!) “The confidence of a woman who knows her voice is important. That she deserves to be listened to, and by god she’s going to make sure you listen.”

There will be a lot of stories like this one shared about Norb. That alone is testament to who he was as a human being: Kind. Compassionate. Endlessly generous. Brilliant. Funny as hell. And always, always supportive of his students.

I had the privilege of reconnecting with Norb and Carol Schedler in 2014 when I visited him in McAlister Hall again. He’d moved offices to make room for the new generation of Honors College administrators, but the spirit of the place was the same: Walls lined with books, papers strewn everywhere, and comfortable chairs in which to relax and reflect on the state of the world. I introduced Norb to my husband Joe, and later to our sons, all of whom confirmed what I already knew about him: There was magic in the way he could make anyone feel at ease. I was lucky enough in the last 5 years to be close enough to visit Norb a dozen or so times, the last time being around Christmas 2018.

Frail, bent, and needing the support of a walker, still Norb commanded respect and admiration as he sat opposite me in a high-backed chair. “Dying isn’t easy,” he tells me, reflecting on the weirdness of watching one’s body slowly deteriorate and recognizing there isn’t much one can do to stop it. “You know it’s happening,” he says. “I witness it, and I see how my entire life will culminate in this end. What does it mean?” But he moves on quickly, asks about what’s going on in my life. “I’ve been a witness to many lives in my journey,” he says. “I’m glad I’ve been a witness to yours.”

Apart from my dad and my husband, Norbert Schedler has been the most important male figure in my life. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of women having men in their lives who listen to them, who value their voices. Norb was always there to listen to me, to encourage me, to demonstrate that I was valued and that I had a contribution to make to the world. As a teacher, I strove to emulate him. As a human being, I imagine I’ll never come close.

Godspeed, Norb. I love you dearly. Thank you for allowing me to be a witness to your life.

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