Richard Cracroft: Go Gentle

I knew him first as a presence: an unbearded Santa Claus with thin lips, glasses, and a good pate of gray hair parted on the side. He could tell funny stories until his audience was slap-laugh-crying. I remember him imitating himself making an important presentation after a dentist’s appointment. His mouth was numb, his hearing aids misplaced, and his contacts not quite centered. He hammed it up. “Ah eeh to teh ooh bout Bark Taiin.” (“I’m here to tell you about Mark Twain.”) I wish somebody had recorded it.

I had known him in a more serious setting. He was my stake president when I went to be interviewed for my temple recommend after my divorce. It was a daunting prospect, this interview. How could I, who had failed in the most important of all earthly undertakings, talk about things like worthiness? Could I do anything right? I had been so nervous about asking people to write letters of recommendation for me to enter the Master’s program at BYU that finally my mother approached our friend, Tom Rogers, and told him I was too nervous to ask him myself. Tom was gracious, and wrote the letter.

But this—sitting before Richard Cracroft, this gentle, funny man, and answering the interview questions—made me tremble. Surely this particular Santa Claus could announce with a smile that I would not be getting any presents this Christmas—or ever. I didn’t deserve them.

He began the interview, and I answered all questions honestly. He got to the last one: “Do you consider yourself worthy in every way to enter the temple?”

My eyes teared and I shook my head. “No,” I said.

He paused. Was he praying? I was looking down, so I don’t know.

“Margaret,” he said, “you need the blessings of the temple.” And he signed it.

Our next significant interaction was at an English department dinner. He was the college dean.

Three years earlier, Bruce Young had been hired on provisional status as an English professor. He was single, and everyone understood that he would need to be married to keep his position. For whatever reasons, BYU had an unspoken policy about single professors back then. The department chairman had sent him a birthday note: “Bruce—please get married! We want to keep you!”

To him, it felt like the chairman was saying, “You can have this great job—if you’ll just fly to the moon.”

And then I was there, on the front row of his class and then smack dab in the center of his life. Bruce said it was like I had shown up at his door and announced, “I have a rocket out back. Would you like to go to the moon?”

We let people know we were engaged before the department dinner.

Richard approached me afterwards, shaking his head genially. “Margaret, bless you. What a sacrifice you’re making! Oh, we appreciate this. Your parents have been loyal to the English department, but this—this is such a huge, wonderful thing you’re doing. Thank you!” And then he smiled. I knew I was in his good graces.

As I began my career as a writer, he reviewed several of my books. At one point, Bruce and I took him a book which the publisher had failed to send him, and chatted with him and his wife in their living room. They were having some challenges with their children, something I couldn’t quite comprehend then, but understand well now. I asked about a relative of mine who had also been an LDS author, but who had left the Church. Richard had known him well. “I was so judgmental,” he said. “I thought I knew everything back then. So, so judgmental!”

Not long after, he and I had a slight conflict when I misunderstood a review he had written for the Association for Mormon Letters. I critiqued what he had said, and he took me to task, pointing out harshly where I had gone wrong. I apologized, and sent him a private note, telling him how much he had meant to me in my several maturings, how his words of hope and comfort during that temple recommend interview had bolstered me through unexpected moments.

His reply was sweet, though I remember only one phrase of it: “Thank you for your gentling words.”

Gentling. What an interesting modifier! To gentle. To move one to gentleness. Gentle as a verb. It is now the word I associate most personally with him. I don’t know if anyone else uses it.

May I gentle you into peace before we continue this discussion? Please use gentling phrases with me so I don’t forget myself. Gentle this friendship so that we both honor it. Go gentle into that good night.

I knew Richard finally as a patient at Davita Dialysis, where my father has also been going for over five years. Richard managed to maintain that distinctive smile while the machine and its ganglia of tubes cleaned his blood. At dialysis, we hear the whir of all the machines, the occasional beep like a backing truck when someone’s blood pressure gets too low, whispered conversations, quiet news shows or Spanish telenovelas. While I was visiting with him once, another friend approached and said, “Richard! What are you doing these days?” He gave a wry chuckle and said, “Well, mostly I’m working on the long process of dying.” I could imagine Mark Twain, the author Richard knew so well, saying that exact thing.

He coded in a dialysis chair a week ago, and was taken to the E.R., where he was pronounced dead. I learned that his wife’s cancer had returned, and that Richard had decided that if she went first, he would discontinue dialysis.

He did not have to make that last choice.

I think of the two of them as I saw them in their condo or in dialysis, old and together. I had only hints of Richard at various points in his life. I know he considered me a friend, though not a close one. I saw him as a professor, a humorist, a theologian, a lover of beauty, one willing to learn and to grow. I saw him as a merciful man, though I suspect he learned mercy in some merciless moments. I know he loved his wife. By those last years, they had settled into each other, gentled each other, chosen each other in new ways with every miracle or tragedy they met—and they met several.

I think of Twain’s The Diary of Adam and Eve, and can imagine Richard reciting the whole thing. The opening scene shows Adam and Eve as childish, like kindergartners at recess, trying to comprehend the differences between boys and girls and everything else that comes in the human package:

Adam:
Dear Diary. This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way. It is always hanging around and following me about. I don’t like this: I am not used to company. I wish it would stay with the other animals. (To himself) Cloudy today, wind in the east, think we shall have rain. We? Where did I get that word? I remember now, the other creature uses it.

As they explore the garden, they disagree at times. Adam describes his companion doing strange things:

She fell in the pond yesterday when she was looking at herself in it, which she is always doing. She nearly strangled, which made her feel sorry for the creatures which live there, which she calls “fish”. She continues to fasten names on to things which don’t need them, and don’t come when they are called by them. Anyway, she got a lot of them out and brought them in last night, and put them in my bed to keep warm, but I have noticed them now and then all day and I don’t see that they are any happier than they were before, only quieter. When night comes I shall put them outdoors. I will not sleep with them again, for I find them clammy and unpleasant to lie among.

And through it all, through temptation, expulsion from the garden, through heartbreak and healing, they hardly realize how close they are growing to one another. Eve says near the end:

It is my prayer that we may pass from this life together. But if one of us must go first, it is my prayer that it shall be I; for he is strong, I am weak, I am not so necessary to him as he is to me. Life without him would not be life; how could I endure it?

Of course, she has underestimated Adam, who loves her more than she suspects:

After all these years, I see that I was mistaken about Eve in the beginning; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her. At first I thought she talked too much; but now I should be sorry to have that voice fall silent and pass out of my life. Blessed be the apple that brought us near together and taught me to know the goodness of her heart and the sweetness of her spirit! Now that she is gone, I know one thing; wheresoever she was, there was Eden.

I didn’t tell my mother that Richard had died. She called me the next day. “Did you hear? Richard Cracroft died. He died in dialysis.”

I could tell she had been crying.

Comments

  1. Beautiful post. Sorry for the loss of a friend, but I aspire to leave a legacy like that behind when I go.

  2. Thank you for this. He was one of my favorite professors at BYU. It is funny, there are two things I remember best about him. The first was when he re-enacted Pearl Harbor in the classroom. The other was in a fireside talk he gave. He said “Peter tells us there is ‘no prophecy of private interpretation,’ so I’m going to interpret this one publicly.” Your description fits the professor I knew so many years ago.

  3. Thanks Margaret, you always write beautifully.

  4. Wonderful. Thanks, Margaret.

    Shakespeare’s Henry V used that word as a verb:

    We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
    For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
    Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
    This day shall gentle his condition:
    And gentlemen in England now a-bed
    Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

    Different sense–I like Prof. Cracroft’s better.

  5. Margaret, as always, thank you.

  6. I’ve wept over Professor Cracroft’s passing. Taking his freshman English class at BYU in the 80’s altered the course of my life. It caused me to switch from a pre-med science major to an English major — a felicitous move that had never entered my mind before encountering Prof. Cracroft. He taught me to love what he loved. I aspired to be like him, and still do. He was encouraging, patient, hilarious, passionate and, yes, gentle.

  7. Beautiful, beautiful writing. Thank you.

  8. Lovely, Margaret, and thank you.

  9. What a lovely tribute, Margaret. Thank you.

  10. Thank you for the lovely remembrance. I didn’t know Prof. Cracroft, but all that you’ve written reminds me of his brother Paul, another gentle man who shepherded me through many challenging times.

  11. Elouise Bell says:

    Oh, Margaret, bless you for leading the way here! I have tried four or five times in the past few days to post a few words about Richard in the guest book on the DesNews, but to no avail. Maybe there’s a filtering committee or some such. . . .

    I often called him “Richard, Coeur de Lion.” He called himself “Richard, Coeur de Pussy Chat.” Both titles were accurate.

    Mostly I remember his rich laughter, and the laughter he generated. For one English department variety show, Richard’s bad cold gave us an idea: he and I portrayed
    “Dristan and Ice-Colda.” He wore a surgeon’s mask as he pretended to seek “Ice-Colda’s” love; I reponded with disdainful words ripped untimely from Shakespeare’s trove.

    When he moved forward in the ranks of college leadership, ambivalence occasionally overtook him. One day he sent me an inter-office memo (before e-mail, of course) about a great new novel he had read and wanted to recommend. It was Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE. Naughtily, I wrote back at once to say I had read it, and was glad to have his endorsement to use it in my freshman English class. He broke his own track record racing up to my cubicle to tell me that, puff-puff, while the frank and unsparing book might be wonderful for a graduate class, we probably should NOT unleash it on the freshmen!

    He was wise, he was kind, he was a faithful Saint, and he love sprinkling the sauce of humor over much of what he said. On my last visit with him, I took a stuffed lion I had hunted everywhere for. “Richard, Coeur de Pussy Chat.” We each sat in a big recliner and savored a delicious bunch of sweet memories, two old cronies who had shared just about five decades of our lives’ work and our friendship. What I remember most from that visit is the hearty laughter and the joy. We knew how blessed we had been.

  12. Elouise, I had hoped you would find this. Thank you for adding to it so beautifully. I love “Dristan and Ice-Colda”! And “Richard, Coeur de Pussy Chat” is just right. What a marvelous gift.
    Bruce and I are now senior faculty, and Bruce could retire in just a few years. We realize that we were mentored and loved by men and women with the hearts of lions and of kittens, each with their own lives and each with their particular loves. It’s hard to think that anyone but Richard could really teach the books of Mark Twain. The professors my parents had now have theaters and concert halls named after them . We have lecture series in the names of professors I never knew. I wonder where Richard’s name will go–on a scholarship, a lecture series, or on a building. I would like to see something in Hannibal, Missouri where the works of Twain are read or performed, and the Richard Cracroft Award for New American Fiction is given.

  13. julia G blair says:

    Loved reading all of these. I’ve been involved in ElderQuest for the last several years and am one of many who got to
    be his student after I became a Senior Citizen. Richard was always appreciative of students’ comments and enjoyed savoring the
    new ideas to the delight and pride of his wise and “needy” Senior Students. I’m grateful!
    Julia G Blair

  14. Thanks, Julia G. Blair, aka Mom! What a lovely reminder–that he continued teaching long after he retired. Also, I love what ElderQuest does, and am so proud of all you do to support and build it.

  15. A wonderful tribute, Margaret. Thank you.

    I was fortunate in being able to attend Richard’s funeral. I offer an inadequate account of it here:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2012/09/a-beautiful-life-beautifully-remembered.html

    It was one of the best, most inspiring, funeral services that I’ve attended.

  16. A beautiful post from Elouise Bell, above.

  17. Margaret, I did not know Richard, and now I believe I’m the poorer for it. Thanks for this brief dip below the surface of a name.

  18. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Dr. Cracroft was a gift. I suspect that I caught him near the end of his career as a direct lecturing professor, but the man could undeniably charm you with wit and squeaking hearing aids, while still retaining all the credibility to liberally coat an essay with thoughtful red ink.

    The man gave out college credit while covering Wodehouse, Twain, Jerome, McManus, Barry, ect. and managed to sneak Robert Kirby onto campus for a guest lecture. I don’t know how you keep him out of the celestial kingdom.

  19. Neal Kramer says:

    How does I express gratitude for a life that led me so many times to true grace? I believe Dick many times led my soul to Christ and all the grace that expresses. I have believed much more in the possibility of my own redemption than I ever could have without him. I admire and love him more than I can say. He was a true disciple of the Savior and shared his discipline with every step he took.

  20. Margaret, this is a lovely piece, and is just right. Cracroft (I cannot call him Richard) to me was the beau ideal of the passionate scholar who was a faithful priesthood holder and disciple of Christ. Not all of us, alas, have been able to achieve such balance—or harmony. I was able to have a couple of classes with him, during his dean-hood, when he relished the chance to teach all the more. A seminar on Realism and Naturalism, team-taught by himself and Neal Lambert, was perhaps the most illuminating class I ever had—and the most laughter-prone. He also had the courage make me see, one day in conference, that my paper did not deserve more than a B+, and that I already knew that fact. It forced me to raise the bar for myself in my writing, and was a great gift.

  21. How lovely to hear from you, Randy. Thank you for that sweet tribute.

  22. He taught me the meaning of the word “redoubtable.” (Really. I flunked a quiz because of that word.) And he gave me my first copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from his library.

  23. Jane Hafen says:

    Waugh! Dr. Cracroft would start Literature of the American West with that mountain man exclamation and then sprinkle it liberally throughout. He taught me about writing by putting my horrible sentences on the blackboard. I may have taught him a little about Indians. He generously directed my M.A. Thesis while he was Dean. Later, he shepherded my career by giving me publishing and speaking opportunities. I still model my Literature of the American West classes on what I learned from him. I hope I also model his gracious mentoring.

  24. Jane! It’s been so long! Wonderful to see your words here!

  25. I’m not usually prone to covetousness, but after reading these witty and articulate tributes I am totally jealous that I never had the experience of knowing this fellow. Those of us so impoverished are in need of a reading list.
    Godspeed, Brother Cracroft.

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