October 22, 2010

One more day

It's Friday, which means it is time for The Red Dress Club writing meme. Once again, they gave us a choice. And this one was hard. The first option was to describe your 80th birthday party. The second was to answer the question, "If you could spend the afternoon with anyone who is no longer alive, who would it be and what would you do?" I went with the latter, because my choice was so immediate and intuitive.

          Are you familiar with the book Tuesdays with Morrie? Well, Harry James Cargas was my Morrie. An English professor at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, Harry came in to my life when I was 20 years old. And he rocked my world. But I don't mean that the way you might think I do.
           Harry's office was on the third floor of The Pearson House,  a historic building that served as the English department headquarters. His office was the attic, really. Getting there was a challenge, even for me. How Harry managed those stairs in his condition, I will never know.
          When I met Harry, his health was already declining. His mind and spirit were strong, but his body was failing him. During the years I knew Harry, he grew more and more frail right in front of me. But the sparkle in his eyes never faded.
          He had a devilish sense of humor. I loved to hear his deep, hearty laugh. In fact, I believe that is why they sequestered him up in the attic. Had he been on the second floor, directly above the classrooms, it would have been too disruptive. He was also very opinionated and not at all a conformist. That may have had something to do with it, too.
          He was one of those people who was intelligent almost beyond compare. But more importantly, he was wise. Harry had lived an amazing life, and he possessed a very global perspective. I always knew when I climbed the stairs to his office I would be descending with an expanded world view.    
          The room looked exactly like you would expect a college professor's office to look. There were books everywhere. Stacked so high you felt if you breathed too hard they would come tumbling down on top of you. He had lots of artwork. Not fancy, framed stuff. Art that had been created by people he knew and given to him in its original state.
          There were pictures of him with famous, well known people. Harry was a world-renowned expert on the Holocaust and religion. He had written, contributed to and/or edited 2,500 articles and 32 books. He was personal friends with people like Nobel Prize winner (and Holocaust survivor) Elie Wiesel and Kurt Vonnegut.
          He had the most uncomfortable chairs. But I never minded. I sat in them for hours just so we could keep talking. I always rose reluctantly. It was rare for me to be the one who ended the conversation. I would have been content had he done all the talking, but Harry was not interested in one-sided discussions.
          I visited Harry on an almost daily basis, ostensibly to talk about school assignments. But we never did. We talked about life. He had so many fascinating stories. And such a enlightened outlook. I spent countless hours in that office. And he took full advantage. Harry was on a mission with me.
          Harry never let me settle for good enough. He insisted, kindly but firmly, that I push myself farther than I thought I was capable of. He would not take no for an answer, nor accept any of my excuses. I could not fake it with Harry. He knew, better than I did at the time, what my true talents were. Who I was as a person.
          You see, I met Harry during a very transitional period of my life. I had just been through an extremely difficult experience. My confidence was shaken. My outlook bleak. My foundation cracked and vulnerable. I was lost. I had no idea where I was going or what my purpose was.
          I needed to figure things out. And I had rededicated myself to earning a college degree. I transferred to Webster University because it was close to home. But really, I think I ended up there because I needed Harry in my life. Maybe he needed me, too, somehow. Fate definitely played a role in our connection.
          Harry was able to reach me in a way others could not. Many had tried. But Harry was the one who broke through. Who guided me past that period of my life and enabled me to see my future. I likely would have made it whether or not Harry had come in to my life. But I hate to think of that possibility. I can't imagine my life without him as a part of it, no matter how brief the time was.

(photo courtesy of The Journal, The News Source for Webster University)

          It would be an indescribable pleasure to spend one more afternoon with Harry J. Cargas in his attic office at The Pearson House. I'd love to tell him what an impact he had on me. Fill him in on my life. Let him know everything turned out OK. But then, he never doubted it would.
          I dedicated my first book to Harry. The dedication reads:

To Harry James, Cargas, PhD.
My mentor and friend, who always encouraged me
to do more than I thought I could.
The world is a better place for having known him,
and I was richly blessed to have him in my life.

 He passed away before it was published. I never got to hand him a copy. 


  1. I dream to have a mentor like Harry... How beautifully written... I could feel the impact he had on your life... on your confidence.

  2. I wish I'd had a teacher or similar mentor like that in my life. He sounds like a great man.

  3. What a beautiful tribute to him!

  4. A wonderful tribute to a man who sounds worthy of it. :)

    For me, it's a no-brainer. I'd spend an afternoon with my father, who died when I was twelve. I'd love to have an adult conversation with him. :)

  5. I would have camped out in such a professor's office, too!

    A lovely tribute.

  6. This is so lovely - reminds me intensely of my version of Harry, an English teacher from boarding school, who has also passed away. I dedicated my thesis to him. We are so fortunate to have met people like this. I miss him dearly. xo

  7. So amazing as our experiences with him were so different. I respected him greatly but mostly from afar. (His laugh was fantastic!) It's refreshing to hear that he was not just an inspiration but motivational. My sister never stopped raving about him either.

  8. He would love this and be so proud! What an honor...to have a book dedicated to you.

  9. What a wonderful story. I wish I had him for a professor! Very well written.

  10. I think these are the angels who leave the greatest imprints in our hearts. They are only in our lives for a little while, but they play a GRAND role. Their legacy lives on forever.

  11. This takes me back to my own college experience...I, too, had a professor who believed in me and encouraged me to explore and question and grow.

    All it takes is one person to believe in you...to truly believe that you can accomplish anything to help you see that perhaps you really can.

    Thank you for giving me a nudge down memory lane.

  12. What a wonderful tribute. He sounds like a wonderful man. I'm sure he knew the impact he had on you. What a gift to have that kind of relationship, for both of you.

  13. Beautiful, Elizabeth! xo, SGR

  14. Elizabeth, not only is your story exceptional, your writing is such a pleasure to read. What an experience to have had a Harry "show up" at the perfect time with the perfect offerings.

    Many thanks for a most enjoyable article. Harry must be beaming right along with those stars.

  15. I would choose my Grandfather so he could meet my Son. He passed within hours of my Son being born. I believe their spirits touched somewhere in the middle... -c3south*

  16. A lovely tribute. A great teacher can make such a tremendous impact. I was lucky to have one in high school (and yes, it was for English).

    I wished you'd given an example of his devilish sense of humor and of what he was outspoken. I wanted to get to know him more!

  17. Wow! He sounds like an incredible person to have had on your side.

  18. Thank you for writing this post. I think it is important to recognize those who have propelled our thinking forward and encouraged us to learn new things. You have inspired me to write about some the great teachers (thinkers) from my past who helped shaped my path of life long learning.

  19. I regret that I have been unable to respond individually this time. It has been a busy few days. But I appreciate all your comments and am pleased to see how well this post was received. Thank you!

  20. That was very touching. I can't say that I've had someone in my life impact me so profoundly ... at this point anyway. Perhaps my time just hasn't come yet.

    Really a beautiful tribute.

  21. Oh, and I would have to spend the day with my mother-in-law, before she became sick, so I could get to know her and she could meet her granddaughter.


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