Friday, October 11, 2013

Remembering Alan Bloom

Alan Bloom doing what he did best
On Thursday we lost one of the good guys.

Alan Bloom was the chair of Valparaiso University's History Department. He was an inspiring college teacher and scholar of homelessness, a gym rat, a fellow New Jerseyan, a community member, an activist, a mentor, a husband and father, and a friend to so many of us. I am well aware that there are students and former students, colleagues, and friends who knew Alan Bloom much, much better than I did, but after learning about his death I felt compelled to write.

We developed a friendship over the course of my two years (2000-2002) in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and Arts.  I only saw Alan a few times since then, but we kept in touch via e-mail and Facebook.  Just the other day I was giving him a hard time about his efforts to avoid eating all the family Halloween candy before October 31st.  

When I heard that he died my gut wrenched, my heart broke, and I felt like someone punched me in the face.  The fact that I felt this way is a testimony to Alan's capacity for friendship.  I only got to hang out with him for two years, but it always felt like we were lifelong buddies.  I am sure Alan made a lot of people feel this way.

Alan was the first friend I made at Valparaiso outside of the folks involved with the Lilly Fellows Program. We hit it off immediately.  We were both New Jersey natives making our way in the small midwestern city of Valparaiso, Indiana.  At the start, our conversations revolved around the Jersey Shore, skeeball, and Garden State high school basketball.  A few years later, when I had an essay published in the Journal of American History, the first congratulatory e-mail I received was from Alan. "Congrats on the article," he wrote, "always glad to see a situation where a Jersey kid makes good."  

We were both at the start of our careers.  Alan was finishing his Ph.D at Duke and I had just finished at Stony Brook.  We were both students of early America. (I am so sorry I will not get to read Alan's book on homelessness in 19th-century Chicago).  We both loved to teach history and in this sense we shared the same calling.  We met regularly to talk about how to be more effective in the classroom.  Those long conversations were among the highlights of my two years at Valpo. Twelve years later I still think about them, asking myself "What would Bloom do?"  Alan's students loved him and he loved them back.

Harry Danning
We also bonded over sports and sports history.  As a New York sports fan I was ecstatic when Alan asked me to help him interview Harry Danning, a major league baseball player who played for the New York Giants in the 1930s. Danning lived in Valparaiso (he died a couple of years after we interviewed him) and his family wanted us to talk to him on tape about his experiences as one of the first Jewish-Americans in the major leagues. (Alan was Jewish, so I know that the interview meant a lot to him).  It was a fun couple of hours as Danning told us story after story about life with the Giants, catching for the great Carl Hubbell, and the persecution he suffered because of his religion.  I will never forget that afternoon.

Alan and I spent a lot of time on the basketball court during those two years.  He was a pretty good point guard.  I have seen few pick-up players drive to the basket with such intensity and reckless abandon.  Most of the time he either got fouled and/or ended up on the floor, but it was fun to watch.  We used to laugh at how old we were (we were only in our mid-30s) as we got run off the court by Valpo students in one intramural game after another.  Every year Alan organized a Habitat for Humanity charity basketball game between the Valpo students and the faculty. This was only a small part of his commitment to social justice in his adopted home town.  I still have the hilarious e-mails Alan sent me in his attempt get me to come back to Valpo for the 2003 Habitat game despite the fact that I was now teaching at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. (He said he would try to hit up Mark Schwehn for some "travel funds.")

I will never forget the last conversation we had during my two-year stint as a Lilly Fellow.  It was a hot and sunny morning on McIntyre Court and my family and I were directing the movers who were packing-up our belongings for our trip to Pennsylvania.  Alan and Colleen stopped by with a parting gift.  It was an old Budweiser beer "Contributions to Great Taste" newspaper ad that they had found at a flea market.  It
featured a picture of Thomas Jefferson sitting at a table with some other founding fathers twirling spaghetti on a spoon.  Under the picture, in bold letters, it read "Our Third President Was Our First Spaghetti Maker." The ad went on to explain how Jefferson was responsible for introducing spaghetti to America.  It was the perfect gift.  Colleen and Alan always got a kick out of the fact that I was a working-class Italian kid from Jersey who studied colonial America. (An odd combination in academia).  A few years later I framed the ad and it now sits above the desk in my home office, a constant reminder of Alan's (and Colleen's) thoughtfulness.  It now means even more to me.

I never got to see Alan in action as a father, but I heard he was great.  Colleen and the boys are in my prayers.  I know the Valparaiso University community is reflecting God's love in their care for them.

Alan, you will be missed.,  You left too early, man. Way too early.  Thanks for being my friend.  My life is richer for having known you.  Rest in peace.

6 comments:

Matt Hedstrom said...

Beautiful. Thanks for putting in words many of my own thoughts and feelings.

John D Wilsey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John D Wilsey said...

John, so sorry for the loss of a great man and your good friend.

Jon Pahl said...

Thanks for posting this; I'll remember him not only from hoops--where "reckless" is a good word, yes, but also from his skills with a hammer at Habitat for Humanity, which he took over at Valpo after my departure: great guy, many good times--so sorry about this loss, way too soon. . . .

Fred Niedner said...

Many thanks, John. We'll celebrate Alan's life here on Monday, but we'll have heavy hearts for a good, long while.

Michael Utzinger said...

This is tragic and sad. Thank you for this tribute to Alan. He will be missed.