Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Farewell to a great friend

I lost a great friend this week named George Juergens. A retired professor emeritus of history at Indiana University, George was introduced to me years ago by my writing mentor, Bob Hammel. We had regular lunches for years, first in my days at the newspaper in Bloomington, later while I was doing detective work, and then on and along, and now they’ve come to an end, and I’m going to miss George terribly. I’ve met just a few people whom I consider truly brilliant – not just smart, but thinking at a level that separates them from even the brightest of us – and George was one of them. As an academic, his specialty was the press and the president, but the man had no focal concentration. He wanted to know about everything, and he seemed to.

Ours were wide-ranging and rambling lunches and I’m trying now to recall a topic on which George didn’t have an educated opinion, and coming up empty. He deserves to have those words emphasized, too: educated, opinion.

He believed in learning, in the constant absorbing of knowledge that shaped those opinions, and he also understood that his beliefs were his own, and that having them did not make them infallible. The ultimate devil’s advocate, George quietly and kindly altered my own thinking over the years with one signature phrase, usually offered with downcast eyes and an extra-gentle voice, designed to remove any level of confrontation and tunnel down to the reasoning beneath your opinion without hitting the defensive, emotional shell that surrounded it. “Mind you,” he would say, and then he’d offer some bit of evidence contrary to the point you’d just made. I loved it. He had no interest in tying you in intellectual knots, though he could have with nearly everyone he met, and he surely could have with me, but he liked to argue – no, debate is the better term, for he was a gentleman and a thinker, he liked to debate – not for the sake of intellectual battle, but for the sake of deeper consideration and reasoning. He’d do it with himself more often than not, offering his point on anything from politics to sports to local road construction, then follow it with, “Now, mind you,…” and offer the counter-argument. The idea, never expressed directly but always clear, was that he wasn’t satisfied to hear – or say – a mere this is what I think. He needed to dig deeper, to know why you thought it, or why he thought it, and why it might be flawed, and if so, was it flawed enough so as to require change?

Lord, what a beautiful idea that is. What a truly beautiful approach to thinking, and living. And how often it is lacking. I think especially of politics here, where we are bombarded at all times with opinions that are offered up as intellectual Alamos: “In this place I will remain until my death.”

George Juergens was always taking in more, thinking more, and considering the counter-arguments. By nature of sharing lunch conversations with him, you couldn’t help but sharpen your own mind. He was also a true friend and advocate and supporter of my work, which meant the world to me, and I was always struck by his fascination with my business, his constant questioning: how many drafts, how much control over the story did I feel during each draft, what was the editorial process, how was cover art determined, what were e-books doing to the landscape, what was the emotional price of changing publishers, what was….and on and on. Because that was George, always thirsting for a better understanding, more knowledge, more education upon which to form an opinion. His own education is impressive on the Curriculum Vitae side alone – bachelor’s degrees earned at Columbia and Oxford, also a master’s degree at Oxford, then a doctorate at Columbia – but it was a never-ending education, and as his health deteriorated he found he had trouble staying focused long enough to read books, a true blow to a man who so dearly loved books, but when they eluded his concentration he promptly detoured toward an even more intense devouring of newspapers and magazines. The quest to know more, to learn more, never ended. I remember listening with great interest as he lamented the increased salaries of professors, and his reasoning behind it: a true scholar should be in academia for the scholarship, the desire to learn more and share more, and if it became a profession tainted by money, the purity of that intellectual pursuit would be damaged, and that was dangerous for the students. Followed by: “Now, mind you, perhaps if there had been more money in the profession when I started, I would feel differently.” Always, always, the consideration of the counter-argument.

A final anecdote, the most vivid: I dedicated my first book to our mutual friend Bob Hammel, who guided me through so much ugly writing, and still does his best to keep the ugliest out of my drafts now. The phone rang at my desk at the newspaper one day, and it was George. He wanted to tell me how much it meant to Bob, that dedication, and how proud Bob was that the book had broken through and found a publisher, and that while Bob might not tell me himself, he counted the dedication as one of the truly special things in his life. Perhaps George was putting it on a little strong, there, but it was an incredibly sweet and generous call, and contained a classic George line, witty and honest and thought-provoking, when he said, “There can be a tendency with older men, and younger men, and men in between, to struggle to adequately tell another man how much they mean to us, and so we need other men to do that for us.” It made me laugh then, and does now, and of course it is true.

I wish I’d had someone make that same call to George.

Now, mind, you…I hope that I didn’t need to, and hope that he knew all that remains unsaid between us.