Saturday, September 24, 2016

Reflections on the Passing of John Rassias

I got the email from Professor Nancy Vickers:  John was gone.  Deep breath…

So what was I to make of that, I wondered?  All that motion, but to what end?  Boundless passion, for sure.  So much heart.  Love.  But was there progress?  Or just a lot of heat?  The older I get the more I want to know: what was that all about?  What have we learned?

For one thing, there’s my own experience:  a deep connection with Italy, lifelong friends, and literature.  I remember the sense of accomplishment I got when I first began to speak Italian.  And then there was becoming a TA:  I was ecstatic. 

I’ve always been thankful to John Rassias for these experiences.  It wasn’t totally rational, I know.  Although he was the public face of languages at Dartmouth, he wasn’t personally responsible.  There were scores of individuals who made his vision real:  brilliant faculty, staff, TA’s, students and so many others who contributed to “the method.”  But somehow I believed that the spirit of the man, his considerable promotional skills, his energy and vision were essential to the community which motivated, inspired and supported me at Dartmouth.

Towards the end of my time in Hanover, I began to wonder, however.  Working for him closely was like seeing the great Oz behind the curtain.  I remember my first really big disappointments as well.  He was not perfect.

It was foolish, I knew, but it didn’t seem to matter.  Why?  He was so damn charismatic.  Charming.  An authentic romantic.  I couldn’t help myself.  I could see the response he inspired, the institutional change he was driving, despite his foibles.

He called me out of the blue in the mid 90’s, asking if he could use my “snap” design for his Institute.  “Naturally,” I said. As I hung up the phone I remember marveling how even then I would have done anything to help.

And then in 2008 I remember visiting John with my daughter. “So Sarah,” he growled, completely ignoring me, “Who ARE you?  What are you going to DO when you go to college?”  

“Art,” she told him. 

“Beautiful!” he exclaimed.  And he meant it, totally present. 

Two years later he barked at Alex, my son, “Awright!  Are you going to study Italian like papa?”  And then he listened intently. 

He lit them up. And with a little distance I was beginning, ever so slightly, to see how he ticked.

And now he’s gone and I’m thinking about him and his example again.  At work I’m surrounded by competence, organization, and resources you can’t imagine.  But I wonder: where we are GOING as an institution? What shall we BECOME?   And how can I make a difference? 

When I offered my "snap" illustration for his institute he told me he would create a scholarship in my name.  It did not matter to me much at the time and, frankly, I'm not sure I expected him to follow through.  When I Googled my name and his, however, there it was:  a scholarship.  It was only a few thousand dollars, but nevertheless, it was a scholarship created by John honoring me.  I had to admit it, it did make me proud to have participated, even if my actual contribution was tiny.

Now, 35 years after the fact, I can see more clearly than ever what John Rassias was really teaching us about leadership:  stay focused on the vision, tell the story again and again, affiliate with the best, let others help you with execution and, above all, be authentic.

Although I’ll miss him, it feels like he’s still here, still teaching.

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