One of the essays in my book Did Jesus have a Cat? is titled “A Useful Badger.” In the essay I mention that one of my useful badgers was a professor at Cal State Long Beach, way back in the 60s, who planted the notion in my head of getting a Master’s degree in English. I wasn’t sure if he was still alive, and if he would approve of my printing his name – after all, I didn’t have his permission. [I think I mentioned his name on one of my blog posts, but not in the published book.] And I recalled him as being a bit of a curmudgeon before his time and I didn’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest, to use a cliché.
But now, I want to say a few more things more about the whole notion of useful badgers. This professor was Dr. George Betar, and I took several courses from him while I was at Cal State Long Beach, including graduate level courses while I was working on my Masters. Many times over the years I thought about him, wondered what had happened to him – was he still alive, did he die early from poor health (he impressed me as being the type who didn’t take good care of his health)? And while I was writing the essays that eventually found their way into the book, I wondered what he might think of my writing if he knew about the endeavor. And then I thought about him again when the book was published.
About seven months or so after the book was published, I decided to try to track him down, or at least to see what I could learn from the internet, from some Googling and searching, since finding folks these days is much easier than in years past. I remembered he had a son named Joseph (Joe) and I was able to find a Joe Betar in Utah who had a car business. So I took a chance and sent Joe Betar an email, using an address I found on the dealership’s web site. And he replied and said that yes, George Betar was his father and yes, he was still alive. And he gave me an email address, though he wasn’t sure if it was up-to-date and still valid.
To get to the bottom line, I sent a message to the email address and lo and behold (to wax biblical) I got a response (parts of which are below):
Dear Ms. Pursell:
I was so pleased to hear from you. How very thoughtful of you to include me in your book. Please keep in touch with me…..Please feel free to e-mail me whenever you wish.
I would love to receive a copy of your book.
So I wrote a return email and shortly I received, by snail mail, copies of some emails he had composed over the last five years on various subjects, in which he set forth some of his core beliefs and reflections on this and that. That was around March 12, 2012.
On March 25, 2012, I received an email from his wife Amy, telling me that he had died:
I’m deeply sorry to e-mail you with this news. Unfortunately, I don’t have your phone number.
George passed away yesterday morning. He was quite ill when he first heard from you recently, and a Friday morning visit to the emergency room turned into a diagnosis of a massive heart attack with no viable options for surgery or recovery. We brought him home Friday afternoon under hospice care, and he died peacefully early Saturday. I was honored and privileged to be his wife and partner for the last six and a half years of his life. We were very happy and had a great life together.
Connie, I want you to know how much it meant to him to hear from you about your recently published book. He was pleased and proud of your accomplishments and successes. Every student presented to him an opportunity to encourage and inspire, and when a student took time to let him know what his teaching meant to that student, he felt that he had made a difference in the life of that student and had passed onto him or her his life’s passion—learning.
While he was too ill to read your book from cover to cover, it sat on our kitchen counter, and he often picked it up to read a few passages. Thank you for sharing that with him.
If this seems a bit odd, and if the message sounds a bit “familiar,” it is because – as I had learned only recently – Dr. Betar had married one of his students and it was someone I remembered from a TS Eliot seminar back in 1978, and apparently she remembered me as well.
Well, this may seem like a lengthy background explanation, but it comes down to this. I felt sucker-punched. Gypped. Disappointed. In a matter of three weeks I found an old touchstone, and it was taken away. It was almost as if the universe were saying: don’t get too comfortable with your success or accomplishment. The irony of the whole situation wasn’t lost on me, and I thought of those lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi”: “don’t it always seem to go / that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone….”
Why had I waited years to try to track down George Betar? Once I got up the courage, it only took a day or so. Had I done this even six months prior, I might have the opportunity to exchange a few emails, get some suggestions on good reads, pick up a few kernels of wisdom, or obtain some ideas I could catapult into essay topics, in my own quirky way of course. The email printouts he mailed me were his side of a back-and-forth correspondence that he had developed over several years with another student named Bill. It was like part of the script from “My Dinner with Andre.’ He talked about Darwin, the concept of God, the changing universe, how we really know far less than we think we do (”we” being the human species). I was taken particularly by these few snippets I include below:
Man lives in absolute folly if he believes that he can solve anything whatsoever. We are so completely limited by our instruments that we constantly confuse knowledge with tentative exploration.
….There is no meaning to anything at least insofar as we can understand unless we are smitten by faith or somehow are able to use our imagination as a mode of apprehending the unknown. As Shakespeare so wisely put it, what fools we mortals be.
So into his 80s he had a sharp mind, continued to be an inquiring soul, and continued to be a useful badger, to those who were interested. Obviously Bill was interested. And yet I missed out on what I might have had, or so I thought. A big yellow taxi cruises through my brain….
But I have those emails that he mailed, and they are well worth reading and re-reading. With each re-reading I get something more out of them, some kernel that causes me to pause, to think, to consider my own opinion on the same topics and how I might, at some future time, use some of the thoughts to intertwine into another quirky essay.
In two of the copies of emails from early 2011, I learned that somehow, in the surprising and mysterious ways of the universe/blogosphere/cyberspace, he had learned of my useful badger essay, then posted on a blog I maintained, prior to the publication of my book. I mean, what are the chances? I didn’t even know he was still alive, and yet he had found and read one of my essays. And these were his comments:
I was moved by the Connie Pursell blog and the Badger entry – more than you may imagine…..This subject is somewhat emotional for me because it reveals, at least in part, the very core of my being. I am of course referring…to Connie Pursell’s blog about me…..
….I don’t wish to be sentimental, but I shall try to explain myself somewhat. I think that a good teacher does not indoctrinate the students with any narrow point of view toward any subject whatsoever but rather helps them find for themselves the immense and colorful enormity of all learning and the existence of all things irrespective of delineation or definition. Furthermore, a good or great teacher is a companion to his students and is inspired by them as much as he inspires them. A good or great teacher embraces fully a broad moral view of the universe and helps the student to become engaged in such a quest for himself or herself. I absolutely abhor “teaching” any single point to any student; but if I feel that a student has gained some sort of questing spirit and will pursue that dream throughout his or her adulthood and beyond, then I have “succeeded.” In short….there is a ripple effect to all great relationships: A seemingly offhand comment by a great teacher can inspire a student to examine a situation in a way that he or she has not seen before. In the meantime, the student also influences the teacher if for no other reason than that the teacher learns more about himself than he did before as a result of interacting with the student. It is reciprocal process in which each must bow or not to the other with words that may not be expressed or gestures that may not even be seen….If one achieves this simpatico with the student, that student will go on and on and on so that in a sense Socrates never did die even though he drank hemlock because his followers, his students, his colleagues kept his words and insights alive for future generations….With Connie Pursell, I am, of course, pleased that she has such favorable memories of me in my teaching, but again I learned from her as she was learning from me.
Reading these comments for the first time was a real stunner. I don’t believe in fate or kismet, yet this was surreal. What were the chances I ask yet again, and I wonder still? Did he somehow find that blog post on his own, or had someone directed him to it? Well, I will never know. And re-reading the comments again, after I learned of his death, was just plain sad.
As I said before, useful badgers change lives. I think it is a special gift these useful badgers bring to the world. And quite often they simply have no clue. They just do what they do, because it is part of their DNA and they have some sort of drive to be catalysts for the learning and growth of others. But, contrary to the Joni Mitchell lyric, I did know what I had before it was gone. I just missed the opportunity to fully express my thanks to George Betar while he was alive. Yet in a strange way, he knew. How amazing.