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julian boyd

I was proud and lucky to call Julian Boyd a friend and colleague. Julian passed away yesterday morning, and while he was getting along in years (we were never quite sure how old he was, he had so many different ailments he seemed older than I'm sure he really was), we thought he would never die (he recovered from all those different ailments).

One way of describing Julian's greatness is to note that I knew of him long before I had the chance to work with him, because students, undergraduate and graduate, who loved him were effusive with their praise. And he was always kind to me as I wandered through the English department at Berkeley during my own graduate student days, even though I never took a class from him and our interests/specialties were not the same (he did linguistics, I did pop culture). In a department that was seemingly structured to be alienating, a milieu that damaged even the best people, Julian Boyd took an interest in and looked out for others. As do all great teachers, of course, but Cal, for all its greatness, doesn't always feature great teaching. Julian Boyd stood out in that regard.

What I don't want, at this point, is for the reader to imagine some kindly old man performing stereotypical nice-professor stuff like a walking Lifetime teevee special. Julian Boyd was as kind as anyone I've ever known, but his persona in the classroom was as far from anything you could imagine as is possible. First there was the legendary complexity of his lectures. He would begin by writing notes to himself on the blackboard ... they weren't really there for the students, they were there to help Julian focus, but students being students, they would all dutifully write all of Julian's scribblings in their notebooks (I often wondered what they made of their notes when they returned to them later). And the blackboard would fill with an astonishing outpouring of thoughts, like how it used to look when Dr. Gene Scott would get on a roll, and Julian would be lecturing and he'd go off on what might seem like a tangent but since tangents were partly the point in his lectures they weren't really tangents at all, were they?, and at some point even he would realize he needed to return to some prior launching point, and he'd look at the blackboard until he found wherever he'd been when he started to expound, and he'd shout and get back to the so-called point.

Ah yes, the shouting. I have been known to cuss on occasion when standing in front of a classroom full of college students. I don't do it nearly as often as my reputation might suggest, but since college professors don't cuss much in class, I suppose I seem pretty profane in the context of my profession. At least I did until I sat through a semester with Julian Boyd. As perhaps befits a linguist, Julian had a way with words. And some of his favorite words were curse words. And so his lectures were the academic equivalent of an episode of Deadwood, and once in awhile he'd apologize and say he was going to do better in the future, but even his apologies usually contained a "fuck" or two. I was never sure if he just couldn't help himself, like a savant with Tourette's, or if he thoughtfully, consciously placed every word he spoke exactly where and when he wanted, like a good linguist. In any event, the result was marvelous. And, since his lectures were so famously dense, the fucks and shits also served to keep his audience alert ... they were good pedagogical techniques.

I spent one semester assisting Julian in a course on ... you know, it doesn't really matter what the course was and I'm not sure I remember, maybe it was in American Studies, but whatever it was, Julian taught Julian stuff. My friend Charlie, who was very close to Julian, asked me to join him as an assistant in this class, and I did, and I was so glad, even though I fear I did a poor job, since I didn't know the material well enough to explain it to the students in my sections, and they wanted explanations because a lot of them were puzzled by the lectures I described above. But I treasured that semester, perhaps never as much as when the three of us would sit in Julian's office and he and I would jabber about our urinary tract problems (coincidentally, we had the same urologist) while Charlie, young enough to be my son or Julian's grandson, would blanch squeamishly at the horrors of elderly male life.

One of my favorite memories came the day Julian was off having one of his endless medical procedures, and I was asked to give a lecture on John Wayne. He provided me with a tape recorder so he could listen to the lecture later. There was something about Julian's impish sense of humor that rubbed off on me, which prompted me to pull a little joke of my own that day. As the class began, I showed the students the recorder and explained that I would be taping the lecture for Prof. Boyd. I told them to start laughing at my signal, at which time I would press the "record" button, creating a beginning to the recording that would sound like the listener had just missed a great opening joke. And I gave the signal, and the students laughed, and I pressed record, and it worked so well we did it again halfway through the lecture when the tape needed to be flipped over.

Of course, I never really expected Julian to listen to that tape, but I didn't know him very well then ... he actually did listen, he praised my work, that's the kind of mentor he was. Here's another sign of his kind mentoring ... one of the students the day I gave that lecture was so taken with the subject material that he went on to write his American Studies thesis on John Wayne. I was helping direct American Studies theses by then, so I worked with the student on that thesis. And it came to pass that Julian was teaching that same course again, and he assigned a reading on John Wayne again, and he wanted an expert to speak on Wayne for his class, and he asked that student if he might step in, and the student did, and he did a great job, and believe me when I tell you it is the rare professor at Berkeley who is secure enough and attentive enough to what students can bring to a classroom that he would turn over a lecture to a student like Julian did with that John Wayne expert.

After that semester, I was Julian's friend for life, because that's the kind of person he was. He looked out for me when he could, and whenever we saw each other he showered me with affection and regaled me with lovely, windy tales of academic life. You might think it's just a cliche, to say he showered me with affection, but every person reading this who knew Julian Boyd would tell you exactly the same thing. Seeing Julian on the street was an event, because he'd have to give you a hug even if it meant momentarily putting aside whatever implement he was using that day to help him walk, and he didn't just say hello, he was effusive, "oh look, it's Steven Rubio, absolutely the finest man I know, it is SO good to see you, how are you doing," and on and on, and again I worry that the words on the page read like he was some elderly Eddie Haskell, but Julian meant every word and he made you feel his affection, and I never spent even five minutes with Julian without feeling better about myself afterwards. It was his greatest gift, and he had many, that he could make someone feel appreciated in an environment that rarely showed its appreciation in any useful way.

Not to mention, I'd always learn a few new ways to say "fuck" whenever our paths crossed. I recall one time calling Julian at his home, and in the middle of our conversation he dropped the phone, and for a precious few seconds as the phone lay on the ground, I heard him ranting in the background, "fucking sonofabitch, goddamnit, fuck, goddamn phone," and I even told that anecdote to the students, because I wanted them to know that he didn't just cuss in the classroom, it was how he talked, even when he was just chatting on the phone. And the combination of the profanity and the heartfelt sentiment of what he was saying when he lavished praise on you for some minor success, well, it was fucking lovely, it always made my day, and I will miss that for the rest of my life.

In recent years, we saw Julian and his wife Melanie more often on the street than anywhere else ... I was no longer associated with Cal, which limited my campus appearances ... being that we were both Kaiser patients who spent a lot of time at the clinic, it was no surprise when we'd meet up at Oakland Kaiser. The way he treated Robin was yet another example of his bottomless kindness ... after he'd met her once, he became president of her fan club, and if he saw me alone he'd always insist that I give his regards to "that lovely wife of yours," and if he saw us together he'd give her a healthy dose of the above-mentioned showering of affection, and once again, UC Berkeley was not a place where spouses or partners from outside your particular discipline were ever treated respectfully, but Julian Boyd didn't give a flying fuck about what might be the institutional norms, he treated people well no matter who they were, even his enemies, and he was feisty enough to have a few.

I hope anyone who is still reading can get a tiny picture of what a great man was Julian Boyd. I've barely touched the surface in the above. And keep in mind, I was only an acquaintance ... others who were closer to him will have many other stories to tell. But just imagine what a wonderful man this was, that he could inspire even his acquaintances with so many strong memories. I know that there's more than a little Julian Boyd in me whenever I stand in front of a classroom ... I only hope I can show a little Julian in me in my daily life, because it would be an honor to be such a vessel. Goodbye, Julian.



I barely knew Julian Boyd and I am overwhelmed by the loss I feel.


I also feel a great loss--Julian was a unique and wonderful man.

Kim Dot Dammit

Julian's death was a huge loss for us, particularly Charlie. Julian was a very important person in our lives for many personal reasons that go over and beyond anything to do with the classroom. They have to do with being a survivor. Because that's what Julian was. A survivor. And that's why in his death is such great loss. When survivors die, we all feel it enormously. Peace Julian.


My father called him "Mad Julian" and I knew about him long before I got to Berkeley as a student. I feel as though I've been gut-punched today. What an amazing man, and we actually got to spend time in his presence.

Oh, and Fuck, just because.

Charlie Bertsch

Thanks. I needed that.


Now that's a eulogy. I never heard of Julian Boyd before, and now I miss him, too.

Patrick Ellis

Ditto. Clearly one fuckin' hell of a guy. Thanks, Steven, for such a beautiful eulogy that it makes me glad Julian was here, even if I never knew of him before now.

Julian was 72. He was born on Christmas Day, 1932.

He went to Georgetown first before he got kicked out. He sister got him an interview with the head of Yale, but he showed up "in a zoot suit four sizes too big and a widow's peak about twelve inches high." He wound up at Williams.

Then Michigan where he met Chomsky and Lenny Michaels.

Then Berkeley.

La Shana Porlaris

Hey Steven. It's been awhile since I've seen you but I came across this and wanted to say thanks, it was beautiful put. I'm going to miss that man.

Melanie Lewis

Steve (et al),

Thank you so much for this. I miss Julian so terribly- all right, so fucking much, and these voices help to sooth me tonight. I knew how much he loved you, I love to hear how you love him. Thanks for speaking out -like Julian.


Greg Doyle

My exposure to Dr. Boyd was extremely brief...he taught an extension class on the History of the English Language, and had graded three of my assignments. Alas, he won't be grading that fourth one I sent in. I was touched by the attention he gave to those three assignments, his assiduousness and passion came through in no more than 40-50 words.

Beth Shimmyo

I knew Professor Boyd only through his Extension course. He always sent a nice comment with the returned assignment, and he'd answer any questions, even those not related to the current lesson. Towards the end of the course, he reluctantly agreed to do a teacher evaluation for me, for seven different colleges. Later he faxed copies to the five colleges that hadn't received them at first. Last week I sent a thank-you note, but it was too late.

I wish all teachers would be as kind and helpful as Professor Boyd.

Irene Nunez

Last night I got a call from my sister, Juliana, who lives in Berkeley, about Julian's passing. I first met him and his wife, Melanie, in 1981 when I was only 21 years old. I was struggling with life and Julian and Melanie gave me so much love. Although I have not seen him for over twenty years, I am very saddened. Last night, I took out a picture of him at my Berkeley graduation, with his arm around me. I cried but felt the love that I felt that day. Thank you Julian.

Tom McElheney

Slidell, Louisiana has lost one of its finest.
Mr. Rubio and the people who posted have helped me remember Julian, and for that I am truly grateful. I will remember him as being a skinny, wildly funny and endlessly interesting Southerner whom the rest of us could be quite content to listen to for hours. I did that often as a boy; a guest in his magical house that he made with Zelda A. Boyd, the equally magical mother of his children. To feel his affection was also magical.
Glad to hear from you contributors to this skein that many of our impressions are the same. Particularly Mr. Rubio who said that there is a bit of Julian present when he stands in front of a classroom.

Baiba Vija Strads

Julian Boyd was my english professor in 1964 & his class is among my top 3 (with Chomsky & Stanley Fish) and as a freshman in linguistics I thought that these were normal university experiences...Julian was spectacular & unforgettable and remained a friend for life remembering me & greeting me on campus these past 40 years...I adored him!


At Julian Boyd's memorial on Saturday, the thing I couldn't get over was how much he was himself. We all had the same story: "He made me feel special." And yet, that sameness did not make each of our individual feelings of being "chosen" any less real or relevant. At first, I was thinking, "I wish I had made more of an effort to talk to him recently." Like a lot of people, I think I thought he was immortal. But I don't think I could ever have gotten enough, so I am just grateful for what I had. He makes me want to be a better person. I miss him already.

Alice Boatwright

Hi Steve Rubio and all wandering Googlers who find this message,

It's 10:33 at night and I'm sitting in a lovely little cottage in rural England thinking about Julian. I loved your description of him, Steve. I knew him over the years at Berkeley, and he did for me exactly what you say: he hugged me with bone-crunching intensity, he warmed me by the brightness of his gaze, and he refocused me into my best self from whatever scattered state I was in when he came across me. I was not a student, nor was I on the faculty. I was a lowly staff member, but whenever I talked to Julian, I felt part of the best of Berkeley. I have been not been back to the campus since December 2004, but I am so glad that when I was there I had a chance to see Julian and to receive one more of those great hugs. I will have to make it last a lifetime. And I will try to pass it on. Peace to Julian and all who loved him. Alice

Adam Cadre

Hello, Steven - I can't imagine that you remember me, but we met in 1993 when I contributed a couple of pieces to Bad Subjects. I stumbled across this page searching for something else and was stunned. Thanks for writing it; you inspired me to write a tribute of my own.

David Dancy

I am a berkeley native living in upstate new york and i was decided to google lenny michaels, my old ex - next door neighbor. he drank liquor with my dad and they would shoot hoops at the basketball court in kensington. i remember "the men's club" had just came out at a theater near you and lenny had gone "hollywood". jessie, his son, was a good friend of mine as well. i did my first of many hits of acid with jessie. Oh how i long for the dazed confusion of my youth; the well placed angst and the comfort of apathy.berkeley defined it for me.

Peter Richardson

Right on the money, Steve. Julian was my dissertation director and I was his teaching assistant, so I got a large dose of his humor, humanity, and expertise. The influence of his teaching style, combined with Alain Renoir's, almost unfit me for academic life outside Berkeley. The honesty and irreverence were relentless but always humane and usually charitable, unless the subject was conservative politicians or the French.

Alex Patterson

I loved Julian. I am sorry that I learned of his passing later than it occurred. Or perhaps not.

He was one of the the greatest loves of my life, in the sense of pure kindness and friendship and the passing on of a depth of knowledge of which I have never come by before. Because, Steve, everything you have said about him is the pure truth. And, he was great man. He understood that works such as 'A Plea for Excuses' was, in his words, after I brought it up, as great as the tracts of a John Staurt Mill. But of course, so was Julian the man and his knowledge, of which we may never know precisely the depth of -- if one attended his graduate courses on, for example, modality.

But that is not my whole point: I loved the man. I remember Melanie so well, I can only imagine what . . . no, Julian left his spirit for us I believe. God bless Steve, Melanie, Julian, his students, and all of those whom he affected.

Alex Patterson

Carol Weaver-Madsen

Today it’s the one year anniversary of Julian Boyd’s death. I only just found out about this a few days ago so my grief is raw and intense. I stepped off the academic treadmill in early 1998 after 6 years as an undergrad and grad student in English at UC Berkeley -- at first I only intended to take off a semester, but that was 8 years ago, and I just never went back. I lost my passion for the academic life, but I’ve never lost my passion for my mentor and friend Julian Boyd. Julian was larger than life, and somehow I assumed he’d live forever. I’ve cried a lot these past few days, ever since first hearing the unwelcome news. This site, filled with Steven Rubio’s moving eulogy and the testaments added by so many, has comforted me, and that’s fitting, too, because Julian taught us all a thing or two about community. Julian made me feel special and it’s clear that he did that for every student who ever walked into his classroom. Hell, you didn’t have to be his student -- he was genuinely interested in anyone who crossed his path. I remember his indefatigable energy in front of a class, as well as how spent he would seem after the roller-coaster that was a Julian Boyd lecture; he’d be exhausted after class, but still giving to his students in small-group discussions that ensued just outside the lecture hall doors or as we walked across campus to his office. I remember once -- it must have been around 1993 when there was a strike on campus, Julian held our large lecture off campus because of course he wouldn’t think of crossing a picket line; one of the students arranged to have us meet in an old north-of-campus mansion owned by the Mormons. Julian tried to clean up his act but I don’t think the will was there -- his topic was Julian’s famous History and Structure of the English Language, and interspersing his lecture with fucks and shits and god-damns Julian went on demonstrating speech acts in word and deed while transgressing those Mormon boundaries. In my days at UC Berkeley I was all too reverential of both the professors and the department; I’ve only just realized that many of Julian’s efforts in my direction addressed my peculiar needs as a ReEntry student (with my “Do I really belong here?” complex) with the precision of a mental health professional. Like the time Julian invited me to lunch at the staid Faculty Club, and then regaled me with gossipy tales of naked professors doing all kinds of what-not over the years -- this wasn’t just an example of the wonderful stories for which he was so famous; Julian was intentionally and hilariously working to deconstruct my reverence by telling me stories that illustrated that the professors I thought of as gods were men with clay appendages. The fact that I’ve only just fully understood the message and Julian’s brilliant method of delivery attests to the way the best kind of teacher continues to affect you, to teach you, throughout your life. Julian Boyd stays with you. He was also kindness personified -- like the time he went to the trouble of obtaining an extra key to his Wheeler office and cleaning out a cupboard so that I, a lowly grad student lugging stacks of student work, would have a place to stash stuff and meet with students, and this was yet one more example of Julian extending himself to make me feel that I belonged in Wheeler. It seems to me that the only thing any of us can hope for in life is to touch a few minds and hearts as we work our way through the years allotted to us by our own ticking hearts, and if we’re able to make the world a better place for our being there, then that’s pretty much as good as it gets. By both of these measurements, Julian Boyd was a very great man indeed. He was a man of integrity, and we shall not see his like again. I miss his speech acts. I miss his laugh. I miss his hugs. Julian Boyd taught me about reading and making “I will” statements. Julian Boyd, I will remember you.

Arun Swamy

I only heard that Julian had died last month, more than a year later, when I contacted some friends in Berkeley to tell them I would be in the Bay Area. I heard just before leaving for the airport. I was so shaken I started to cry, left my boarding pass behind and had to come back for it. He became one of the important people in my life shortly after my arrival at Berkeley in 1986. I was a graduate student in political science and knew him as a friend not as a teacher. I remember when the first Gulf War happened in 1991 he began to talk to me about Chomsky's "Manufacturing Consent" but I, in my grad student hubris would have none of the idea that a linguist could teach me about politics. But he taught me a great deal, loved me, hugged me, made me laugh, never forgot me and never left my thoughts. I last saw him in February 2002. He was very frail by then. Thanks to Adam Cadre for including a photo of him looking somewhat healthier. I am very grateful to hear of his teaching style as mine is similar, but without the evident brilliance. Thanks too to the anonymous biographer who reminded me of something else we had in common -- attending Williams, where as it happens I am also presently teaching. Last night when I was talking about him my wife suggested that we name our as-yet-unborn son Julian. Maybe we will. The thought led me to search for him on the web. I'm glad I did. I will miss him always.

Jade Park

I had him as a professor, twice. I loved him. Thank you for this post.

dan D

I was a reader for Julian as well and am sad when I read this because I was in town for summer of 2004 and kept meaning to look him up and didn't. A truly wonderful human being RIP JULIAN

Ken Lizotte

This name is very familair to me. I don't know if he's the same guy I knew in Lompoc, around 1975-1977, but I'd be interested in anyone who knew him intimately to give me some insight on the guy so as to determine if he's the one I knew. My Julian was a drummer who played behind Etta James on tour before she sent him home because he was too flashy. Your Julian might not be the same man. I would sure like to compare notes, because my Julian was one heckuva guy.


Sorry, Ken, this Julian Boyd was a college professor. Didn't play drums, far as I know.

Bob McMichael

I just got back from a rare return to my beloved Berkeley, where - from La Shana - I heard Julian had passed. Sometimes word doesn't travel very fast. Not many people should live forever, but he was one of them, for the reasons your wonderful piece reveals. My soul has never been as tortured as it was while I worked in the English Department, and he was one of very few souls there who understood and was kind. Your piece brought back exactly the wonderfully weird feeling of having his warm, bony arm caressed around my neck while I examined his horrible teeth from way too close. Forgive me if this sounds at all sycophantic, Steven, but you were cut from the same cloth as he was. I am glad that when I googled the guy your blog came up so I could enjoy re-hydrating the sponge of admiration I have for you, as well as for Julian. I hope you are very well, and not too bored with the Barry Bonds trial.

adrienne boyd

Ken, not the same Julian. Julian is alive and well and back living in Lompoc in the old homestead.

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