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.