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Jim Duke | Author

Professor Fred

My father was a very unique and special person. Even trying to compensate for the hero worship which accompanies the early loss of a parent, I truly believe he was one of the smartest, kindest and most caring people I've ever known. Unlike most academics, who seem to enjoy talking above others trying to flaunt their intellectual superiority, my father never talked down to anyone and seemed to sincerely believe in the equality of all humans. He taught me that anyone who acted too intelligent or too well educated to relate to less intellectual folks was being phony. That sort of behavior was a defense mechanism for insecure types that need to feed a false sense of superiority. Nobody can achieve any level of intellect without passing through and understanding all earlier stages they might consider 'beneath' themselves.

He was every bit as comfortable hanging out in the driveway chatting with the garbage collectors as he was in a seminar exchanging complex notions with renowned experts in the field of chemistry. As a matter of fact, one of my earliest memories was looking at the bottom of a trash can just after the garbage collectors had left after one such conversation. Seeing all the creepy crawlers in the residual slime, I told my dad that I hoped I never had to be a garbage man. He gently admonished me, asking why not? It was a perfectly good job allowing one to work outdoors while getting plenty of exercise. He went on the say that no one should ever consider themselves too good for any work that was necessary for society. One should never expect anyone else to do anything that they would not be willing to do themselves.

I have reflected on that moment many times, especially when I found myself operating a compactor truck sixty years later while working for a friend to help him start a curbside pick-up of commercial and residential compostables. That sort of service had been a goal of mine ever since starting my first compost operation and I was anxious to be a part of the process. The putrescibles I dealt with on that job made the slime of my childhood trash can look tame.

My father's comfort with and ability to relate to such a wide variety of personalities, along with his quick wit and wide range of interests, invariably led to a crowd gathering around him at any sort of social event. Whether it be an academic gathering, a Quaker church social, or a bunch of hippies at a folk festival, my dad would always be found surrounded by a group of cheerful, laughing people. He found academic overachievers to be somewhat boring. In his opinion, straight A students were merely better at following instructions and were generally not as creative or as wide ranging in their interests as B or C average students. It was this later group that he favored to socialize or work with.

Probably my strongest memory of my father was talking to him on his death bed as we tried to mutually console and comfort each other. At twenty-three years old, I considered myself to be fairly well rounded with a good understanding of life. I tried to comfort him by telling him that I was able to support myself and was happy and that those were the most important considerations in life. But he said no, that wasn't correct. He told me that I was fortunate enough to be able to do more than merely taking care of myself. I was gifted enough to go beyond my own needs and contribute to society, and if those that are able to help care for others do not do so, then civilization and society have accomplished nothing and that we are no better than savages who would take food from the mouths of the weak and elderly.

I wish that everyone could have someone like him in their lives for at least a little while and greatly regret that he was not in more peoples lives for longer, especially mine.