Bill Westbrook is dead. If that name means nothing to you, I hope you will read this anyway, because Bill was one of my founding fathers, one of the psychological seed-bearers that induced a strange pollination which went a long way into making me what I am. That may be nothing to brag about, but knowing William Samuel Westbrook certainly is. And so I shall brag.
“We tend to get older, for one thing,” he said, when asked by a skeptical student what possible things about human beings could be reasonably predicted. If that sounds a little like Mark Twain, it is no coincidence. He bore—at least in the years I knew him—a physical resemblance to the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a fact of which he must tired of hearing, although he never let on.
He had his own style and his own thoughts, however, and he needed to make sure those issues did not get confused with the great writer from Hannibal, Missouri. “Correlation,” he said, “is not causation. There is a 1.0 positive correlation between the temperature of an east Manhattan sidewalk and the birth rate in Stockholm, but I’m pretty sure one does not cause the other.”
He taught Sociology at Marshall University for thirty years. He could be counted on to pierce through the hoopla on any given occasion. He caused a stirring, trembling moistness in more than a few gawking coeds. And his wit was the kind that would tap you on the shoulder and smile half an hour after he’d left the room.
“Theories arise,” he said in the introductory course to his life’s work, “because facts cannot speak for themselves.” He taught because it was a source of income for him as well as a job which kept him exposed to books and journal articles. I never knew Bill to prepare for a class, at least not in any conventional manner. He would walk into a packed classroom, either on time or just a minute late, tapping a cigarette ash into a Styrofoam cup of coffee, lean back against the large steel desk at the front of the room, whereupon he would sit our minds to ruminating. “A lot of people think that college students are free and liberated,” he would say, looking off into a far corner of the room, as if there were someone back there with cue cards. “If that’s the case, then why are you all sitting in your chairs facing the same direction?”
We became drinking buddies, along with Steve Winn and Hillary Harper, two other friends who have passed away. Our favorite bar was a place called Snacks Fifth Avenue, and one night we got so schnockered that we each ordered a huge plate of oysters on the half-shell, which none of us had ever had before. I remember trying to chew mine, without much luck. Bill scarfed his down as if they were goldfish and he was in a fraternity. And then for some reason he stood up on the bar, waited for the room to hush, and recited a poem by William Butler Yeats.
When you are old and grey and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
In addition to being able to recite any poem he had ever read, Bill could also talk for hours about statistics, research, stratification, economics, conflict theory, classical writers and the latest trends, most of which he found insulting. The Hite Report was all the salacious rage on television talk shows at the time. Bill was offended, not by the explicit writing about clitoral orgasms, but by Sher Hite’s claim that her research reemployed a scientific method. “Opinion surveys in Cosmopolitan do not constitute science. But people will read that book of hers and use it to discredit our field.”
No one doubted Bill’s authority in making such a claim because the professor, it seemed, knew everybody worth knowing. He was responsible for getting journalist Jack Anderson to speak at our school. He also got us the radical Stockley Carmichael, Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench, a writer then at the top of his game named Stephen King, and a so-called researcher in female sexuality. As a recall, Ms. Hite did not stay around long enough to collect her fee.
I never met Bill’s wife, but he always had a coterie of the most attractive women in the school hanging on his every word. “How do you do that?” I asked, intending no offense.
“I get them to laugh,” he said. “They don’t know why they’re laughing, so I’m mysterious, too. That’s all it takes.” That may be all it takes, but I could never master it, through no lack of effort.
On one of our last drinking binges, when it was just Bill and me, I told him I wouldn’t be hanging out with him much longer because after six years I still hadn’t graduated and I felt it was time to move on.
“You’re right,” he said, ordering us each another gin and tonic. “What you should do is borrow Hillary’s motorcycle and spend a few days in each state in alphabetical order.”
The motorcycle broke down in Arizona. I’ve been here since 1982. Steve died of a heart attack. Hillary was slain by a stroke. Bill stayed around, preserved, I imagine. He sent flowers when my wife, Gina, passed away. Then about three years ago, I heard the news. Pancreatic cancer. He went fast.
What was it that makes me still mourn this loss of a friend I hadn’t seen in more than twenty years? It was the very fact that anyone, much less a Sociology professor at an undistinguished university in Huntington, West Virginia, could say things which over the decades would repeat themselves in his absence, could imprint upon me a value of both substance and style, and did inject me with self-confidence and a love of life, both of which conditions, to be sure, having defied reason.
In the end, it is not really for Bill Westbrook that I mourn tonight. It is for myself, in a state of loss anticipated by neither of us, that brings the tears. And if there are no points for self pity, I hope that honesty carries a little extra credit, at least from Bill. Either way, in the words of another friend lost around the same time: “Goodbye, baby, and amen.”