HOMAGE TO THE DON
In 1995, millions of us paid seven bucks for a ticket and several more for popcorn when a media acquaintance of ours called Richard Dreyfus played a simple high school music teacher whose career and caring deeply affected the lives of his students. At the end, hundreds of them met in a grateful homage to Mr. Holland and played his symbolic Opus for the first time before an audience. Reviewers called this scenario Capra-esque. One even used the word sappy to indicate how unrealistic he found the idea of lasting, unbidden gratitude for something as simple as guidance to the young.
Yet I attended exactly such a gathering on a cool and damp Friday evening in April. Four hundred of us paid good money for banquet food and more for an indifferent wine at the cash bar to honor Doctor Don Carsons years at the University of Memphis. Such events can have an air of the routine - a perfunctory act of obeisance for high-ranking university officials that is nothing more than the discharge of an obligation. But no one in attendance this night came for that purpose or left with that impression.
The ballroom was packed with well-wishers, many of whom, like me, had known him as their teacher. Some of his success stories took the dais for a good-natured roast of their mentor and friend. It was a roast, but not a char-grilling where there were many laughs, and even some tears as prominent alums and staff came to pay him oblique and occasionally embarrassing tribute.
There were the good-natured ribs about his penchant for hugging countless pretty co-eds, his somewhat checkered success at dieting, his mannerism of making a triangle of his hands across the desk from a chastened underclassman, and his habit of removing his shoes when he was deep in conversation with a student. The photographic montage created by his staff in the Office of Student Affairs showed the journey of a man whose hair was once fuller, his waistline thinner and the path not yet taken waiting to be trod. The superficially disrespectful presentation could only have been produced with genuine affection and a few of the speakers expressed dread - with tongue firmly in cheek - that the good Doctor would have the final word, the marquee opportunity to return the playful barbs with studied and deadly accuracy. They neednt have worried, however. When the time came, only the fondness was expressed - the fondness of a wise innkeeper for the travelers who had shared his hearth on many a long, cold journey.
The evening was itself long, as such things are measured. Attendees had given up a perfectly good Friday night. They overpaid for the food and questionable service delivered in a noisy, brightly lit hotel hall that was anything but elegant. There was the one treasured friend, but for the most part they mingled with strangers and sat through the reading of some of these strangers résumés by way of introduction. Yet they stayed, the ballroom as full at the conclusion of the program as it was at the beginning.
It is my belief that one's life is best measured by those in attendance at our funeral. The only problem is we don't get to be there to gauge the importance of our life. When one retires, as Don Carson did, our contributions are made manifest and it must be an experience both rich and humbling. Dr. Carson's halting and emotional speech left no doubt that he felt both those things.
In the movie Mr. Holland was surprised by the outpouring of love. It gave a more dramatic punctuation to the films denouement. Don Carson cannot have been surprised at all. Overwhelmed most certainly, but he is far too intelligent and perceptive not to have some sense of the contributions he made over those years and the gratitude engendered. He knows that he was a very lucky man to have had that opportunity. And we, the witnesses and beneficiaries, are supremely lucky to have shared in it.