My former Greek professor died yesterday morning. His last great test on this earth is over, and though a painful and swiftly progressing cancer made for intense suffering in his final days, the battle for him is won. He has passed on to glory.
I knew him for such a short time, but as beloved professors can, he marked my scant four years in college with sweet memories. He used to show up to class in cowboy boots. His wife would have us all over for meals. He had a heart for students who struggled with Greek, an uncanny patience with the lot of us. In the upper level exegesis courses, he used to give us copious notes on the text, all handwritten (I still have them). He wrote books and edited commentaries. He was highly respected and admired both by his colleagues and his students. And he was also amazingly approachable and personable.
I remember sitting in Beginning Greek while he was lecturing one day. Two of my friends were behind me, and beside me was an extremely quiet and shy young man who hadn’t made eye contact with me the whole semester. I like to lean on one elbow. I like sitting criss-cross applesauce. I like sitting on one foot. So in the middle of this lecture, with two pre-seminarians behind me and a mysteriously shy 20-year-old to my right, I picked up my right foot to– naturally– fold it under my seat. What I hadn’t counted on, however, was that the chair had an attached desk, one of those desktop things attached to the right of chairs commonly found in college lecture halls. Apparently, when a desk is attached to just one side of a chair, that chair is naturally off balance. So when I lifted my right foot to fold it under me, and when all of my weight combined with the rightward leaning of the chair, the chair and I in unison lifted off the floor and began a slow-motion rightward leaning into the lap of the shy boy. With my feet suddenly airborne and my chair tilted just enough, there was no hold to stop my fall nor had I any way of tipping myself back level. So with my feet dangling in the air, I waited rather helplessly in the shy boy’s lap until he, blushing, pushed my chair back upright. Paul and Dan, the friends behind me, were practically crying in stifled laughter. My professor glanced at me mid-lecture, trying to figure out what in the world had happened, smiled, then gracefully resumed his lecture (the shy boy maintained a no-eye contact strike for the rest of the year).
My professor smiled a lot like he did that day my chair tipped over. He was often smiling, and he seemed to take genuine pleasure in the Word of God and his students getting excited about it, especially when their excitement came from a Greek word or phrasing. He was the kind of man who lived well.
His family did something wonderfully generous once the decision was made to start Hospice care at home for him. They set up a Caring Bridge website to journal for others what was happening as they cared for Dr. Hawthorne in his last days. Hundreds of us were able to write in their guest book and share our memories and prayers for Dr. Hawthorne and his family. News of his passing yesterday was bittersweet. I’m sad that he is gone, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so confident of anyone’s dying well as I am of his. He was a man who both lived and died well. In those final days, he was looking ahead to the joy set before him, enduring his cross.
I hope to die so well. Thank you, Dr. Hawthorne. I will be so happy to see your shining face on the other side.