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Richard J. Kent '34 | Frederic Cassidy '30 | Tom Linehan | William Brashear '68

Memorial Minute


Tom Linehan

1937 - 1999

Professor of English


Tom Linehan died last April 1999, from lung cancer. He was 62. Born in Chicago, his father died from TB when Tom was 16 months old, and Tom grew up in Chicago in circumstances that did not lend themselves to academic dreams, or even to much knowledge of the world of colleges and universities. Tom once described his high school career as "undistinguished," and as soon as it was over, in 1955, he joined the Air Force. It was there, in what he described as "windswept desolate airbases in places like Montana" that he found his passion for reading, for history and philosophy and above all for literature. When he left the Air Force in 1959 the finances of his small family had improved--his mother had proved a very capable administrator and had risen to occupy a senior position with the Harlem Globetrotters organization, a position she held until her retirement. Tom decided to go to college, at Loyola, then went onto graduate study at the University of Chicago where he earned his MA and PhD. It was there that he met Kathy, who was teaching at Chicago.

He taught briefly at Northern Illinois University before coming to the English Department at Oberlin in 1971, and he and Kathy became among the first couples to share a single position. Over his long teaching career at Oberlin, he taught a wide variety of courses--they included courses on eighteenth century English literature, introduction to narrative fiction, Dickens, nineteenth century literature, linguistics, and many more; he led the London program three times, the last two times in collaboration with Kathie and Ron Casson. Tom loved teaching, and he was deeply interested in his students. On April 16, 1999, The Oberlin Review published an editorial, and I would like to quote that here: "Throughout the college, students would be heard discussing Tom's personal devotion to his students. Last year I overheard one student, a first year, remark that, '... of all the professors I've had, Professor Linehan is the only one who says hi and remembers my name every time he sees me.' It is this kindness to a student in a new and unfamiliar environment that made Tom such an asset to Oberlin and its student body...the last quarter century has seen many students reap the benefits of Professor Linehan's exactitude and compassion. As surely as there are a great many writers who have grown as a result of his careful tutelage, there are many more who grew to be better people through his benevolence." That says it very well.

Tom published widely, on Dickens, Shakespeare, Flannery, O'Connr and Toni Morrison, but the eclecticism and uniqueness of Tom's intellectual life and career are best illustrated by the research and publication he did in quite different areas. For example, he became interested in the plight of Japanese Americans during World War II, and published an article in a social science journal on the resettlement of many Californian Japanese Americans to the Midwest after the war, particularly in Cleveland. And his largest and most ambitious research concerned people who had become ensnared in the legal system--poor people who were wrongfully imprisoned and their efforts to set their lives aright and seek some amends from the legal system. That research focused in the later years of Tom's life on a young Mexican American, Gordon Hall. His work, completed in the last year of his life, was assiduously and exhaustively researched over a period of several years. Beautifully and lucidly written, it details quite sharply the impersonality of the bureaucratic processes that so damaged the lives of Gordon Hall and his family, and the insensitivity of those processes to injustices of the worst kind. Tom's written account follows the tortuous legal and human case of Hall through all its twisting details; his research included interviewing prosecuting attorneys and defense lawyers, policemen, and relatives, carefully reconstructing the details of the case, of the appeals and retrials, of the hopes and frustrations of Gordon and his family. It was a story that he wanted to document carefully and thoroughly, a story that he wanted to follow to at least a better ending, a story that outraged and moved him. But he was not interested in generalizing to theories about justice or even recommendations about improving a system that had done so much damage to Gordon Hall and his family--he was engaged with a particular person, his family and their situation, and it was that which held his attention through years of research.

As he wrote their story, Tom became beloved by Gordon Hall and his family, and for much the same reason, I think, he was so beloved by his students. Tom was passionately interested in people, and in the stories they all had to tell, and he listened and he asked his questions without an obvious theoretical framework and without a desire to generalize.

His intellectual eclecticism showed in other ways as well--he was an avid reader of history, he had strong and abiding interests in modern philosophy, particularly in Tom Nagel and John Rawls, and when he was completing his research on his article on Toni Morrison, he read John Locke and Derek Parfitt on personal identity as he articulated Toni Morrison's depiction of the struggle of one of her main characters to maintain her sense of self through the assaults of slavery.

A memorial minute for Tom should not be too solemn--that would be a distortion. He was, for example, legendarily frugal, which amused both him and his friends; he had a Monty Pythonesque sense of fun, and a keen sense of the ludicrous. Of the many incidents I still remember, there is one that stands out as vintage Tom. We often went to Cleveland Indians games, when the team was playing in the old Municipal Stadium, usually losing, in front of very scant crowds scattered throughout that cavernous space. On one occasion there were so few people there that individual comments from the crowd could be heard quite clearly. In the top of the ninth, with Cleveland about to lose another game, a relief pitcher called Stanton was trying to prevent the opposing team going more than six runs ahead, in the forlorn hope that Cleveland could score seven runs in the bottom of the ninth. In the silence, a young boy shouted plaintively, "Come on, Stanton." That really set Tom off, and in the end I had to drive home because Tom kept exploding with laughter, shouting "Come on, Stanton." In subsequent years, "Come on, Stanton" became his code for cheering on hopeless causes in the face of the longest odds.

Tom spent the last eight months of his life facing his own hopeless cause, against the longest odds. Predictably, he researched his own illness very carefully, and he had a clear sense of the likely course of remissions and decline that would follow his treatments. He knew that he would have a couple of months remission in the spring of 1999, and that it was likely to be his last. What he chose to do during the last clear months says a great deal about him -- he chose to teach a course, a module on Jame Austen. One of the novels that Tom wanted to teach was Mansfield Park -- he was one of the very few people I knew who liked Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, a low-born girl thrust by accident into the aristocratic world of Mansfield Park, and he wanted to teach that book for the last time.

Tom Linhan was a great asset to oberlin, a great asset to his friends and family, Among other things, I miss his view of the world -- his unsentimental broad compassion, his sense of perspective, his debunking of extremism and posturing, the unswerving integrity of his engagement with the world, his focus on the world and away from himself. His was a deeply intellectual, deeply iconoclastic, unsentimental and compassionate view, one that was passionate about the world but derided pretentiousness and affectation. We will all miss him.

David A. Love is associate vice president for Research and Development and a lecturer of philosophy. This Memorial Minute was adopted by a rising vote of the General Faculty of Oberlin College on May 18, 2000

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