patty’s dad

My friend Patty’s dad, well-respected developmental psychologist Harold Stevenson, passed away earlier this summer, after battling Alzheimer’s for several years. Linette and I spent this afternoon with his family, friends and colleagues at the University of Michigan, recounting his various achievements, sharing anecdotes, and generally celebrating his life. It was one of the most beautiful events I have ever had the opportunity to witness, and, without a doubt, it was the most positive, moving celebration of a person’s life after passing that I have ever been a part of.

Here, for the purposes of context, is a clip from his obituary that ran in the Washington Post :

Harold W. Stevenson, 80, a developmental psychologist whose comprehensive studies in the 1980s showed that schoolchildren in Asia outperformed American children often because they simply worked harder, died of pneumonia July 8 at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif.

Dr. Stevenson’s surveys for the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan were the first to show that from their earliest school years, U.S. children lagged behind students in Japan and Taiwan in reading and math. The reasons cited were multiple, but one finding stood out: U.S. kindergartners, first-graders and fifth-graders did less homework, spent fewer school hours studying and wasted more classroom time.

“The Japanese and Chinese believe that people are basically the same and that the difference between success and failure lies in how hard you work,” Dr. Stevenson said in 1987. “Americans give more importance to native ability, so they have less incentive to work hard in school”…

By many accounts, Dr. Stevenson was a man who found learning fascinating and joyful. One of his daughters, Janet B. Zimmerman of Plymouth, Mich., said that his enthusiasm for learning was infectious and that she vividly recalled him helping her with homework.

“Whenever we were stuck in any subject, he would gladly step forward and, with extreme patience, try to help us understand,” she said. He would help his children look at problems in multiple ways, regarding mathematics as a series of puzzles to solve, she said.

He repeatedly edited his own work and speeches to make his points as clearly as possible, she said. A colleague of his told her of a time when he walked into a lecture hall where Dr. Stevenson was giving a speech. Behind the rapt audience stood a janitor who was just as fascinated, he said. The next day, the colleague overheard the janitor describing what he had learned to the rest of the custodial staff. That, Zimmerman said, was the type of communication her father sought. “He would present with equal enthusiasm to custodial staff, to me as a 10-year-old or to the most studious graduate student,” she said.

I didn’t know Dr. Stevenson personally, so I won’t attempt to tell his whole story here, but I did want to just mention a few of the impressions that were left with me, as I sat there and listened to over a dozen people talk about his amazing life, and the significant influence he’d been on them. The portrait that was painted was one of a brilliant, modest, unstoppably energetic man who remained curious his entire life as to how children learn and develop. And, perhaps more importantly, of a man who, despite the demands of his career, always had time for his friends and family.

I couldn’t keep from crying toward the end. After two hours of hearing people talk about how he, in his straightforward and truly genuine way, had changed their lives (often by encouraging them to follow their passion in their research, and then finding the grant money to make it possible), I was on the verge of tearing up. And then, when my friend Patty and her sister stepped onto the podium (the same podium from which her father had lectured many times) to sing his favorite song, Tom Paxton’s “Ramblin’ Boy,” I just couldn’t hold it in any longer. It was one of the saddest, most beautiful things, I had ever seen. When they got to the last verse, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.

“He left me here, to ramble on
My ramblin’ pal, is dead and gone
If when we die, we go somewhere
I’ll bet you a dollar, he’s ramblin’ there.”

But, as embarrassing as it is to say this, in spite of feeling very happy for Dr. Stevenson that he’d led such a truly amazing life (from his early days in a one-room Wyoming schoolhouse, to his time in the Navy during the war, to his opening of one of the country’s first racially integrated nursery schools, to his being one of the first American scholars into China in 1973, to his influence over the US education debate), a lot of what I was thinking had to do with myself. “Not only wouldn’t I,” I thought, “be able to fill up an auditorium like this, if I were to pass away right now, but I very seriously doubt my relatives could dredge up anyone who could say that I’d been responsible for positively shaping their life, let alone that I’d helped to redefine and entire area of academic research.” And I’m not just feeling sorry for myself… or fishing for compliments. Several people I spoke with afterward were having the same thoughts. It was painfully obvious to us all that very few people could match the life led by Dr. Stevenson. Most of us, I think, would be happy to just come close on the personal front, having four happy, healthy kids (and seven grandkids) and a reputation for being a good, caring man who did his best to make the world a better place.

I think we’d all like to achieve something like what he did professionally though, to know that what we did mattered, and to know that people respected us… He helped people to achieve their dreams, and what he did will continue to ripple through society for generations to come… His kids talked of a warm, loving father who never made them feel as though they came second… His relationship with his wife was talked about as though it were one of the greatest romances of all times… He was, by all accounts, kind, optimistic, encouraging, and inquisitive – someone who, it seemed, was absolutely clear as to what he was meant to do.

Linette, and I have been talking about Dr. Stevenson since this afternoon. We were both profoundly impacted by what we saw and heard at the memorial service, but she, I think, has a better, healthier take on it than I do. Unlike me, she isn’t just holding up his life as a foil in front of which to view the inadequacies of her own life thus far. She’s thinking about his life as an example of what can be achieved, and what we can still do with our time here. (I’m trying to coax my obsessive mind in that direction, but it’s difficult.)

Linette and I haven’t written out our wills yet, but, in case the courts would accept my wishes as communicated via blog, I would like to not have a funeral. Having sat though several, and now having experienced a memorial service that came some time after an individual’s passing, I can say with absolute certainty that I’d prefer to let some time pass. (It’s been my experience that very little of meaning can be said about a person’s life in the immediate wake of their passing.) When I go, I want to be cremated, and, if my family wants, I’d like them to have some kind of ceremony where they do something with my ashes. (I’ll probably offer some suggestions, but nothing comes to mind right now.) Then, after a few months, if people are so inclined, I’d like to have some kind of get-together… Hopefully, I will have done something of some significance by then. And, hopefully Clementine can sing.

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24 Comments

  1. Shanster
    Posted August 29, 2005 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    That sounds beautiful.

    My grandfather died at the beginning of the year. He chose to be cremated, just like my grandmother, who had died 11 months earlier. The funeral director was a family friend, and had been directed to go fishing and sprinkle the remains in Lake St. Clair. My grandfather was a true outdoorsman. The beautiful part was that the funeral director had saved my grandmother’s ashes, knowing that elderly couples often die in close succession. So he was able to join their ashes and send them out together.

  2. mark
    Posted August 29, 2005 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    I’m leaning toward suggesting that they grind me into a course powder and throw me into the eyes of the king. (I suspect I’ll be able to hold off death until the monarchy is restored.)

  3. Dick Cheney\'s Extending Taint
    Posted August 29, 2005 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    In an effort to ensure you’re not *completely* forgotten, I just signed you up to accompany the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto and beyond, Mark.

    You can check it here:

    http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/ecard/certificate/searchName.php

    And read about the mission here:

    http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/index.php

  4. mark
    Posted August 29, 2005 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Taint. You’re my best friend.

  5. Dick Cheney's Extending Taint
    Posted August 30, 2005 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    If you die before I do, you have my promise that I’ll tell stories of your greatness at your ash scattering party. Like the time my girlfriend slept with your roommate when I was out of town and you boldy admitted “We all knew…” not a year a half later when I found out through someone else.

    What a guy…

  6. mark
    Posted August 30, 2005 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    You sound exactly like my friend Dave, Taint. It’s uncanny.

    As for what this betrayal that you’re referring to, it didn’t happen like that. I never saw the roommate having innercourse with your girlfriend. I just noticed that they were spending a lot of time around each other. As far as I knew, she never slept over with him or anything. (If she did, she must have been sneaking out the window or something.) I would have told you if I knew something for sure, Taint. I really would have. You have to believe me. All I had at the time were paranoid suspicions. I never even saw a kiss

  7. chris
    Posted August 30, 2005 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    I would go to your funeral. I would even be respectful and not make any loud abrupt noises.

    However, you are not allowed to steal my cremation ceremony. Where I am cremated and my ashes are distributed to the (now defunct) ashtrays in a handful of non-international airports…Oakland, St. Louis, Duluth, Syracuse etc, etc. Since these areas are all now non-smoking I will settle on Greyhound stations. So you can’t put that in your will either.

    You and Linette were very lucky to know a man like Dr. Stevenson and his children. People like that change the way you live your life.

  8. mark
    Posted August 30, 2005 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Maybe I should start a contest or something… asking people for their ideas as to what I should have done with my ashes.

  9. Posted August 31, 2005 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    In my religious tradition we have food offerings that we keep in jars in or around our home altars. They’re called Tormas.
    My friend was nosing around my altar and pulling things out to look at and he pulled out a jar and said ” Is this your Torma?”
    I replied honestly “no, that’s my mother”
    He freaked, I laughed, what good, clean fun.

  10. Tony Buttons
    Posted August 31, 2005 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    I’d suggest you get smashed to a fine powder and then get released in aerosolized form into the air-ducts of an international airport.

  11. Doug Skinner
    Posted August 31, 2005 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I suggest your ashes be put into little pouches, and sewn into Ypsipanties.

  12. anonymatt
    Posted August 31, 2005 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    presumably Doug’s idea would be sold along with a t-shirt that said “Mark Maynard couldn’t get laid at Timken High, but he got in MY panties.”

  13. anonymatt
    Posted August 31, 2005 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    IF DC’s ET is who I think it is, he is leaving out a pertinent detail.

    The woman in question was originally the girlfriend of DC’s ET’s friend. the friend left town, and DC’s ET hooked up with the girlfriend in his friend’s absence. DC’s ET thought this was hilarious at the time. So when DC’s ET went to grad school in another state (he wasn’t just “out of town”) and the girlfriend apparently hooked up with another roommate (actually a summer subletter) in DC’s ET’s absence, I similarly found it hilarious. I say “apparently” because, I, like Mark, did not actually witness anything directly.

    I’d like to quote Lou Reed’s paraphrase of Ecclesiastes: “You’re gonna reap just what you sow.”

  14. Dick Cheney's Extending Taint
    Posted August 31, 2005 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    “You’re gonna reap just what you sow.”

    As this thread clearly illustrates.

    Who is this “Dave” you refer to?

    Carry on.

    Dav Dick’s Taint

  15. mark
    Posted August 31, 2005 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    Say it taint so.

    I don’t believe all this time that you, Mr. Taint, were really Dave “the tripod” Miller.

  16. mark
    Posted August 31, 2005 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    “Uhhhh…. Is this dust in your panties?”

    “No, silly, it’s Mark Maynard.”

  17. chris
    Posted August 31, 2005 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    Please post a photo of DC ET. His posts sound like he’s hot. and Tony Button’s too, if he’s not you.

  18. mark
    Posted August 31, 2005 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    How about it, Taint and Tony, do you feel like sharing some photos?

  19. Posted August 31, 2005 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    You could have yourself pressed into a creepy gem, Mark. I see they come in yellow now.
    http://www.lifegem.com/

  20. Anonymatt
    Posted September 1, 2005 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    I don’t know about DC’s ET, but the person discussed as “Dave” is viewable here:

    http://markmaynard.com/index.php/2003/06/29/title_706

  21. [steph]
    Posted September 1, 2005 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read about some company that mixes your ashes in with man-made coral reefs that are put in the ocean to replace reefs that have been destroyed. It sounds kind of nice…

    http://www.eternalreefs.com/resources/links.html

  22. mark
    Posted September 1, 2005 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm… good ideas…. As I’m a bit claustrophobic though, I don’t think I’ll be compressed into a precious stone though. (Sorry, Hillary.) And, as I’m afraid of the ocean at night, I don’t think I’ll opt to go your route either, Steph. Thanks for the ideas though.

    And that picture of “the Taint” is horrid, Matt.

  23. Dick Cheney's Extending Taint
    Posted September 2, 2005 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    Here I am at Chich

  24. Anonymatt
    Posted September 2, 2005 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    Who is “Matt” and when did he post a picture of the Taint, Mark? What are you talking about? No one posted a picture of DC’s ET until he did so himself several hours after your comment.

    When a comment is more than 5 words long, do you just read every other word and then make a half-assed guess as to what the person meant?

    If I had a dollar for every time Mark read something and then demonstrated that he completely misunderstood it, I’d be able to take as many vacations as DC’s ET.

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