Edwin Stein Jr., professor of English emeritus at Whitman College and a former colleague of mine at Cincinnati Country Day School many years ago, has died after a long illness. There is a memorial service for him in New York on Sunday, 10/2/11, but I am unable to attend. I sent a brief remembrance to his wife and two sons and include it here. I would love to hear from any students or teachers from Cincinnati Country Day from that period — two years that in retrospect Ted and I agreed later were more important and strangely blessed than we realized at the time.
When Israel announced the other day that it was going to build more houses in East Jerusalem, I wanted to call Ted to discuss it and was sadly reminded that I cannot call Ted anymore. This is tough and very hard to accept. When I was in New York in August and had lunch with Ted and Judy, he hugged me afterward and said, “I guess this is goodbye,” but I did not allow myself believe it. As I said to Kevin when he informed me that Ted had died, his father was among the best people I have encountered in this life.
When describing him to friends who had not met him, I often said Ted was the smartest person I knew. But while that was true, it did not explain the human being he was, someone whose reflexive kindness and generosity of spirit were so evident and so uncommon. You felt it when you were in his presence certainly but also on the other end of a telephone line or in an email or, before email, in letters. Remember letters? Ted was also a champion letter writer, above and beyond.
Through the long night that has stretched over American politics for the last however many years, Ted was a constant companion in the darkness, always finding rays of light where I could see none. It was a balm and relief to talk to him, to share a sense of disbelief and cathartic anger and feel less alone in the face of so much bad news.
We met at Cincinnati Country Day School in the fall of 1970, when I was just out of college and he had just dropped out of becoming a doctor. We taught there together for two years, the only time we ever lived in the same city, yet over the next four decades we managed to stay in touch, and I kept close to my heart the encouragement he had given me to be a writer – encouragement based on I don’t know what since I hadn’t written much of anything then. Yet coming from Ted it meant something because he himself clearly had the soul of a poet and more knowledge of literature than seemed plausible for one person, and I looked up to him.
Those two years in Cincinnati in the early `70s when Nixon was president and the Vietnam War was still going on appear so sweet in hindsight now, benefiting from a long lens perhaps that filters out politics, troublesome school administrators and various personal trials. Still, there was something special about that time and place, Ted agreed with me years later, as we harked back to the camaraderie of the five-member English department that on Fridays after school regularly forestalled a weekend of grading papers by downing pitchers of Hudepohl lager at a bar overlooking the Ohio River. Or so I want to remember, especially now.
When you’re young, you don’t always realize the significance of the friendships you are making in a given year or at such and such job. You overestimate some and underestimate others. Time sorts it all out. I’m not sure I could have foreseen back in Cincinnati that Ted would have such a lasting influence in my life, becoming one of those rare people who would always be there, remembering the right details and what mattered, never drifting away into the distraction and self-involvement that separates most adults from each other as they go about their lives.
In a society of hype and cant and marketing, he was, in contrast, authentic, an unassuming truth-teller who bristled at injustice and believed the world could be a better place – and have a lot more poetry in it. I would submit that the world was a better place for Ted having been here, nourishing so many students both in and out of the classroom, reminding us all of the beauty and power of language. I will miss him dearly but carry his words and wisdom and wry humor with me every day from here on.