Jennifer L. Holberg et al.
In Memoriam: W. Dale Brown
Editor's Note: Jennifer Holberg asked folks who were involved with Dale's work through the years to comment briefly on the man and his legacy. Their responses, listed in alphabetical order, follow her tribute below.
It would never have been easy for me to write a memorial about my friend Dale Brown, even had he lived an appropriate span of years.
But Dale's death, as the result of injuries sustained in a bicycle accident in October, came so unexpectedly and so tragically that it is still hard to imagine that a man of such great vibrancy is gone. And grief has a particularly strong way of taking away the ability, fragile as it always is, of saying much of anything that seems sufficient to the man. Words fail us just when we need them most.
Such inarticulateness seems especially ironic when trying to celebrate a person who used words so well himself. In language and in life, Dale was absolutely opposed to the saccharine, the presumptuous, the pretentious, the self-aggrandizing. He valued instead the unassuming, the honest, the true. He wanted "stories that preach," ones that help us navigate the complicated pathways of our lives and that point us to greater clarity and kindness. His own writing and speaking were exquisitely crafted and deeply meaningful. And as a teacher, he was spectacularly inspiring. It was a rare student who left his class unchanged for the better.
Other things make this hard, too: Dale's innate humility made him resistant to praise. So somewhere, I imagine him shaking his head at what he would call the "folderol" of this whole enterprise. Coupled with that was his sense of humor, his quick-wittedness in undercutting anything mawkish or platitudinous. Indeed, we had a black-humored, long-running joke about all the phrases (separately or in combination) that he found objectionable in obituaries—so I'm aware of the impossibility of this task in all sorts of ways.
What can I say, then, about this a man of "infinite variety"? Many readers of Books & Culture will know Dale from his twenty years teaching at Calvin College—many of those years also spent directing the Festival of Faith and Writing. Or from the seven years during which he taught at King University and founded the Buechner Institute. But he also worked in the Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis, served as a minister and a police chaplain, taught high school on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, and sang in a traveling a cappella group. This range of experience points to Dale's capacious curiosity, to being someone (in words he often quoted) "on whom nothing is lost." But it indicates as well how that curiosity was accompanied by abundant compassion and an intense egalitarianism.
In fact, Dale was the consummate public intellectual—modeling, better than anyone I have ever known, a generosity that brought everyone, academic and lay reader alike, into the project of discussing the intersections of faith and culture. Whether through the Festival of Faith and Writing or the Buechner Institute or at the myriad of church and community groups where he spoke over the years, Dale enriched the lives of thousands of people by connecting them with writers, artists, and thinkers who gave them ways to pay attention to the holy work going on in their own lives.
And no matter what he was doing, Dale was the "Great Inviter": always welcoming, radically hospitable. For a man of his enormous vision, his even greater gift was the way he made people feel completely included in whatever it was he was doing. And not just feel included, but special—necessary to the project. Whether it was a famous writer or 2000 people at the Festival or a small gathering of students at King, Dale received each person with profound graciousness and with his enormous capacity for encouragement. He saw the possibilities for partnership and collaboration everywhere—and often could see, even before students or colleagues or friends did themselves, all of the ways they could live into a finer vision of themselves. He and his first and best partner—his wife, Gayle—embraced community after community. And the impact of their life together is incalculable.
In his work on the Festival, at the Buechner Institute, and in his own writing, Dale was a leading scholar and enthusiastic advocate of contemporary writers. Somehow he consistently had a knack for finding authors before anyone else recognized them—and introducing them to a wider audience. In all, he interviewed more than thirty American writers, many of whom appeared in his two books of interviews, Of Faith & Fiction (Eerdmans, 1997) and Conversations with American Writers (Eerdmans, 2008), including Doris Betts, Will Campbell, David James Duncan, Clyde Edgerton, Ernest Gaines, Ron Hansen, Silas House, Garrison Keillor, Lee Smith, and Walt Wangerin.