Jennifer L. Holberg et al.
In Memoriam: W. Dale Brown
And, of course, Frederick Buechner. For Dale, Buechner's role as "literary artist and creative believer" made him the ideal writer to spend his career on, examining the "precarious tilt between belief and unbelief." Dale's The Book of Buechner (Westminster John Knox 2006) stands as the definitive work on its subject. In the foreword to that book, Buechner movingly writes:
I think back over my all but eighty years and wonder if I have accomplished anything worthwhile during the course of them. I could have been so much braver and kinder and more unselfish. I could have been so much better a Christian, a writer, a man. But the way things turned out, I picture myself appearing before Saint Peter pretty much empty-handed except for the books. Were they worth all the time I spent on them, all the other things I neglected for them? Did they leave the world any better for having been written? What moved me most in Dale Brown's book was that he seemed to think so, and I can only hope that when the time comes, he may put in a good word for me at the fateful gates.
I have no doubt that Dale will be there waiting for him.
One Buechner quote Dale was fond of goes in part: "You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you." But here's the thing: Dale was the party. My first sight of him captures in miniature the fact that he was always predisposed to delight: the morning I arrived in the Calvin English department for my interview, Dale came ambling down the hall on his way to class, gleefully singing an old gospel song and throwing a racquetball against the wall as he walked. Over the many ensuing years of our friendship, though the songs I heard him sing changed and deepened, as many in minor keys as in major, his joy was constantly deliberate.
To know Dale was to know riotous laughter and loving community and conversations, rich beyond the telling of them. He loved his family and his dog, Indiana University basketball and Dodgers baseball, rhubarb pie (with no strawberries added, please) and Long Island ice tea. He was a fierce competitor—whether in basketball, racquetball, or cycling—and he read more books every week than anyone else I know.
It's hard to think about a world without Dale Brown in it. But if Dale taught us anything, it is that uncertainties and anxiety, brokenness and calamity are nothing to be afraid of—that, in fact, they are absolutely essential to an honest life of faith. A faith lived in the now and the not yet, in the in-between world of grey that we all inhabit but spend much of our time trying to ignore. Dale, so attuned to wonder and possibility, made no such mistake—and he was always insistent that, by paying attention to the great plentitude of the world, we might come to know that death may get the penultimate word, but it will never have the final say.
When Dale introduced Frederick Buechner at Calvin in 1992, he used Samuel Johnson's words about Oliver Goldsmith: Nullum quod tetigit non ornavit—"nothing he touched, he did not adorn."
The same, of course, could be said of Dale himself.
W. Dale Brown, PhD, died Friday evening, October 10, 2014. He was a beloved husband, father, son, brother, teacher, scholar, colleague, and friend. Dale lived with ferocity of mind, tenacity of spirit, and wicked wit. He will be missed.
Jennifer L. Holberg has taught English at Calvin College since 1998. She is chair of the National Advisory Board of the Buechner Institute.
Dale brought to his work freshness and daring. He refused to be boxed in by convention. In his restless, imaginative way, he led us in new directions and showed us how to go there. For all of that we will miss him sorely.
I first met Dale Brown after he invited me to his glorious Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College, where his quiet skill at administration was nothing compared to his zeal for contemporary literature. He later honored me with inclusion in his smart collection of interviews, Of Faith and Fiction, and then made me an honorary member of the board as he became the founding director of the Buechner Institute at King University. Every succeeding encounter only ratified my first impression of Dale as a funny, kind, strong, vibrant, and wise gentleman with a deep love of Christ and a tremendous interest in others. He was a model for us all.