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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.

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.

Supporting Tributes

Walter Brueggeman:
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.

Ron Hansen:
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.

Roger Lundin:
Sometimes, in the surge of grief that follows the sudden death of a friend, you learn something sweetly remarkable about that person. That happened when the news broke of Dale's biking accident and subsequent death in early October. As his friends connected with one another in those terribly sad days, we realized how so many of us considered him not just a friend but a brother. With a wry wit, genial smile, and long-suffering wisdom, Dale welcomed each of his myriad friends into a capacious, large-hearted family. Life goes on, and God is good, but we will miss this man—our brother—dearly.

Marilyn McEntyre:
When I first met Dale he dropped into conversation as easily as with an old friend. He was used to hosting people, making gatherings occasions of grace. At the Buechner conference he stood and surveyed sessions from the back of the room as though seeking and finding what visionaries live by—a sense of the whole. He knew what he was about, understood his gifts, and responded without pretension to a calling that, though it changed form and context over time, remained constant: he wrote, he spoke, and he honored God's word and others' words by making space for conversations that mattered. Whether about Buechner's work or about the general comedy of academic life, or even about logistics, he brought to those conversations a spacious hospitality that allows something to emerge without plan or control other than the subtle pressure of the Spirit who shapes our ends.

Chip Pollard:
Dale Brown was a dear friend, and he will be missed. We will miss his insatiable reading and recommending of novels both old and new. We will miss his deep care for students both inside and outside the classroom. We will miss his uncanny capacity to bring together both writers and readers to celebrate the written word. We will miss his gift of expressing both our most haunting doubts and our deepest longings for faith. We will miss the chuckle of his laugh, the thud of his bouncing a racquetball against the wall, and his quiet expressions of love for family and friends. And we will be able to bear what we miss only because we know what he has found—all things new.

Barbara Brown Taylor:
No human being is replaceable, but Dale Brown's sudden departure left a huge canyon in the literary landscape. His love of reading and writing was so great that it spilled out all over the place—in his teaching of young people, his encouragement of colleagues, his care for authors new and old, his engaged scholarship, his quick-witted speech, his creation of community, and his willingness to serve the legacy of Frederick Buechner at King University and far beyond. The only good news is that the canyon carries echoes really well, opening up huge possibilities for those of us willing to pick up where he left off.

Daniel Taylor:
I'm one of those who typically saw Dale only once every two years—at the Calvin writer's conference and once at King. But it was enough to make him a friend, a guide, and a resource. The visual image that persists is the sly smile. No matter the situation, something witty was not far away. But wit was only the surface presentation for wisdom. He was both wise himself and sniffed out the sources of wisdom in others—particularly, of course, in contemporary writers. That's part of what I am going to miss. Dale was a hunting dog who flushed out the game birds and pointed the way for the rest of us. He blessed us all.

Ronald Wells:
Dale and I were colleagues at Calvin College for many years and good friends. Later on we marveled that we both moved to Tennessee: he to start the Buechner at King; me, a bit older than he, to retire early, and move to support my wife Barbara's move, and to take a part-time position heading the Symposium on Faith and Liberal Arts at Maryville College. He and I thought of ourselves as doing parallel work in faithful academics, and we supported each other. He was in attendance at all six of our prior symposia. He was a featured speaker at one of them a few years ago, when we had John Wilson of B&C as the keynote. It was difficult to carry on without him when we convened the Symposium this past October. At one moment I thought I saw Dale and John Wilson laughing at one of their wicked-humor jokes.

Paul Willis:
Dale was always a splendid host at his Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College. Every time I came, whether presenting or not, I felt personally welcomed. On impulse, he and his wife, Gayle, once took a whole random roomful of us out for pizza. Somehow he made us believe that we were each a valuable part of something bigger than ourselves. That's because Dale was bigger than himself. I will sorely miss him.

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