Thinking about Bill HD: Friendship Memories, Momento Mori

My friend Bill Hart Davidson died suddenly on April 23, 2024 of a heart attack while on a run after work. He was 53. Here’s a link to the obituary.

Annette and I (along with Steve Benninghoff– unfortunately, his wife was out of town) went up to The Compound for a dinner party the Saturday before. We’ve gotten together like this many times for the last 20 years, and often, there is some kind of activity or game. This time, Bill and Leslie asked us all to put together powerpoint presentations that are funny, interesting, and/or entertaining. Mine was about our new house. It was pretty lame because I was too busy trying to finish the grading for the winter semester. Annette, similarly busy but with her book, did a presentation about why The Big Lebowski is a perfect movie (totally agree). Benninghoff talked about some genealogy research he’s been doing about his family and some lost history going back to the Civil War, a presentation that ended with a sampling of scotch. Leslie and Bill were much more prepared. Leslie had a great talk about Betty Crocker (I think she’s doing some research for another cookbook sort of project), and Bill’s bit, complete with his bass for demonstration purposes, was about the similarities and differences between beat and rhythm. He won the prize for “most likely to do a TED talk.”

A good time was had by one and all, we talked about how Annette and I will have to host the next one of these get-togethers this summer once we move into our new place, and we all went home. Then we get a call from Benninghoff Monday night; he had gotten a call from Leslie that Bill had collapsed while on a run, and he was pronounced dead the next day.

It’s a lot to process, and so this is definitely very rambling and more personal I suppose than most of what I post here, and ultimately less about Bill than it is about memory and death and friendship. FWIW.

Friendship Memories

When Bill passed, I was just finishing listening to a book called Why We Remember: Unlocking Memory’s Power to Hold on to What Matters by Charan Ranganath. He is a psychology professor at UC-Davis who researches “the neurocognitive structure of human memory,” and the book is an accessible examination of how memory works, with lots of interesting examples. (I listen to books while I’m at the gym, which is to say in fits and starts and which is why it took me this long to finish it).

I first heard of Ranganath because he was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. He was on the show to promote his book but also to talk about an op-end he wrote in response to the report from special counsel Robert Hur about Biden’s mishandling of classified evidence. One of the reasons why Hur said he declined to prosecute Biden (besides the fact that Biden’s “crimes” seem more like housekeeping mistakes rather than what Trump did) was Biden was a feeble old man with a “poor memory.” Ranganath pointed out something we all already know: we all forget things. “In fact, most of the details of our lives — the people we meet, the things we do and the places we go — will inevitably be reduced to memories that capture only a small fraction of those experiences.”

If anything, as Ranganath tells us in his book, it’s not entirely clear why, evolutionarily speaking, humans remember much of anything at all. Memory is slippery, it’s corruptible, it fades, and neurologically and in many other ways, it is similar to imagination. And memory is often collaborative. Ranganath gives the example of the old married couple who recall memories of past events by playing off of each other. So, for example, one beginning “remember the shows we saw on that cruise we took 30 years ago?” and the other filling in the gaps by saying “one was a musical, I think” and then the other replies “that’s right, it was Legally Blonde.”

A lot of my memories of Bill are like that because I have so many of them: I have forgotten most of the details, or they are memories that are difficult to recall, they’re slippery, or they’re collaborative memories we shared and are now impossible to complete. I do remember this:

I met Bill in 1993 at Bowling Green State when I was starting my PhD and he was finishing his MA. We only overlapped a year in the comp/rhet graduate program, but that was an intense year. Annette and I both were starting our PhDs and I don’t think either one of us quite knew what we were getting ourselves into. I certainly didn’t. My sense of what counted as “the field” of composition and rhetoric was mostly limited to the experiences I had in the practicum course I took at VCU to teach first year writing, and the experiences I had in the classroom.

Bill, along with John Clark and Mike/Mick Doherty, were the “experienced” ones since they had a whole year of grad school under their belts. I believe those three even had a panel proposal accepted for the then upcoming 1994 Conference for College Composition and Communication. They were also the ones who introduced me to this fringe sub-discipline called “Computers and Writing,” or, based on the journal title, Computers and Composition.  At the time, most of the other students and faculty in the program thought there was no point to this whole computer “thing” and that we were all wasting our time.

Just to give a sense of how different the times were: as part of a research methods course Bill and I were in together, we did a project that involved setting up an email listserv between our two different sections of first year writing. This was at a time when BGSU (and most other universities) did not automatically give undergraduates an email account. So Bill and I had to get temporary email accounts set up for each of the 50 or so students we had in total, accounts that were only good for the semester, and also email addresses without names– just a series of numbers. Bill and I knew which student were which, but the students did not.  As I recall, we had few requirements for how students should use this email discussion forum. We wanted everyone to post at least once or twice a week, ideally about the class, but it could be anything. Mostly, we just wanted students to try to write in that space. Emboldened by the anonymity and novelty, a series of wild and rancorous flame wars broke out about Rush Limbaugh, Jesus, politics, frats, you name it. Again, you have to remember that none of these students were used to using email or anything we think of now as “the internet.”

The director of the first year writing program at the time, the fantastic Donna Nelson-Beene, somehow heard about this. She called us into her office and said “What in the hell are you guys doing?!?” From her point of view, we were just enabling students to argue with each other–and she wasn’t entirely wrong about that. We explained as best we could, and much to her credit, she didn’t make us stop. That work was for me the subject of both my first conference presentation and my first academic publication. The conference was Computers and Writing at the University of Missouri, and the four of us were a panel together. Bill always remembered it as Cindy Selfe was the chair of our panel; I think that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I do think that Cindy was in the room.

So that one year we overlapped at BGSU was intense. We were in classes together in the fall and the spring and we hung around a lot together talking about classes, talking about teaching, talking about technology stuff, generally shooting the shit. We made at least one long road trip together out to Missouri, and probably a few other long drives. Annette and I got together with Bill and Leslie once in a while for dinner or whatever back then, at least once in the trailer they lived in together by the railroad tracks. Leslie, who was a quite talented seamstress, made Annette’s wedding dress. We went to their wedding the last summer they were still in Ohio, about a month after our wedding.

Bill went onto the PhD program at Purdue, and we kept in touch while we were in school, mostly through conferences. Most of my experiences at either the CCCCs or Computers and Writing conference in the 90s and early 2000s involved hanging around with Bill and his Purdue cohort, often times rooming together and almost always ending up in some bar until too late. One of the guys he introduced me to back then was Steve Benninghoff– the other Steve, large Steve, Steve #2, Benninghoff, Bennish (a long story with that nickname), and/or “Hoff,” which it will be for the rest of this post. Bill and Leslie got pretty tight with Hoff when they were at Purdue, and I think by the end of their time there, Hoff’s now wife Michelle entered the picture too.

I was out at Southern Oregon for a couple of years and then came to EMU in 1998. Bill was already a quickly rising star and after finishing his PhD in ’99, Bill got a job at Rensselaer. Then through circumstances too complicated to go into now, Hoff landed at EMU in 2003, and Bill came to MSU in 2004.

That gave us a chance to collaborate on a few academic things. For example, there was the article “Re: The Future of Computers and Writing: A Multivocal Textumentary,” which was as much about editing together comments from a bunch of contributors as it was our writing. We were on a number of panels together over the years, both larger group roundtables we organized and panels where we each read a paper. He contributed a chapter to the Invasion of the MOOCs book I co-edited with Charlie Lowe. In 2011 and along with Derek Mueller (then my EMU colleague and now onto bigger and better things at Virginia Tech), we cooked up and ran a free, local, and kind of “unconference” conference called the WIDE-EMU.  That was a very typical Bill-like collaboration: Bill, Derek, and I were driving back from the CCCCs in Atlanta– or really, I was driving as I always did because Bill was a terrible driver– and after hours of talking and arguing on and on and on, we had a plan for a simple but fantastic little local conference. We ran it three times, twice at EMU and once at MSU, and we both had a lot of grad students who gave their first academic presentation at it.

But we didn’t collaborate that much on academic stuff; we were friends and we hung out. When Bill took the job at MSU, Annette and I had a “Welcome to Michigan” backyard barbecue event. We got together at each other’s houses two to four times a year like that for the next 20 years, up until the Saturday before he died. We all watched each others’ kids grow up, our careers and lives evolve and change.

Back in the 2000s, Hoff and I played quite a bit of golf in the summer (at least when we weren’t teaching extra to pay the bills), sometimes two or three times a week. Bill joined us once in a while. It was great companionship of course, but it also was a rare chance for me to win– or rather not to lose. You see, I am a very bad golfer, and despite years of playing, I still rarely break 100, even on an easy course. Hoff, on the other hand, is a pretty good golfer, usually beating me by 10 or 20 strokes. Hoff and I have been playing golf for decades and I have never beat him. Never. Bill, on the other hand, was as bad of a golfer as me. So when he joined us, Bill and I competed to not finish last. I think we ended up being an even match of badness.

Bill kind of gave up on golf a few years ago, around the same time he started learning how to play the bass and also about the same time he became a dean. Which was fine, really; Hoff and I don’t play nearly as much now as we used to anyway. We still all got together for dinners and such, though some of that got interrupted by Covid and work things and life schedules.

For the last year or so, Bill and I mostly kept in touch via social media. We were texting each other more about AI recently; in fact, we texted about the TALIA software demo I wrote about last week right after that webinar happened. My experience with AI has so far been limited to playing around with it, reading about it, and writing about it here. Bill had been publishing scholarship on this stuff for years and he was regularly doing invited talks across the country to to talk about how AI works and its implications for writing and beyond. I would have really loved talking with him more about all of this.

*      *      *

The outpouring of tributes and praises for Bill on Facebook and at the memorial/celebration of life on May 3 was overwhelming. There have been so many posts on Facebook from so many different people all remembering how Bill impacted them: PhD students he advised, fellow faculty and administrators and staff at MSU, people in the comp/rhet world who Bill helped out with a key piece of advice or a letter of recommendation or something else like that. A lot of these people were folks I don’t think Bill actually knew that well, but he helped them out anyway.

I knew Bill was a big deal in the composition/rhetoric/tech writing world and a big deal at MSU, but I guess I didn’t realize how big of a deal. I didn’t find out until the memorial that he won the William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award last year, for example, and I hadn’t heard about half of the accomplishments mentioned in MSU’s obituary. I knew Bill was an exceptionally swell person– smart as hell, funny, quick thinking, fun, and not perfect, just a really great guy. But we didn’t really talk much about the stuff that made him a big deal.

Before the memorial, I decided I wasn’t going to give one of the two minute or so eulogies, mainly because it was an MSU event and I knew there would be plenty of Bill’s students and colleagues who would speak and I did not want to get in the way. Speaker after speaker shared some little story about how Bill impacted their lives with his generosity, his advice, his humor, and really his willingness for being there. This is not surprising given the genre constraints of a eulogy, I suppose.

I don’t have any specific “the moment Bill changed my life” memories, other than when we met and how those early days helped shape my entire academic career. Like I said, I have so many memories of Bill that I have forgotten most of them, and the ones that I can easily access didn’t seem quite right for a eulogy. Mostly I remember things like the hilarious “you had to be there” moments when Bill, Hoff, and I went golfing at a silly and cheap 9 hole course on the other side of Oahu which included a stop at a McDonalds where Bill groped a Ronald McDonald statue. I remember when we roomed together in Louisville and I came back to the room and jumped on Bill who was in bed (I may have had a few cocktails). I remember Bill and his friend from theme park days Dave juggling clubs around Will at a “Welcome to Michigan” party in our backyard.  I remember a couple of different Ann Arbor-Dexter run 5Ks, ones he actually ran and I “ran” in about 45 minutes. I remember terror selfies, I remember there was a brief attempt at beer making, and I remember him leading the room in singing happy birthday to Hoff and Annette on their joint 50th party. As my Jewish friends might say, his friendship and memory are a blessing.

Momento Mori

The first thing I thought about when I heard Bill died was how wrong and unfair and unbelievable it all was because he was so healthy and in the prime of his life. It’s still hard for me to believe, writing a couple weeks later, it still seems possible to me that this is all some kind of bizarre hallucination.

The second thing I thought was Annette and I should put together a Will and write down some plans for what we’d like to see happen to us after we die. Because if someone as healthy and vibrant and as fully alive as Bill can suddenly be gone like that, you just never fucking know.

And the third thing I thought was how strange and unusual this all was– but also, maybe not? In 2019, a friend of a friend who I had known since college died from a similar cardiac event while cooking dinner for his family. A dozen or so years ago, one of my colleague’s husband died unexpectedly very much like this. And so on. One of my good friends survived a massive heart attack a number of years ago, and to hear him tell the story, the only difference between what happened to him and what happened to Bill is this friend was five minutes away from a fire department and help arrived before he passed out. As this still living friend has reminded me, the most common indication most people have a serious heart issue is they have a heart attack, and that is often too late.

Bill is by far the closest friend of mine who has died; actually, he’s the only friend I can think of who has died. Given that I’m 58, that’s probably unusual. I know Annette has lost several friends over the years, one under similarly sudden circumstances. Given that I’m 58, I surely will lose more friends under circumstances like this. I don’t expect it will get any easier.

I’m not a religious or particularly spiritual person, but for a long time now, I’ve thought that the tradition of Momento Mori, Latin for “remember that you have to die,” made quite a bit of sense. I don’t dwell on death unnecessarily, and for me, this doesn’t come in the form of a particular prayer or practice. It’s just something that crosses my mind almost every day, and it’s something I’m comfortable with. I mean, I’m not looking forward to dying of course, but I know that’s how it goes and how it goes for all of us. I realize it’s trite to say this, but the fact that it ends is what gives life meaning in the first place.

And this is probably why I write every day (in my journal, here, in emails, on social media, in writing that I hope eventually becomes something I will try to publish so others can read it): because I try to remember every day that I’m going to die. I write because it’s an effective form of self-therapy, because I hope I have something readers might find interesting or useful or entertaining, and because I want to remember what happened. And to be remembered. Bill and I never talked about any of this stuff, so I don’t know if he had the same motivations for writing and working or not. I definitely know he did what he did because he wanted to make the world a better place after him.

I very much like how Susan Orlean talks about this kind of thing in her book The Library Book. Orlean is first and foremost a journalist, and the subject of her reporting in this book was the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Library System’s main branch, the downtown Central Library. Besides recounting the events of the arson (no one was ever convicted) and the story of the restoration, Orlean also writes about the importance of public libraries in her own life and as depositories of memory for all of us. At one point, she writes:

The idea of being forgotten is terrifying. I fear not just that I, personally, will be forgotten, but that we are all doomed to be forgotten– that the sun of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed. If you gaze into that bleakness even for a moment, the sum of life becomes null and void, because if nothing lasts, nothing matters. It means that everything we experience unfolds without a pattern and life is just a wild, random, baffling occurrence, a scattering of notes with no melody. But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are part of a larger story that has shape and purpose– a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.

Bill did that whispering into a tin can, he did that writing of many things, and it shows itself not only through the many actual texts he produced. It shows itself through his students, through his friends, through all his many interests and passions, through his family. He wrote– and ran and biked and played music and baked and taught and talked and made connections to defy the void and to persist.

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