Last Chance Lost: Remembering Joel P. Smith

Death means many things, but one thing it means is that our chances are finite.

The other day I learned that a friend and mentor of my youth, Joel P. Smith, had died at the age of 80. It is not too much to say that there was a time in my life when I idolized this man, in some ways still do, nor is it too much to say that my knowing him –his influence on me, the bits of his world that he shared with me — changed my life, made me a fundamentally different person than I would have been otherwise.

To which one might say: so what? It’s the story of uncounted callow youths and their more worldly mentors since time began, and the changes wrought in me by my knowing him matter mainly to me alone. But in its particulars, and by way of honoring a lost friend, it’s a story worth retelling.

I met Joel in 1970, when he was president of Denison University and I was an undergraduate senior there. He was 36 years old at the time, which is to say, among other things, that he was an extraordinarily young college president in an extraordinarily tumultuous time. The war in Vietnam — one of the most divisive wars in our nation’s history– was raging, universal military conscription — which we called simply “the draft” — was a major and potentially lethal stumbling block in the life of every young male, and the country was in the throes of countercultural and civil rights movements that would, in fact, change the world. College campuses had become the epicenters of these upheavals, and Denison was no exception. There were sit-ins and be-ins and teach-ins, arguments across the political divide around every dining hall table, marches and demonstrations, speeches and shouting matches. Almost all of it was peaceful, but that doesn’t mean it was always temperate or even civil.

Joel Smith’s problem was that while he was a social liberal, he was at heart a conservative when it came to educational philosophy and how “the life of the mind” — a favorite phrase of his — should be conducted at a place like a private college. Formerly Dean of Students and Provost at Stanford University, a boy from a small town in Wisconsin who had transformed himself by sheer innate intelligence and hard work into a Marshall Scholar, then a lawyer, then an academician, he was above all a determined believer in “standards,” a word he used often but which, in the world of the 1970s, had become synonymous with “elitist,” as close to an obscenity as one needed back then. On campus he was regularly called that and much worse.

It didn’t help him that he was so young, and so good-looking. What male faculty member could tolerate a guy who could not only match wits and academic pedigrees with you, and argue you into a corner, but also looked like a cross between Clint Eastwood (as he looked then) and George Clooney (as he would look 30 years later)? It was entirely too much. Joel was a lightning rod for the roiling emotions and opinions that gripped the campus in that fractious time.

I too was all about standards; having learned how to at least appear to meet them during my time at Denison, they were my protection and my pathway. I was about to graduate and was trying to decide, if I could avoid being sent to Vietnam, whether I would go to law school or, as my English professors would have preferred, pursue an advanced degree in English literature at one of the institutions where they had supported me for fellowships and stipends.

Joel somehow heard about me; I suppose I was, in his mind, what Denison was supposed to be about: a certain kind of self-realization that would either blossom in the real world or be crushed by it. He invited me to lunch mainly to tell me one thing: that I owed my professors and my college nothing; that I should decide what I wanted to do purely on the basis of what seemed best for me. In my duty-addled state, such an analysis would never have occurred to me; it was liberating. I went to law school.

In the years that followed, I became Joel’s ghostwriter and grant application draftsman; his children’s babysitter, his wife’s confidant, and his friend. He treated me as an equal, though I was never that. I first learned in his home what unbridled love for one’s children looked like, the dimensions of companionship and forgiveness within families. When, despite the difference in our years, we both became divorced at around the same time, it was he who forced his friendship through the wall of hurt that I had erected around myself, and made me talk about it. He returned to Stanford to run its development office, and I visited him and his girls there often, all the while noticing — as his wife had pointed out years before but I had ignored, such was my uncritical admiration of him — that he drank a bit too much, that his moods were becoming increasingly volatile, that his highs, which formerly seemed only the by-product of a fierce intelligence and subversive wit, were becoming disconcertingly high, his lows blackening into what only could be called severe depression.

He finally crashed completely in full public view as a senior officer of a great university, reduced in a matter of weeks from architect of a billion dollar capital campaign to a figure curled in a fetal position in bed, unable to move. (I was there for part of this disintegration, but he himself has written of it in far greater and more eloquent detail, so I’m revealing nothing and can add little.)

I was, at first, simply, stupidly, angry at him, for ceasing to be the friend I had known, for becoming unavailable to me, for not bringing his great intellect to bear on something so paltry as a state of mind, a mere mood. It took some years for me to fully comprehend the intractable nature of depression, its ferocious toll on the human will to live, its devastating effects on everyone in the victim’s life, starting with the victim himself. I was spared most of that; I only lost a friend.

Over the following decades, through the endless cycles of recovery and relapse, the shifts in treatment regimes, the hopes raised by new drugs, the shock therapy that eroded his memory, even through an eventual, short-lived remarriage, I and many other friends tried to honor in our halting ways what the man had meant to us. There were the occasional letters from him, always hand-printed in his precise way, often oddly confrontational, but never an openness to meet, never a returned call. His first wife remarried and we lost touch; his girls disappeared into their adulthoods. I missed his last official return to Denison for the inauguration of one of his successors. As I traveled on business, I would stop to have drinks with people who knew him, friends he and I had vacationed with, people who remembered the man before the crash, women who had tried to love him since, and we would trade stories of our times with him, his enormous generosity and wit, his rejections and accusations, the scary fun of his highs, the terrifying blackness of his depressions.

With time it became clear that it was a loss as permanent and non-negotiable as death, a death that couldn’t be recognized for what it was, couldn’t be properly mourned, because the lost one still shared the world with the bereaved.

Now that last door has closed; now we can truly mourn. Until April 10, there was yet time. There was always the chance that we could re-establish contact, that I could see him once more, sit and talk with him, forgive him and ask him to forgive me, tell him again what he meant to me, and replace that image that I carry with me always, of Joel as a brilliant, handsome young man of 36, with a true one, of Joel as an old man, still handsome I’m sure, perhaps still brilliant, but flawed and perhaps frail, and me grown old with him. What a day that would have been.

Could I have done it? Could I have done more? Of course. So when I heard he’d died, what I felt first, before I pushed the shameful feeling away, was the same feeling I’d had those many years ago when a terrible illness took Joel Smith from us: I felt sorry for myself. Death means many things, but one thing it means is that our chances are finite, and this great chance in my life had passed. But I’ll say it still:

Peace to you, Joel. Peace at last.

7 thoughts on “Last Chance Lost: Remembering Joel P. Smith

  1. Beautifully written. Joel would have thanked you for the honesty and heartfelt admiration in your words. I am sure he felt the same loss for your friendship as you did for his.

  2. Absolutely lucid and compassionate, about a man whom I knew not at all, but am still linked to through Denison. Thank you Keith, for caring and writing such beautiful soliloquy and bringing him to life, again.

  3. Keith
    I was reminiscing about my friendship with Joel as the anniversary of his death nears.
    Your blog triggered an emotional response that I welcomed. Thank you.
    I was Joel’s friend from early 2006 until I drove him home from the hospital after his latest failed attempt to end his life. I knew how desperately he wanted his pain to end, and my final act of friendship was to sit and talk to him in his apartment and agree to his final request that I not make contact for 3 days.
    We were “sober buddies” and he had been alcohol free since his stay at Mayo – almost 9 years. We had a fixed date on our weekly calendars to meet for coffee and talk politics, philosophy, sports and women, and attend two meetings together a week. As you can imagine, he was a star and very popular with everyone who knew him. He spoke eloquently at a speaker meeting that is still remembered by all in attendance as one of the most heartfelt, honest and inspiring 30 minutes. He was a performer at heart. He then taped the speech for me later that week and I treasure it.
    I still miss him. He stayed a steadfast friend despite his overwhelming depression and his hope for a miracle cure that he knew wasn’t going to happen in time.

  4. Re Joel,

    A very perceptive, thoughful, and welcome portrayal of our dear friend, Joel. While visiting Madison and talking with some of Joel’s classmates who were at his service at the First Unitarian Church, I found your posting.

    Joel and I were at the Wisconsin Law School together; practiced law in Minneapolis; enjoyed Fran, Joel, Becky and Jennifer as good friends; met weekly over lunch to discuss our perception of law, lawyering and our mutual decision to go elsewhere — Joel to Denison, myself to Utah. I had an earlier connection with Denison through graduates of the 1950’s — indeed the Denison men’s glee club sang in the living room of my family home and then debauched it! Though distant, we visited Joel at Denison later Madison, and he at Salt Lake City. We had a number of connections with Joel through Beloit including his subsequent marriage to Janie.

    Finally, we shared the friends of Bill W. That affliction and its program was a deeper bond, but one not publicly shared. I was struck by the after comment of Mark Vander Woude. Would you have an email or other contact for him? I would dearly love to share some experiences with Joel and possibly hear the tape he described.

  5. I have no idea why I saved an article written in the opinion section of the LA Times from June 18, 1967. It was written by Joel P Smith and entitled “Students’ View of Society Tempered by War”.
    I always love finding old articles and wondering how the author’s opinion might or might not have changed.

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