May 8th, 2008


I received word from Cornell recently that my advisor will be retiring at the end of this semester. I was a bit shocked. I mean, yeah, he's been there a long time. But you know how sometimes, somebody seems such an entrenched, critical, indelible part of something, you just can't imagine it without him/her? Brian Earle's role at Cornell is incomprehensibly multifaceted: he teaches his courses, serves as advising coordinator for the department, and works with untold numbers of his own advisees, to name a few examples.

A building without its support columns cannot stand. An arch without its keystone is but a pile of rocks on the ground. Cornell's Department of Communication without Brian Earle? Or even Cornell in general without him? How can life possibly go on?

Okay, so, to be fair, Cornell existed for a long time before Brian came along, and it will surely continue to prosper and thrive without him as well. But he left his mark and set the bar high (for teaching, advising, and everything else he Midas-touched). I imagine it must be similar to the experience of Americans born early during President Franklin Roosevelt's time in office. I have read accounts describing how, when he died, it was difficult for those people to even comprehend the concept of the US without him. He was in office for so long, and it was such a time of prolonged crisis in this country's history, that to many people born in that time, he practically was America. As much a surrogate parent figure as any president in history.

And yes, sure, a university exists on a smaller scale, and getting through college is more of an individual challenge than a massive collective one like the Great Depression or World War II. But the worth of a key player in somebody's life, as measured from that person's point of view, is independent of scale. We draw untold inspiration from our heroes, and when those heroes have a tangible presence in our lives, so much the more.

So I decided it was my solemn duty to e-mail Mr. Earle (he is a lecturer, not a professor) just to say thanks and let him know I appreciated everything he did. And as I subsequently wrote upon further reflection, "I'm sure a lot of people share these kinds of sentiments, but it's not too often somebody sits down and puts 'pen to paper' and lets somebody know (s)he is appreciated. I mean, look at me, it took me almost five years and a prompt like his retirement. Think of all the stories left untold..."

And because such stories deserve to be told, passed along, and etched in history as an inspiration for the rest of us, I am re-publishing here the letter I wrote to Brian Earle, for any and all to see.

Brian Earle, retiring? Impossible!

I'm not sure if my name will ring a bell, given the untold numbers of students whose academic lives you've impacted over the years. But I got word of your impending retirement from a few sources (including the Communication Department mailing), and I couldn't let the occasion pass without touching base after all this time.

See, the thing is, it may not be an exaggeration to say my Cornell career may not have ended in the successful manner in which it did, had you not played such a pivotal and supportive role. I first came to you in early 2001 to find out about the Communication program. Actually, I was originally supposed to be graduating in the spring of 2001. But my time in Engineering hadn't gone quite as originally planned, and after three academic years plus the better part of a year off, I needed to find a new academic home.

Once I had successfully navigated the sometimes perilous (or at the very least, uncertain) waters of ITD and been accepted into A&LS and Communication, I requested you as my advisor; I thought you'd already be way too busy, but you took me on anyway. I also took 301 that fall (2001), and I did my best to provide tech support when your computer/projector setup were being uncooperative during section meetings. Plus we spoke occasionally while I was on shift in the Helen Newman fitness center. Maybe some of this sounds familiar, with any luck...

But anyway, I just wanted to send you a big THANKS! (Bigger than caps lock alone can convey, but that's the best I've got here.) I pretty much kicked ass (academically) and sailed successfully through my final two years, culminating in a very happy May of 2003, after a somewhat uncertain start to my Cornell career six years earlier.

When I met with you that day back in early 2001, trying to figure out a new major (and escape from Engineering), you made me feel extremely welcome, and very encouraged to give it a go in Communication. As instructor for 301, you were -- without a doubt -- among the best teachers on campus. And as busy as I'm sure you always were, your advising really helped me pull through those last two years.

I'm also a long-time friend of Dave Delchamps, and he has told me extensively about some of your extracurriculars, such as hockey and music. I'm impressed. I never knew one guy could be so good at so many things. Well, okay, I'd say Dave is in roughly the same league. You guys rock. But not many people can compare.

Anyway, I just thought I'd add to the indefatigable heap of praise and recognition I'm sure you're receiving as your career draws to a dignified conclusion. If I did what you do, I'd like to know when my work made a positive impact, so here you go. Your efforts on my behalf paid off, and were highly appreciated. More than you can know. And if I could look back in a few decades and feel half as accomplished as you seem, I'd have to be pretty satisfied with things.

Thanks for everything, and enjoy the good times yet to come. No doubt you deserve them all and more.