Writing about grief yesterday reminded me, rather emotionally of the first time grief really hit me—and hit me hard. I couldn’t believe it, and, like so many you see on television, I just shouted, “No. No. No!” Sadly, it was true, Dr. Ben Kimpel was dead. Ben Kimpel was my friend. Having never met me, he invited me to come to the University of Arkansas to study for a PhD. over the phone while I was still in Los Angeles, having just received my Master’s in English, graduating with high honors. The fact that he would take the time to call me was enough for me. I accepted (along with a full scholarship) and we moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, from Los Angeles, California. There was a bit of culture shock involved, but we recovered and loved Arkansas.
Dr. Kimpel was my professor for several courses, had agreed to be my dissertation director, and insisted on reading all the papers I had written for my Master’s Degree (unheard of in higher education). He was also my friend and we had many lunches together on campus and dinner at dinner parties at his house and at the house of his good friend and mine, Dr. Duncan Eaves. In class, he treated me much more as a colleague than as a student. The smartest man I have ever known, he used to correct the footnotes at the bottom of the pages of the text books. He graduated from high school at the age of fourteen and enrolled at Harvard in 1931. He got a B.A. in English there, as well as a Master’s in English. In his spare time, he attended Harvard Law School before getting his PhD. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He got his doctorate in 1942 and enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army, although he could have tried for a commission. After serving honorably, after the war he was invited to serve in the State Department under President Harry Truman which he did from 1946 to 1950. At this time, he was just 35 years old but had three degrees (two from Harvard), had studied law at Harvard, had a PhD. in English, served as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army for four years and then served in the State Department for four more years. Did I mention that he was not only the smartest man I ever knew, he was also one of the kindest.
I worried about him all the time because he weighed around 300 pounds and smoked incessantly. He spoke French, Russian, Italian, German, Greek, and Chinese fluently and had a reading and writing knowledge of several other ancient and esoteric languages. Dr. Kimpel loved flowers and designed and contributed to the flowers planted around the town square in Fayetteville. He was also an aficionado and collector of cloisonne and had a beautiful collection. I was sublimely happy studying English with this wonderful, intelligent, gifted, artistic, and close friend who loved my work. It all came crashing down in April of 1983, when Ben Kimpel became the first person closely connected to me to die (no close relatives or close friends had died up till then). When his body was found, he was sitting in his favorite armchair, preparing for his usual evening conference with Duncan Eaves, a volume of Ezra Pound’s Cantos in his lap, a Chinese dictionary on the table beside him, and an unlit cigarette in his hand. I was crushed and went into a deep depression which only improved through my attempts to help his good friend Dr. Duncan Eaves deal with his grief. The quote above was one of my favorite’s of his because he believed if we knew enough, we wouldn’t want to go to war and kill each other. He thought that if we knew the effects of pure evil it would drive us straight into the arms of peace and love. He died still believing that.
In his will, he left me all his books, and when we left for Africa, I gave them to the English Department. I will never forget him, nor will I ever stop trying to learn more. I am still reading almost twenty books a month or more and watching every historical documentary I can find. I learn new things every day, including today watching a new series called The Good Karma Hospital about medical work in India for the poor. I am learning how much things there in rural India are like things here in rural Tanzania, and why our work is still so important. When Dr. Kimpel learned—not long before his death—that I was planning lifelong service to the church, he was proud of me and told me that it was the highest calling man could know. I hope he is proud of me now.