EULOGY FOR MAUREEN BLYLER
Timothy J. Dowd
September 10, 2002
I vividly recall when I first encountered Maureen Blyler. Maureen was one of nearly a hundred applicants to our doctoral program in sociology. As Director of Graduate Admissions, I had the task of inviting our top candidates to Emory for a weekend of events – a weekend that included an important dinner gathering wherein all the candidates and faculty members could meet and talk. I called Maureen to invite her to these events. There, in our very first conversation, Maureen said that she would be happy to attend most of our events, though she didn’t seem particularly impressed to be invited. In fact, I had the distinct impression that she expected to be among our top candidates. Then, Maureen told me that she would be unable to attend the dinner. When I asked her why she would be absent from this important gathering, she replied that she had tickets to see “Riverdance” and did not want to miss this performance. I was stunned – never had anyone missed the dinner for such a reason. I recall thinking, “Who is this woman?”
In the years that followed our first conversation, I would find answers to my original question. I would get a glimpse of who this woman – Maureen Blyler – was. While she pursued her doctorate at Emory, I had the pleasure of serving as her advisor, as her dissertation committee chair, and as her collaborator. I also had the privilege of joining the ranks of those who call her “friend.” I should add that in subsequent years, Maureen helped me organize the weekend events for the year’s top applicants to our program. Maureen would later admit embarrassment for missing that Sunday dinner, as she was a stickler for protocol. However, she typically blamed her absence on me; apparently I didn’t convey the importance of the dinner that she skipped for a night of “Riverdance.”
The years have passed quickly – too quickly – since my first conversation with Maureen. Today, I find myself delivering her eulogy. This is a difficult task for many reasons, including most notably the sorrow that I feel. It is also a difficult task because any words that I offer will not do justice to the Maureen that I know and the Maureen that others know. She means so much more to people than I can ever say. Finally, this is a difficult task because I have so many memories of which to speak. Over the past week, as I’ve thought about Maureen, I find that one memory spills into many. As a result, I’ve come to think of my memories of Maureen as a tapestry, where individual memories are interwoven with a multitude of others. Today, then, I want to share with you but three threads in my tapestry of memories; these threads are phrases that Maureen said to me. Of course, these threads – these phrases – do not capture all that Maureen was, but they do evoke the Maureen that I know. I hope that they evoke the Maureen that each of you knows.
The first thread –
the first phrase – still rings in my ears. In the numerous meetings
that we had, Maureen would typically call me by my initials: “Hi
TD – here I am.” She almost always uttered this phrase as
she burst into my office, dropped her materials on the floor, and then
plopped into the chair across from me. It didn’t take me long
to realize what she meant with that greeting. On the one hand, Maureen
was announcing that she wanted to get down to business: Here I am, let’s
go to work so I can earn my PhD and move on! While I won’t bore
you with the details of our work-related conversations, let me just
say that sometimes I talked at Maureen – telling her
what she needed to do as a graduate student. Sometimes, she talked at
me – telling me what I needed to do as her advisor and chair.
But mostly, Maureen and I talked with each other – discussing
how she could negotiate the doctoral program and how we both
could be successful in sociology.
The second thread involves a phrase that Maureen only occasionally used. Every now and then, while we were discussing her progress in the program and her research, Maureen would lament, “This is so hard.” Following this phrase, Maureen would discuss with me whether she had the abilities to succeed in academia. I was stunned when I first heard Maureen talk this way. After all, I didn’t expect such doubts from a woman who exuded confidence and drive. Moreover, I didn’t expect these doubts from someone as gifted and accomplished as Maureen. I always responded by assuring her that “Yes, you are more than able to succeed; in fact, you can be a star.” It would be at that point that she would glare at me. When I asked her why, she would say, “You’re my advisor, you’re supposed to say nice things to me!”
Though I never convinced Maureen with my words, I had the pleasure of watching her erase her own doubts. Two occasions come to mind. First, Maureen and I were invited to present our research at a conference at Northwestern University. This conference had professors and graduate students from some of the top sociology departments and business schools in the U.S. While we were at the conference, I watched as Maureen repeatedly offered insightful comments and pointed critiques. In fact, one of the professors from another institution turned to me, pointed at Maureen, and said, “She is good!” After seeing first hand those from prestigious settings, Maureen later told me, “I can do this – I can keep up with those people.” The second occasion happened only recently. Maureen was awarded a prestigious dissertation fellowship from the National Science Foundation. Although first-time applicants often do not secure one of these fellowships, Maureen did. In winning this grant, I believe that I saw the last of her doubts erased, for now she knew that others thought highly of her – not just her advisor who is supposed to say nice things. Thus, when I remember Maureen uttering this second phrase, I also remember that she rose above her doubts and reaped the success that she deserved.
The final thread that I mention today involves a phrase that I heard Maureen repeatedly use. Indeed, she used it so often that I’ve heard others adopt it. During meetings in my office or while socializing in more pleasant settings, Maureen would often proclaim, “It’s all about me.” She would do so with a laugh and a shrug of her shoulders. I was stunned the first time I heard her say this (in case you didn’t notice, Maureen often stunned me). I have never seen a person so good naturedly declare that she is self-centered. Of course, I soon came to the conclusion that Maureen wasn’t self-centered; instead, I saw that she was – for lack of a better phrase – a “centered self.” What do I mean by that? Well, she had high standards for herself and others. She wanted to be the best that she could be in all domains, and she wanted to help others be their best as well. Put another way, Maureen wanted to have an impact.
Let me give but one example – arguably not the best example, but a simple one that follows from my thread. Maureen often read the research pieces that I prepared for publication. Although she didn’t have to do so, Maureen was interested in giving comments that could improve my research. I found that oftentimes she didn’t completely agree with the positions that I held. We argued a bit, but we mostly agreed to disagree. Then recently, I gave her a piece that was nearing completion – a piece that I especially liked and hoped that she would as well. I was pleased when I heard her praise the paper. Then after talking about all that she liked, I can still hear Maureen saying this: “I like to think that my conversations with you made this such a good paper.” And you know, her conversations did. This simple example, shows that in the course of improving herself, Maureen also helped me improve myself. So when I recall her saying, “It’s all about me,” I thus ponder all those people upon which Maureen had an impact – an impact that followed from her drive to be successful as a scholar, an activist, a friend, and a loved one.
If I was clever, I could offer a poem or song lyric that encapsulates my feelings for Maureen. If I was wise, I could provide words that are soothing and comforting. But today, I feel neither clever nor wise. Like most of you, I am struggling with what has happened. I have pain, sorrow, anger, and questions that I fear will never be answered. Like some of you, I am turning to my faith to deal with these struggles. I am straining to hear that still, small voice that doesn’t prevent tragedies but speaks in the midst of them.
Being neither clever nor wise, then, I close today by returning to my tapestry of memories, as I find some solace and inspiration in the things that Maureen said to me. “It’s all about me,” she would say. I will strive to live my life in a manner that Maureen lived hers – expecting the best from myself and giving my best to others. “This is so hard,” she would say. I will realize that my struggles and doubts will not easily go away. Yet as Maureen embraced her struggles and doubts, I too will embrace mine. Indeed, I will treat the pain and sorrow as a testimony to Maureen – they are the treasured benefits that I have gained from knowing her. “Hi TD – Here I am,” she would say. I will be attuned to signs of Maureen, watching for those things that were near and dear to her, and anticipating the day when I will see her again and hear her greeting. I thank God that she burst into my office and into my life.