Legacies and Life Lessons

As academics continue to die from COVID-19, leaving behind shocked and heartbroken colleagues, the deaths are prompting introspection and discussions about what it means to be an educator.

May 15, 2020
 
University of Memphis Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice
Lenard Wells

Lenard Wells had no idea what his department chair at the University of Memphis was thinking when Wells suggested a colleague be considered for a distinguished teaching award.

Unbeknownst to Wells, KB Turner, head of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, had already nominated Wells for the award given to just five faculty members each year.

Turner kept it under wraps when Wells was subsequently selected for the award; it would be a surprise when the winners were formally announced. Wells never got the chance to learn the good news. He died from complications of COVID-19 on March 21, before the announcement was made. He was 69.

The award will now be given to him posthumously.

“That was really painful,” Turner said of the sad turn of events. “That Lenard asked me to write a letter of support for another colleague to receive the award is just one example of his altruism and his concerns for others.”

ACADEMICS LOST TO COVID-19

Previous coverage:

A Deadly Toll in Academe, April 2

A Requiem for Academics, April 15

Even now that coronavirus-related deaths have become commonplace in academe, the death of Lenard Wells was still shocking -- not because people believed him invulnerable to such a lethal and indiscriminate contagion, but because it stole an instructor so loved and admired by students and colleagues.

The University of Memphis is not alone. Members of academic departments at universities across the country are also grieving colleagues lost to the pandemic and coming to terms with the breadth and depth of deaths of Americans over all. As in the general population, more men than women in academe appear to be dying from the disease. Co-workers left behind are taking solace in the sense of community they now feel as a result of their common losses. They’re also embracing the intellectual and emotional legacies of the departed to inform and enhance their own understanding of what it means to be an educator.

Colleagues of Thomas H. Kunz, a renowned Boston University biology professor who died last month, understand all too well the instinct to seek larger meaning and lessons from loss.

Kunz spent more than four decades teaching and inspiring undergraduates. He also made a lasting impression on fellow academics and researchers in his field of mammalogy and mammalian ecology. He died April 13; he was 81.

“He was a terrific educator,” said Fred Wasserman, a longtime friend, colleague and collaborator of Kunz. “He had an absolutely phenomenal ability to work with nature and translate it into more high-tech experiments and study.”

Kunz was considered a leading authority on the biology of bats and was known on campus as the beloved “Bat Man.”

The nickname suited him perfectly -- and not just because of his wide-ranging knowledge of all things bat-related.

“Tom was very special person,” said Wasserman, an associate professor of biology at BU. “He was a superhero to students, as well as colleagues and friends in his field. He just had a way for dealing with students, a real joy and love for working with students.”

Students and colleagues of Brian Axsmith, a biology professor and paleobotanist at the University of South Alabama, said he had similar gifts for engaging with students and getting them excited about learning.

Axsmith died May 4. He was 57.

His influence on students was apparently long lasting.

“I took a few of Dr. Axsmith's classes nearly 10 years ago now, but I still often think about how fun he made it to learn about plants,” said Caitlin Odom, a former student who posted her comments on a GoFundMe account raising funds for Axsmith’s wife and son. “I feel lucky to have known him … [He] made a real impact on my life and I'll never forget him.”

Crime Fighter Turned Life Coach

Lenard Wells was one of KB Turner’s first hires as department chair in 2013. Wells had recently retired as chairman of the Wisconsin Parole Commission after working for 27 years as a police officer in Milwaukee and retiring as a lieutenant. (Friends, acquaintances and former co-workers who knew Wells back then also spoke of him in glowing terms. His death was widely reported by various Milwaukee media, which noted his significant influence as a "law enforcement pioneer.")

In the relatively short time that Wells taught at the University of Memphis, he became a popular member of the criminology department, known and loved for his warm personality and his signature suspenders and ties. Faculty members liked working with him; students looked up to him.

“It’s a great loss to the department, and to me, of not just a colleague but a good friend,” said Turner, who, like Wells, was a longtime police officer before becoming an academic. (Both men earned bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees while working as policemen.) "We were kindred spirits."

Turner said current and former students of Wells's took the news particularly hard.

“As soon as they found out about his death, my phone began to ring nonstop; my email was jammed up. You can’t imagine the impact this had on his students and colleagues,” Turner said.

Turner said Wells was active inside and outside the classroom and even took students to mock crime scenes he created to help them better understand what they read in textbooks. He also regularly treated students to lunch, especially graduate assistants, and would sometimes invite other faculty or department staff members to tag along. His wife, also a retired police officer, often joined them.

Many students saw Wells as part authority figure and part life coach. They sought his counsel and trusted his judgment. Although he officially taught them about crime and punishment, he unofficially schooled them about building careers in criminal justice and integrating their professional and personal goals. He wanted to help them find their life purpose.

Wells was known for always having an open-door policy so students could feel free to come talk with him about classes or anything else on their mind -- and they frequently did.

“He went beyond academics and talked to them a lot about life, how to conduct yourself in life and in the workplace,” Turner said. “He always took time to do that.”

Wells gave students detailed career advice and encouraged them to think not just about what they would be doing in 10 years but in 20 or 40 years, and he helped them chart paths for getting there. He encouraged them to think outside the box and to think big. If he thought a certain job would not be a good fit for a particular student, he’d say so and offer guidance on other career choices.

That’s what happened with Alexsis Brandon, a graduate student who completed a two-year program in criminal justice last week.

Brandon has lived in Memphis her entire life and was planning on staying there after graduation and pursuing jobs in criminal intelligence and crime analysis at local law enforcement agencies, but then Wells intervened.

“‘I’m so proud of you and what you accomplished, but you can do so much more,’” Brandon said Wells told her. He suggested she branch out.

“He said there are places beyond Memphis,” Brandon recalled.

Wells told Brandon about Reneé Hall, chief of the Dallas Police Department, and her impressive and innovative policing methods. Hall is the first woman to ever lead the department; she also happened to be African American, like Brandon. Wells believed Hall would be a perfect role model for Brandon. Brandon applied for a job in Dallas; the process was moving along until the pandemic put everything on hold.

The friendship between Brandon and Wells began in Brandon’s senior year. She was enrolled in two classes taught by Wells during the fall semester of 2017 -- one met on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and the other on Tuesdays and Thursdays -- which meant she saw him every day.

Wells set high academic expectations and expected students to meet it, but he also had a whimsical side. He’d often call on his alter ego, Francois, to deliver a few lines of his lecture with the decidedly upper-crust accent of a dignified and learned man.

“It would crack us up,” Brandon said. “The first time he did it, it completely threw us off.”

Wells's interest in and availability to students made them feel they could talk to him about anything. She regularly went to Wells's office to talk shop, and the conversation would inevitably lead elsewhere.

“We would talk about family, what’s going on in the world,” she said.

As the first in her family to attend college, Brandon was sometimes unsure how to navigate university bureaucracy and manage her courses. Wells nipped in the bud any hint of discouragement she showed.

“It was ‘Don’t give up. Make your family proud.’ ‘You can do this,’” she said of their hours-long talks.

Wells also convinced Brandon to apply to graduate school, and he wrote a recommendation letter supporting her candidacy for the department’s two-year master’s program in criminal justice.

“He was like, ‘Go ahead and do it, it will be good for you.’ So I went ahead and did it,” Brandon said.

Then he encouraged her to get a graduate certificate in geographic information systems, which required applying to the university’s Department of Earth Sciences.

“It was like reapplying for grad school,” she said. Wells happily wrote another recommendation letter for her.

“He wrote two full pages,” Brandon said, laughing. “They had no choice but to admit me.”

Moving On

Wells's funeral was held in Milwaukee on April 11. Memphis colleagues and students watched a livestream of the ceremony, hoping it would give them some sense of closure. But the sight of Wells's sons in suspenders and a tie, speaking proudly about the kind of man and father he was, made everyone miss him even more.

The arbitrariness of the pandemic has led KB Turner and others in higher ed to become philosophical -- and to view their lost colleagues, largely older and more experienced, as templates for teaching and learning.

“You start thinking about all the people you’ve worked work with and how some of them stand out more than others,” he said noting that few stood out over the last 30 years as much as Wells. “If I can receive just a fraction of the accolades he’s been getting from students, I will have felt I’ve done my job.”

The University of Memphis held a virtual commencement May 9. Even though no students or faculty were physically present, Wells’s absence was sorely felt. He had been looking forward to an in-person ceremony before the pandemic forced the university to change plans. He told Brandon he couldn’t wait to see her walk across the stage and accept her degree.

“He was one of the driving forces for me to stay in grad school,” she said. “Oh my gosh, calling him a wonderful person is an understatement. He was like my grandfather. But the thing about Dr. Wells is that he was an older mentor to everyone. A lot of students valued his opinions.”

After the virtual ceremony, Brandon got together with three classmates and two alumni, all from the graduate program in criminal justice, to celebrate Wells. He had encouraged them to study together and support each other as African American women. He believed the program and the field needed more of them.

“We reminisced about Dr. Wells, and we all cried,” Brandon said. “He was that big in our lives. We celebrated our graduation for him."

“Everyone should have a Dr. Wells in their lives.”

Researching Bats From Boston to Ecuador

Students who’d taken courses or gone on research trips with BU’s Bat Man voiced similar affection for Thomas Kunz (right). People were as impressed with his scholarly knowledge of bats as they were amused by his love of them. He thought bats were unfairly maligned and misunderstood; he found them cute.

“It’s easy to fall in love with them,” he once told The Boston Globe. “They’re beautiful little creatures.”

Kunz remained popular even as an emeritus professor who had not taught in eight years. His death elicited an outpouring of accolades and heartfelt appreciations not just from students and colleagues, but also from fellow biologists, other scientists and academics in unrelated fields.

A tribute to Kunz posted on the website of a research fund established in his honor last year by his former students described him as one of the university’s “most productive and highly regarded scientists.”

He was “an enthusiastic proponent for bats and science in the public arena, and an exceptional mentor to dozens of graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and junior faculty,” according to the Thomas H. Kunz Fund in Biology.

Kunz, who was director of BU's Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology, or bat lab, was also a prolific writer and researcher. He wrote or co-authored more than 280 peer-reviewed papers on every aspect of bat life, according to BU, and was named a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor, the college's highest faculty honor, in 2011.

"Tom was much more than a tally of publications and awards, however," Douglas A. Kelt, president of the American Society of Mammalogists, wrote in a tribute posted on the organization's website. "If you never had the opportunity to know Tom Kunz, I am sorry. If you did, you will understand what I mean when I refer to him as a disarmingly gentle, kind, and caring person … He reached out to many young scientists and -- perhaps unknowingly -- reaffirmed and fanned their passions over science and over being a scientist."

Although Kunz was a leading expert on white nose syndrome, a virus that caused a major die-off of North American bats, he was in the process of establishing a new field of study that he coined aeroecology when his career was cut short after he was struck by a car in 2011 and left incapacitated​. Kunz had given a major lecture at BU on aeroecology, which encompassed the ecosystem of the atmosphere inhabited by bats, earlier that year. He was attending the Annual Symposium on Bat Research in Toronto when he was struck by the car while crossing a street. He was 73 at the time and still considered to be in the prime of his career.

“Not many people are still successfully doing new research at that age, but Tom was,” Wasserman said.

“He was absolutely at the top of his game,” Mike Sorenson, who chaired the BU department of biology when the accident happened, told The Boston Globe. “He was probably the most productive member of the BU faculty at the time, working as hard as he could as he always did.”

Wasserman noted that Kunz was collaborating with researchers in BU’s engineering department before the accident and was still very well connected. His research was also well funded, so much so that he established a field station in the Amazon rain forest in the mountains of Quito, Ecuador, where he traveled with students and colleagues every year to study bats.

“It was a beautiful little place. To get there you had to take airplane ride, than travel two and half hours by canoe over a river, and then by bus through an indigenous town, and then take another ride on a river float over another river,” Wasserman recalled. “He was just in heaven in that place trapping bats. Going down there with him was very special and wonderful.”

Wasserman joined the biology department in 1977, six years after Kunz, and they built an enduring friendship that lasted until Kunz's death. They co-published six or seven papers over the years.

"It was always an equal arrangement," Wasserman said. "He liked working with other people, and he was always very generous with his lab and his resources."

That did not change when Kuntz was made chairman of the department.

"He always had an open-door policy and had the best interest of the department in mind," Wasserman said. "He wasn’t dogmatic -- he would solicit the ideas of others and was very helpful to colleagues."

Wasserman will remember Kunz as a naturalist who never lost his human touch, someone who loved hosting gatherings at his home for graduate students and faculty members and taking ecology students on field trips to a camp in New Hampshire owned by BU "to go skeet hunting," as he liked to joke.

"More than anything else, he was a good friend and a good person."

‘Majoring in Axsmith’

Brian Axsmith (left) worked at the University of South Alabama for nearly 21 years. Although the university is not well-known outside of the state, Axsmith was celebrated and respected for his expertise and research on contemporary plant fossils and was doing "cutting-edge research in a number of areas that have never been explored," said Tim Sherman, chair of the biology department.

Sherman described Axsmith as a "dear friend" and a "very accessible and very caring" professor who was able to infuse his students with excitement and curiosity about studying plant remains as a means to understanding past environments, among other things.

“COVID has taken not just a wonderful human being, but a brilliant paleobotanist and a professor who inspired students,” Blair Scott posted on the GoFundMe page for Axsmith. “I have plenty of great memories of Brian, but the one that really stands out is hunting for plant fossils with him and discovering a full fossilized seed and how giddy and childlike he was at finding it.”

Axsmith was also a gifted extemporaneous speaker.

"His lectures were very dynamic," Sherman said. "He spoke without notes or a script -- he freestyled it."

Some students were so taken by Axsmith's lectures and teaching style that they took every course he taught.

"There were people that majored in Axsmith," Sherman said.

Kevin Cain, a former student, said he appreciated Axsmith's passion.

"He was a great professor. I only had him for a single class, but it was great," Cain wrote on the GoFundMe page. "I will never forget that Paleo-botany class. It was hard for me, because plants are just super complicated, but he made the class really fun and I never felt like I wanted to skip his class or slack off."

Axsmith's colleagues appreciated his easygoing personality and that he never seemed to mind accommodating others or helping out the department when there was a need.

"If you said, 'Brian, would you mind changing your class schedule to a different time?' He'd say, 'No problem.' 'Can you advise transfer students?' 'Sure thing,'" Sherman said. "It was his nature to be very giving."

That generosity was also reflected in his community outreach work and talks he held for laypeople. He also took students on an annual field trip to the forests of Alabama to explore fossil history.

Sherman said Axsmith had a manner of speaking that made people feel at ease, and a wry sense of humor.

"It’s hard for me to believe that he has gone," Sherman wrote on the university's Facebook page the day after Axsmith died. "Truly a loss for our department, the college and the university."

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