I found out this week that Garry Rolison died, and I need to write something about him. I don’t think there is anyone who reads this blog that knew him, but I feel the urge to put some words down for my own good, and so that if my kids read this blog after I’m dead and gone, they’ll understand me a little bit better.
I hadn’t been in touch with him for 9 months or so, and I wanted to reach out. I was at European Street Café in Jacksonville Beach and decided to just google his email at Cal State San Marcos instead of digging through my emails. When I typed in “Garry Rolison”, the auto-suggest came up with “Garry Rolison Obituary”. Damn.
Garry had studied under Bill Domhoff at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and was my initial Ph.D. advisor at Arizona State University in 1994; I gravitated to him immediately. I was hoping he would be my dissertation chair, but he eventually left for CSSM and Verna Keith became my chair. We stayed in touch, year after year, even though we didn’t see each other much. The 9 months we had not been in contact was probably the longest stretch we went through, much to my discredit, and it serves as a stark reminder that life is fleeting, and we should move mountains if needed, to stay connected to our people.
I’ll share a few memories and life lessons learned along the way… Garry had not quite a photographic memory, but almost total recall. Another graduate student, Pete Padilla, and I would look up some obscure passage from Weber or Marx and ask Garry if he knew anything about the term/concept. Invariably, Garry would say, “yea, I think in Capital volume 2, in the second chapter, right at the beginning, Marx says something about that concept being blah blah blah…”. Pete and I would walk away shaking our heads- the man was impossible to confound.
Pete and I also helped Garry move once. He was moving from one apartment to another... in July… in Phoenix… and we were conscribed to assist (the joys of being a graduate student). After a few hours we had loaded up the U-Haul with everything except his electric guitar and amp, which had to go in the truck last. We took a break and Garry plugged the guitar in and played for 10-15 minutes or so, classic, standard blues tunes. He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, buttoned up at the neck (again, in July, in Phoenix) and I can still see the sweat dripping from his forehead as he played, somehow impervious to any and all discomfort Pete and I were feeling in the elements. Or… maybe that’s how he dealt with the discomforts.
The semester before I was his head Teaching Assistant, I worked in the same capacity for another wonderful professor, overseeing the 500-person lecture hall Intro to Sociology. The professor was great, and he was really tight on students not having any opportunity to cheat. He had a page of instructions for the students before they could sit for the exam- no hats (because they could write things under the bill), at least one seat between each student, etc. The next semester, when the first exam was approaching in Garry’s class, I asked if he wanted me to disseminate a similar list to students before the exam, and he replied, “No JR. They are in college, not prison.” Since then I have always followed Gary’s lead in this regard.
Garry taught what was probably my favorite course in the Ph.D. program, an independent study called “Theoretical Perspectives on Race and Class”. There was only one other student besides me, Rafael Zapata, and the three of us would meet every three weeks or so to drink beer and have lunch and talk about the 2000-3000 or so pages of reading Garry had assigned 21 days earlier. Heavy duty, stressful, and exhilarating. Having a class where you just sit and drink beer and talk about books sounds nice from afar, but when there are only 2 students, someone is expected to be talking! There is no hiding in the back of the room, hoping someone else has read the material and can answer the questions. Fear of looking foolish can be a huge motivator. As well as the fear of letting down a mentor…
After I finished my coursework, and before I wrote my dissertation, we were required to take two comprehensive area exams. My first was in Sociological Social Psychology, and I failed it the first time through. I learned later that one reason was because I was not seen as committed enough to the program and needed to be taught a lesson, given some perspective- looking back, I don’t disagree with that assessment. But I was devastated and contemplated leaving the program. Garry took me to Long Wongs in Tempe for wings and beer and I told him that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a sociologist. After all, if a potential nurse fails their nursing exam, maybe they shouldn’t be a nurse, right? His words of encouragement weren’t terribly profound, but they mattered: “JR, in track and field, if a hurdler hits one of the hurdles and knocks it over, they don’t just stop running and leave the track. They run harder and faster to get over the remaining hurdles.” Simple. But I’ve used it countless times as advice over the years.
As I mentioned, Garry was a musician, and he steered me towards some musicians/albums I still listen to religiously. The first name that comes to mind is Gil Scott Heron. I was in Garry’s office once and heard “Save the Children” playing over his speakers and enjoyed it, so I asked him about it. I had not even heard “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” at that point, so once he pointed me in that direction, I was hooked. Gil Scott is one of my favorite artists ever, and I thank Garry for the exposure.
Garry once told me that Sly and the Family Stone were the key link between James Brown and pretty much all modern hip hop and R&B, and I find it hard to disagree. I might throw in the work of Lee Scratch Perry and one or two others, but Sly’s influence is undeniable. In the conversation after I failed my comps, he suggested I listen to “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane because, he said, that album had always brought him solace in tough times. Sure enough, it was the only music I listened to as my mom was dying in 2011 and for a few weeks after her death as I mourned. Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions” and Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” will also be forever in my rotation thanks to Garry.
As I reflect on Garry’s life, and his magnanimous influence on mine, I find it slightly difficult to separate his intellectual influence from his personal influence. I attended a job talk by a new hire candidate during Garry’s last year at ASU, and even though I had no say in the hire, I liked the guy. Garry said he was already living in the Phoenix area and was married with young kids, but he was doubtful he would be hired, because he didn’t come from a prestigious enough school. He went on to say that the fellow has a family to support, and it was a shame that the department wouldn’t hire him, even though he was qualified. That sense of humanity stood out in my mind, a trait he displayed in the entirety of our friendship.
The last time I saw Garry was in San Francisco when we roomed together at a conference. I kept him up much later than he wanted, both nights, asking him question after question. At one point we met up with Michael Webber, chair of the sociology department at the University of San Francisco, and former graduate student colleague of Gary’s at UC Santa Cruz. I count that as one of the pleasures of my life, listening to these old friends talk about sociology, race, social class, and ‘back in the day’. As an introduction to Michael, Garry said: “Michael and I spent many hours together at the bar of the Catalyst in Santa Cruz discussing Marx and women. Sometimes we made headway on the Marx…”.
You are missed Garry, rest in peace.