jan 28, 2012;
central christian church;
thank you all for coming today.
given that we've heard from so many of my dad's former students and colleagues these past several months, and will be hearing from a few more of them today, if it's all right with you and the other powers that be, I would like to very temporarily simulate the role of a professor up here for a few very short minutes.
depending on how well you knew my dad outside the classroom, this simulation will have a corresponding degree of teaching and learning potential.
however, very much unlike dr. neil mcclelland baird, I am going to cut a few corners, and forgo entirely the introduction, context, references, and conclusion that the following 3 short readings most assuredly deserve.
please interpret them however you wish.
(and don't worry- none of this material will be on the final exam)
this first is an excerpt from franz kafka's unfinished novel the trial, with a few of my own very minor emendations of the classic willa and edwin muir translation.
"...before the offices of the research committee chairperson stands a doorkeeper on gaurd. to this doorkeeper there comes one day, during normal business hours, a man from the country who requests admittance inside. the doorkeeper blandly responds that he cannot admit the man at that moment.
the man, reflecting upon this, asks if he will be allowed, then, to enter later. "it is possible," answers the doorkeeper- "but not at this particular moment."
since the outer door leading into the these offices stands open as usual and the doorkeeper casually steps off to one side, the man leans in slightly to peer as far into the labyrinth as possible.
noticing this, the doorkeeper chuckles and says: "my dear sir, if you are so strongly tempted, go on in without my permission! but please note- my permission or lack thereof is extremely significant. and bear in mind also that I am only the first and least exacting of doorkeepers. from office to office, keepers stand at every door, each one much more powerful and demanding than the one just before. why, sir, only the third of these has an aspect that even I can barely think about without trembling."
these are complications which the man from the country has in no way anticipated- the offices of the research committee chairperson, he thinks, should be accessible to all persons- if not 24/7, then at least during normal business hours- but upon further reflection and closer scrutiny of the doorkeeper himself, he decides it would be best after all to wait until granted official permission.
the doorkeeper gives him a stool and invites him to sit down if he wishes. the man accepts, and proceeds to wait, relatively patiently, for several hours, days, weeks, years, and decades. he makes many clever and desperate attempts to be allowed in and greatly wearies the doorkeeper with his endless entreaties and questions. even so, the doorkeeper occasionally engages the fellow in a little friendly, casual banter, asking about the man's home, family, work, interests, affliliations, and so forth, but always wraps it up the same way- "sorry, sir- can't allow you in as of yet."
the man from the country, who had equipped himself with many provisions for his journey, parts with all he has, however valuable, in the hope of bribing the doorkeeper. the doorkeeper accepts it all, saying, however, as he tosses each gift into the jumbled pile beside him: "sir, I take this only to keep you from feeling that you have left something undone."
during all these long years, the man watches and studies the doorkeeper incessantly. he forgets all about the other chambers and doorkeepers, and fixates on this one particular fellow as the only barrier between himself and the main office of the research committee chairperson. at first he curses and laments his fate aloud, for all to hear, but as the years start piling up, he just starts muttering disjointed things to himself. he turns petulant, on occasion, and since in his protracted wait he has learned to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper's fur collar, he begs the very fleas to help him persuade the doorkeeper to give him the green light.
eventually his sight and hearing begin to grow dim, and he can't tell at first whether the world is really darkening and quieting around him or whether his senses are in fact deceiving or failing him. but in the growing darkness and stillness he can now, for the very first time, perceive a gentle, brilliant radiance glowing from deep inside of the labyrinth. his long life finally begins to draw to a close. before he dies, everything he has experienced over the years coalesces in his mind into a single, simple question he had never thought to ask the doorkeeper before- he motions the doorkeeper down towards himself, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body, and the doorkeeper complies, faintly chuckling, and asks- "what is it this time, sir? my god, you really are insatiable, aren't you?" and the man responds thus- "mr. doorkeeper- as far as I know, everyone, at some point, for whatever reason, requires or wishes consultation with their respective research committee chairperson or persons- why is it, then, that in all of this time, no one has come here seeking entry but me?"
and the doorkeeper, realizing that there are only a few moments left, whispers into his ear- "noone else could gain admittance thru this door, sir, as it was intended for and available only to you."
for those of you so inclined, the characters of the novel then proceed to analyze this short parable for about 65 pages.
ok then, quickly moving on now to walt whitman, a very, very different sort of writer than franz. (and thank heavens for that, I can hear some of you murmuring) I take these lines from the 44th and 45th parts of his well-known early poem song of myself:
"...what is known I strip away-
I launch all men and women forward with me into the Unknown.
the clock indicates the moment-
but what does eternity indicate?
we have thus far exhausted trillions of winters and summers-
there are trillions ahead, and trillions ahead of them.
births have brought us richness and variety,
and other births will bring us more richness and variety.
I do not call one greater and one smaller-
that which fills its period and place is equal to any.
I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinkled systems,
and all I see, multiplied as high as I can cypher, edge but the rim of the farthest-flung systems.
there is no stoppage and never can be any stoppage-
if I, you, and the worlds, and all beneath or upon their surfaces, were this moment reduced back to a pallid float,
it would not avail in the long run-
we should surely bring it up again where we now stand,
and surely go as much farther, and then farther and farther.
a few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic leagues,
do not hazard the span or make it impatient-
they are but parts, anything is but a part.
my rendezvous is appointed, it is certain,
the lord will be there and wait til I come on perfect terms,
the great camerado, the lover true for whom I pine will be there, my friend..."
again, for those of you so inclined, this poem goes on for another 100 pages or so.
the final reading is taken from chuang tzu, the chinese taoist mystic and storyteller of the 4th century b.c.e. these selections are taken mainly from the thomas merton edition.
"...when great nature sighs, we hear the winds, which, noiseless in themselves, awaken voices from other beings, blowing upon or thru or around them. from every opening voices, shouts, laughter, trembling, roaring, rustling, and whispers emerge- have you not heard this rush and conglomeration of tones?
the legendary ancient masters knew no lust for life,
and no dread of death either.
their entrance was without celebration,
and their exit, yonder,
without any resistance.
easy come, easy stay, easy go,
easy come, easy stay, easy go,
on and on, a gentle circuit.
they had no mind to fight tao/god/integrity
nor did they try, by their own contriving,
to help it along.
for them it appears to have been a simple matter of trust.
minds free, thoughts gone,
brows clear, faces serene-
were they cool, you ask?
only as cool as autumn.
were they hot, you ask again?
no hotter than spring.
all that came out of them came quiet,
like the four seasons,
ok. that's all we have time for right now. the bell will be ringing any second.
thank you again for coming today and being a part of my dad's life, for however long or in whatever capacity you were. I think I can speak for him in saying that it was all much appreciated. deeply and sincerely appreciated.
My father, Neil Baird, was a very thorough man. No cantaloupe, watermelon, or potato could be sliced without explicit directions, usually from my mom, on the style, shape, and/or size of the desired cut. On vacation from as early as age 8, he was known to collect all available brochures, handouts and/or “literature” as he called it on the local historical attractions of the area and proceed to map out an itinerary that would be sure to include if not all, as many of these sights as possible. As a teacher, he took a lot of time every semester to make flash cards of his students in order to memorize the names of each and every one. Perhaps being an anatomy/physiology professor in itself represented a thoroughness and a passion for the solid facts and names of the detailed, intricate parts of the human body. Indeed my father, Neil Baird, thrived on order, structure, and clear, solid definition.
It is true he had less of a taste for ambiguity but it is perhaps more important to note his openness and nonjudgment of people. His sense of social responsibility and commitment to his family were rich, and in particular his unwavering amount of support for his very own children was consistent. Throughout my childhood, my father repeatedly encouraged my brother and I in all our activities, to be present and hands on at everything from T-ball games, Indian princess powwows, making French Toast on Sunday, serving as the bucking horse in our rodeo games, attending yet another "Sparkling Spring Greens" performance, another cross country race and so on; I’ll never forget how he sat so patiently beside me as I plunked through my piano lessons as I screamed at him that this particular half note in question was really only 1 count; how we layed on his bed in the evenings with our heads on our pillows telling each other what we did that day, demanding thoroughness with a very detailed hour by hour account; how we sat downstairs in the basement on Riverview and sang along with the entire soundtrack of Yentl with both of us holding out that last note until our faces were red.
My father’s attention and support no doubt had a lasting effect on me: he gave me an acute listening ability, an appreciation for clarity and yes, thoroughness, and somehow taught me to give almost everything and everyone the benefit of the doubt. This very time, encouragement and support from my dad during my childhood instilled a ground for me, whether he ultimately wanted it to or not, to build the framework for an independent life based on the idea that I could do anything I set my mind to. And as the years passed, my father continued to try and understand, often exiting his own comfort zone and world to enter, if only temporarily, his children’s, staying in my brother’s one room efficiency apartment in Chicago basically sleeping on books and watercolors and biking to experimental dance performances while later attending my discordant improvised (very not structured) music series, participating afterwards in the Q and A and asking so wide eyed and sincerely “When do you know when to stop and start?”
My dad’s thoroughness and conscientiousness were cherished by the community, we all know that here, it’s common knowledge, but hear me when I say that his love for his family and specifically his kids often went far beyond his need for order and definition and I thank him and love him so deeply for that.
How lucky I am to have been married to such a wonderful guy for over 45 years. Our journey actually began a few years before our 1966 marriage when we were both biology majors at Millikin. We would never have found each other if it weren't for Millikin. In fact, Neil owed his very existence to Millikin because that is where his parents met.
We were also very fortunate to share for 35 years a common career of biology teaching- a career that we both loved. It was great being able to discuss teaching strategies with Neil even though he taught much more difficult upper division classes than I did. Since I had very little background in human anatomy and physiology, I could always count on him to answer any questions that I or my students might have in that area. Since he had no background in botany, I could occasionally help him in that area when he was teaching a general ed course. Neil was a demanding and conscientious teacher, and he always wanted to make sure the students in his upper division courses were well prepared for courses they would face in their professional schools in medicine, dentistry, veterinary science, physical and occupational therapy, as well as graduate school. He very much wanted his students to succeed, and he was always worried when some of them were not doing well in his courses. He was no slacker. He was always up at 5:30 am reviewing the lecture notes and labs he would be teaching that day, sometimes revising, sometimes adding new material, sometimes preparing visual study aids.
During the 3 weeks Neil was in the hospital, we ran into so many of our former students. In fact, it seems fitting that the nurse who tended to his body in the emergency room was one of his former students.
In our family life, Neil loved being a dad and was a wonderful hands-on father. He always supported his children in any interest or activity they might have and he encouraged them to try new things- even things that he himself was not good at nor particularly interested in.
As an only child from a small family, I was especially happy to have married someone with a big family. Being part of the extended Baird family has been such a joy all these years. Neil was very interested in family history, and he worked hard to make it understandable and accessible to current family members. He and his brother John spent countless hours preparing for the big Baird farm reunion in the summer of 2010.
I always appreciated the fact that Neil was so patient with me- even when I did over the top things- like the year we had six cats thanks to me adopting several strays that showed up in the neighborhood.
Neil was not interested in things. In fact, his thriftiness was legendary among our good friends, and he took a lot of good-natured kidding about it. Although he was thrifty with money, he was not thrifty with his time and he spent many, many hours volunteering after his retirement.
Neil was interested in people and he was interested in ideas. He enjoyed talking to people and he always looked forward to book groups and discussion groups where new ideas were presented. He also had an artistic side that most people were not aware of. He was a life long learner. In retirement he became very interested in Abraham Lincoln. I think one of his favorite days was February 12, 2009, when we went to Springfield for the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth to hear world famous Lincoln scholars discussing their books. He loved books, music, museums, and movies.
This last year was a difficult year for Neil because he could not do most of the activities he loved to do- biking, volunteering, hiking, attending elderhostels, and going to plays and concerts. However, he was able to do a lot of reading. In fact, the night before he died he was reading about Lincoln after he had watched a DVD of Lincoln lectures.
Neil was so kind, so gentle, so tolerant, and always so fair. He was my soul-mate and my best friend. I thank all of you for honoring him by attending this memorial service. Know that he treasured his friendship with each and every one of you.
I am very honored to be able to say a few words at this service honoring the memory of Neil Baird. For more than 30 years, Neil and I were neighbors who lived two doors away on Riverview Avenue and colleagues at Millikin whose offices were two doors away. My children, particularly Jennie, regard Neil and Karen as a second dad and mom.
Neil and I shared a lot in common. We both enjoyed nature, particularly hiking in the woods and biking along the Decatur bike path. We both were scientists who loved to teach, though I chose to teach chemistry and and Neil, biology. My brown bag lunches were often accompanied by odors of formaldehyde and carbolic acid emanating from Neil's anatomy lab. And of course we sported the same hairstyle.
We both gardened. Neil always planted sugar snap peas, tomatoes, and beans. While I would plant three tomato plants, Neil would plant 18 Better Boys (after all, they come in packs of 6). Neil enjoyed eating fresh tomatoes, but he also wanted to grow enough to share with friends. He did pick his beans too big. But he believed that the protein in beans was in the seed and so you picked them for nutritional value and total yield, not taste or tenderness. Just cook them longer was his motto.
Neil was a man of great personal integrity. I think the biblical virtues: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control fit Neil like a pair of good jogging shoes (size 13). I think the various traits of character that I remeber from my scouting years also describe him well: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. I'm sure as I say these words, each of you can remember with a smile, some story about Neil that fits each one.
Trustworthy and loyal: Neil was loyal to individuals but also to communities of which he was a part. I am sure people who were heads of organizations valued Neil's participation because of his diligence in getting things done on time, correctly. During his retirement years, Neil was incredibly active. I marvel at all of the excellent work he did, often behind the scenes. He was active in his church, president of Golden K Kiwanis, volunteer at the Scovill Zoo, participant in the Decatur Chorale, president of the west end neighborhood association as well as its newsletter editor, and of course the Cobb Avenue fourth of July parade. He loved Decatur, and he loved the west end and its people.
Brave, that was Neil too. Neil handled the diagnosis of carcinoid with great courage. He was part of an on-line list serve almost immediately reading about experiences and the latest research that arrived by the droves every day. For fifteen years after the diagnosis, I am willing to bet that few people anywhere in any state of health were as physically active. There were physical inconveniences that he faced every day, but he never complained.
Friendly defined Neil. With Neil you were a friend for life. He not only remembered the names of his childhood friends, he kept in contact with them (without the benefit of Facebook). Conversation was never superficial; he was genuinely interested in both the minutia and the grand experiences of each of us who called him friend. He wanted to share his joys with others. My daughter Jennie, Neil's second daughter, told me that Neil would come and talk with them (the marvelous Sparkling Spring Greens) as they played in the Baird basement, and share his joy of old movies of substance such as Diary of Anne Frank, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Dr. Zhivago. He loved reunions, the Stephen Decatur reunions, the annual Baird family reunions, and reunions of retired Millkin faculty that he organized the last three years of his life. I believe he took up long distance bicycle riding in part because of friendship with Jay Smith, Norm Jensen, Terry Jayroe and many others. He once told me that he would never wear one of those over the top outfits that serious bikers wear. But the last time we saw him on the bike trail, he had one of those outfits on. I think Karen succeeded in getting him to be in fashion once in a while.
Thrifty- need we say more? He was a coupon cutter. I remember meeting the extended Baird family at Culvers, sitting at the booth deciding on what to eat based on what coupons Neil had collected. When Neil and Karen would take vacations, they would alternate their preferred places to spend the night. One night Karen would pick a beautiful bed and breakfast, preferably with cats, and the next night Neil would get his choice- a Motel 6. I don't think Neil ever splurged on himself. All of his cars were hand-me-downs, many times from family. His TV's were ancient. You could barely see the picture, but it still worked as it had when Howdy Doody and Gunsmoke were in prime time. Both Neil and Karen were thrifty but in slightly different ways. Karen would find a bargain and buy 10 to share with friends and neighbors. Neil loved to find a bargain, and then not buy it. Karen told my wife Carol once that if something happened to her, get to the attic before Neil. But Neil knew what was up in the attic, and he was secretly proud of Karen's giving spirit. Neil valued fairness. I remember well the purchase of the new house on Cobb Avenue. What attracted Neil to Cobb was the Baird legacy on that street, but Karen was excited to have a real, modern, spacious kitchen. The real estate sales specialist called the kitchen on Riverview a galley, not a kitchen. Neil was truly remorseful that he had not been more sensitive to Karen's needs as a frequent hostess.
Neil was a Baird. He cared about the rich history of the Baird family. He was not blessed with business savvy, so the annual farm meeting (which is happening again this weekend) was not of interest, except that it was a time to connect with the rest of the Baird family. But Neil fit well into the tradition of the Bairds, a family with incredible accomplishments. Neil was so pleased when his nomination of Barbara Baird as Decatur Public Schools alumnus of the year was accepted enthusiastically. It was as if he was given the award himself. Neil was such a good teacher. Neil's classes were very popular even though they were rigorous and demanding. Neil took a special interest in each student, as he taught and observed him or her in anatomy or histology studies. And he also valued the experienced students' ability to be his assistants. He would give them a gift at the end of the semester. Towards the end of his career, it was always a book written by Millikin English professor, Dan Guillory. I want to read in conclusion three emails that were sent to me by former students. They capture Neil's excellence in the classroom more than I can.
The first is from Dr. Alan Colby, a Decatur dentist:
My studies began at Millikin University approximately 40 light years ago. At that particular time there were quite a few, shall we say, students serious about their grades, as the competition to be accepted into graduate, medical and, dental schools was fierce. The slang name for us was "gunners" and yes, I was one of them. Through some unfortunate chance it seems all of us ended up in Dr. Baird's comparative anatomy class my sophomore year. There had to be 40 students in that class and at the end of the semester Dr. Baird felt compelled to issue 28 A's. For this he was called on the administrative carpet for grade inflation but stood his ground explaining that every one of those grades was deserved. I always admired Dr. Baird for this stand.
The second is from Dr. Scott Jones, class of 1986, now a veterinarian in Northbrook, IL. Scott wrote:
Having professors such as Dr. Baird was a great privilege for me, and helped mold me as not only a student, but as a person as well.
As his student, I realized that he wanted me to not only learn my subjects, but also relate them to my life goals. Once he knew that I desired to enter the veterinary profession, he went out of his way to find ways for me to learn as much about my career as possible. First, he hired me to assist him with some of his student labs. He thought I would be able to retain more of my anatomy lessons if I helped prepare students for dissections. It was an honor to work for him. Then, one afternoon before Christmas break, he came into the lab while I was setting things up with that fantastic smile on his face! He proudly announced that he had procured a sizable shark head! (Where he got it, I still am not completely certain.) He knew I would enjoy researching the intricate shark central nervous system, dissecting the brain and corresponding cranial nerves, and presenting my work to his classes. At first I was not so sure I could handle the task, but with his encouragement, guidance, and enthusiasm, I dove into the task. Now, fish begins to develop an unpleasant odor after a few days, so he informed me I had best finish by week's end. I spent all my free time carefully tracing the nerves from foramen to brain to spinal cord. He would stop by daily to inspect my work, and would tell a joke or two to pass the time. Finally, that Friday, he held a special lab for all his students and allowed me to display and educate. The shark looked great, and I smelled for a week. My roommates wore clothespins on their noses to tease me, but I wore my fish odor with pride. The techniques I leaned that week were the beginning of my surgical abilities which I use every day in my veterinary practice.
Then, probably one of the most memorable things Dr. Baird did for me was far above and beyond his role as an educator. He asked me if I had a lot of experience working for veterinarians, as this was critical in being accepted into veterinary colleges. I had spent much time with large animal vets, but not so much with small animal vets. With that, he promptly contacted his veterinarian at Fairview Hospital for Animals, explained my situation, and orchestrated a mini-internship at the clinic. Then, he ensured that he would mentor my internship so that I might receive college credit for my time spent observing and helping at the veterinary hospital! We would meet weekly for an entire semester to discuss what I had learned; then I would write a final paper, which he would grade and submit for credit. Amazing! I was ecstatic!
Millikin University helped transform me from a shy, small town kid into a confident young man who was well prepared for the challenges ahead. Dr Neil Baird was so very instrumental in my metamorphosis. I am truly saddened to learn that he is no longer with us, but I will always remember him for the kind, witty, caring man who showed great concern in my hopes and dreams.
Finally, Dr. Virginia Dolan, a Springfield physician, wrote this to me:
The first memory that comes to mind is his voice -- I want to say "soft-spoken", but that adjective doesn't describe the clarity of thought and the directness that came with his gentle delivery. He told you precisely what he thought, but even if it wasn't what you wanted to hear, it was delivered with such kindness and lack of judgement that it was easy to accept. As a Millikin alumna and now a parent of a Millikin student, it remains that Millikin's professors are its credo, its legacy. Dr Baird is a major contributor to this legacy.
I cherish Neil's memory. There are a lot of Neil-isms that remain alive. I had a chuckle the other day when I helped Karen clean up files on his computer. Guess how many bookmarks he had on his internet account? (I have 12). Neil had almost 7000. Now that is someone who doesn't want to forget details. I think of the good times playing games on our biannual trips to either Turkey Run or Starved Rock. He especially liked the name game, which required no purchased game but just a few pieces of scrap paper, imagination, and a good memory. I think of his joy for life. One time we looked out of our second story window to find Neil waving enthusiastically (with the special Neil wave) in the tall ash tree; he was retrieving one of Karen's cats. I think of his home movies that really preserved the good times we all shared. I think he particularly liked the performance of Kathy and Jennie singing songs from Annie. Neil Baird: a life well lived. We will all miss him.
I have lost a friend and at my age it's going to be hard to replace him. I'm honored today to be able to talk about my friend and colleague - Neil Baird. Neil was a friend of mine for 41 years. We both came to Millikin University in 1970 to teach in the biology department. Beyond the fact that both our names started with N and that we both taught in the biology department, we, at first, didn't have a lot in common. We were both ABD (all but dissertation) and were both concentrating on finishing up that thesis during the first years of teaching. Neil was able to accomplish that feat and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1971. I finished a year later. During those first few years our offices were on the fourth floor of Scovill Science Building but opposite sides of the hallway. There was a chemist at the other end of the hall but otherwise it was just Neil and me. Since we both liked to confer about things, we were in each others offices a considerable amount of time talking about our experiences in the classroom, about students, about administrative requirements and all of the intrigue and politics that goes on on a college campus. We gradually gained a good deal of respect and comfortableness with each other.
Our first NEW YEAR'S CELEBRATION in Decatur was spent at Neil and Karen's house and the Baird and Jensen families have stayed good friends to this day. We still celebrate NEW YEAR'S together but have expanded our group to include other Millikin friends.
Both Neil and I knew that we had to walk a fine line to obtain the status of TENURE at the end of our 7 years so we made sure we got along with our chairman and other chairmen in the building. There are many good stories about the things we had to do to accomplish this but time today does not allow me to go into them. Eventually we were both successful in this pursuit.
Although our field was biology, Neil and I taught very different courses. Neil was the anatomist- teaching comparative anatomy, developmental anatomy, neuroanatomy, histology. Because some of these courses involved considerable dissection of various lab specimens, Neil would put on his long lab jacket to work in the labs. I recall those jackets were well stained and tattered, having seen many cats and sharks over the years. Part of Neil's requirements for those courses were LAB PRACTICALS in which Neil would take various specimens, cats or small sharks, and quiz the students on their knowledge of the various objects that he thought they should know from their own dissections. Many of these students were pre-med or pre-professional and needed these courses for their future careers. If ever there was anxiety on the part of biology students it was in preparation for Neil's PRACTICALS.
Neil used the dogfish shark for dissection in his comparative anatomy course to show the difference between animals with a cartilaginous skeleton and those with a bony skeleton, usually the cat. The dogfish was smaller, approximately 18" to 30". He was thrilled to be able to obtain the head of a rather large shark from Kroger Grocery. I guess he was going to use it for the greater detail it would show because of its size. Since he was not able to use it immediately, he put the "head" in a plastic container with substantial amounts of formaldehyde as a preservative. I guess Neil forgot about that specimen but it sure created some excitement on the fourth floor of Scovill Science Hall. I came to work one day to find the fourth floor closed off and Decatur firemen dressed in their hazardous duty gear and gas masks moving up and down the hallway. I managed to get up to the floor and opened the door only to be "hit" with a very powerful odor of the strong formaldehyde solution that Neil had used to preserve his shark head. I don't know how long the shark's head had been there and in the solution but evidently the plastic container simply couldn't hold up to the powerful solution and broke allowing the "fumes" to escape onto the fourth floor of Scovill. Needless to say, this was plenty of excitement- especially for Neil who didn't mind a little attention but NOT OF THIS KIND! It took a couple of hours for the building to clear of the smell and as far as I know Neil didn't acquire any more shark heads for dissection!!!!!!!
Neil was an organizer. He would often arrange to go to lunch with colleagues whom he hadn't had a chance to visit with for awhile - just to keep up on what that person was doing. He was also a person who also had to have all the directions before he would move into "new" territory. If he was going someplace he had to know the route, the length of time it would take to get there, etc. He was a detail person!!!!! and could almost drive one crazy with questions. But he was a thinker and logical in his thoughts about a particular subject in which he had an interest. He was also a Doodler. When he got bored in some of our meetings he would start to doodle. He was very creative in his doodles and made some of the best drawings I have seen.
Neil had joined a biology organization called AMCBT - later to become ACUBE (Association of College and University Biology Educators). He had urged me to join after he had been in the organization for a few years but I delayed for a period. Finally I went with him to one of the meetings and found it a very positive and helpful group to be part of. Several years later I was elected president of the group for the coming year. That meant I needed to find someone to be program chair and who, in fact, was the one who really did the work. Who do you suppose I looked to? Yes- my good friend, Neil Baird - who graciously accepted the position. I knew that if Neil was helping - the job would be done well and be done right and he did an excellent job. He never complained, never lost his temper and was a really good colleague to have. Neil was elected president of that same group a few years later and eventually received a life membership before he retired from Millikin.
As sick as Neil was, he remained dedicated to his causes and responsibilities and as Bob Fallstrom wrote in the Decatur Herald & Review - Neil is remembered for his conscientiousness. While Neil was confined to his house, chair, and bed he WORRIED ABOUT
his responsibilities as president of the WENA organization and getting the materials to his vice president. Most of us wouldn't have had that kind of dedication.
When Neil retired from Millikin University in 2005 he joined several of us who had been former runners/joggers and turned to the bicycle for our exercise. Neil bought a new bike and went on most of our bike rides from that time on. Our rides were anywhere from 15 to 40 miles in length. Neil was able to stay with us from the first even though he hadn't been riding like the rest of us. As we rode along Neil would pull up beside one of us and carry on a conversation for sometimes several miles. He loved to have conversation and he could talk about many subjects with a broad background of knowledge. I believe that Neil had accumulated over a thousand miles in 2010. The last date I have recorded where we rode together was the fourth of October 2010.
I could go on for a lot more but I hope but I hope you've gotten the picture of a man who was dedicated to his profession, his family, his colleagues. We have all lost a good friend but all of us are better for having known or associated with Neil Baird.
If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing . . . Love never ends . . . For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away . . . For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
- I Corinthians 13
Often, in our innermost being, we wonder of our relationships . . . "What say you of me?" From the testimonies today, from notes to the family and articles written of which I've been privileged to read, it would be safe to conclude and say of Neil McClelland Baird: all of you have had the highest of regard and counted yourselves fortunate to have him either as a family member, friend, neighbor, colleague, teacher, or co-worker across the wide variety of his interests. As in Jesus' parable of the talents [in Matthew 25: 14-30 and Luke 19: 12-27], we could join the Master in the chorus of his praises, saying to Neil...
"Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little. I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master."
Neil was born May 18, 1943, the first of four children to John and Frances Neumeyer Baird. Most of us already know this- the first born are generally the smartest, the best-looking, the most responsible, and clearly the child with the primary obligation of helping Mom and Dad with their trial-and-error learning of the ways of parenting. Neil carried out that role well. He spent most of his life here in Decatur- graduating from Stephen Decatur High School, then attending and completing his undergraduate work at Millikin University, and then after five years of graduate medical school and Ph.D. work in Minnesota, he returned to Millikin as a member of the faculty and taught there for 35 years years in the Biology Department until his early retirement in 2005. At Millikin another biology major caught his eye, he pursued her, and in 1966 married Karen Lepp. For 46 years they built an exemplary life together, sharing a passion for biology, teaching, and a wide variety of other community service and common interests- especially their two children Matthew and Kathleen. Neil has been dealing with a carcinoid cancer for nearly 16 years and decided to take early retirement- that he might have the opportunity to explore more deeply his many life interests, knowing especially every day for him was an extra gift.
Up until several months ago, he was able to do just that in the most quality of ways. And now, 68 years, 7 months, and 12 days from his birth, a physical death has claimed him.
As the old prophet in Ecclesiastes reflects [3:1 ff]: "For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die. . . (following a litany of fourteen such polarities, he concludes) . . .I know there is nothing better for the human than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live." We can rejoice Neil so effectively was able to find joy, happiness, and success in his living. When death invades our circles of family and friendships, it comes painfully because it is a final separator in terms we understand- talking and listening, laughing and crying, touching and feeling. As hard as it is, this death has happened and it cannot be undone.
So, we the living grieve and we are confronted by many of the BIG questions about the mysteries of life. . .What is life? Who am I? Why am I? Who is God? Is this all there is? to name but a few. I think such questions often find best answers in how others live successfully, what were their meaningful sources and styles. We can even learn from those who were not so effective as well.
One time in a Sunday School class, there was a little boy working really, REALLY hard on a picture he was drawing. The teacher approached him and asked about his rendering. "Tell me about your picture, Billy." "I am drawing a picture of God!" Billy exclaimed. "Oh, that's interesting!" she replied, tentatively, because she was also concerned about being instructionally and theologically "correct." So she continued, "But you know, Billy, God is a spirit and in heaven, so how God actually looks is a mystery." "Oh, don't worry," Billy replied, "when I get done, then everyone will know exactly what God looks like!"
There's a similar story about the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), a dominant figure in the early twentieth century art world. It's mostly distorted squares and angles, lines and shapes, lots of blues and browns- what's called "analytical Cubism" and by most of the rest of us "weird!" At any rate, in 1906 he painted a portrait of the famous American writer Gertrude Stein while she was living in Paris. Stein cherished it. Yet when most people looked at it, they saw no resemblance, exclaiming, "That doesn't look much like Gertrude Stein." Picasso replied, "Oh, don't worry. Some day it will, for you see I have caught 'the essence' of Gertrude Stein; and more and more, this is who she is becoming!"
I absolutely love that phrasing. . ."the essence of. . ." each of us as physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and social beings created by God. Let's take a few moments to reflect upon the "essence" of Neil Baird -- what we might decide to cherish, bind up, and emulate in our journeys yet ahead.
First, I would turn to the writings of the famed American physician and National Book Award author Lewis Thomas (1913-1993) -- best known for his reflective essays on a wide range of topics about life as well as meditative reflections on nature. In such books as The Lives of a Cell and The Medusa and the Snail Thomas calls himself a "Biology Watcher." A couple of his quotes are so apropos to fellow biologist Neil Baird. . .
"It is in our genes to understand the universe if we can, to keep trying even if we cannot, and to be enchanted by the act of learning all the way."
"We pass the word around; we ponder how the case is put by different people, we read the poetry; we meditate over the literature; we play the music; we change our minds, we reach an understanding. Society evolves this way. . ."
Of all the things we can say about Neil, we can easily say he had a passion for learning. In fact, he would be one who would say the more he learned, the more he knew he did not know, and thusly, pursued learning even more. Always curious, always reading, always asking questions of family and friends, always interested, wanting to know more about you and your interests. From an early age, he would get up early just so he'd have some extra time for study and reading. Even during the last week of his illness, he was engrossed in a book on Abraham Lincoln.
Secondly, that curiosity was wide-ranging, especially looking for the spiritual threads in life. . .through books, movies, music, relationships, service and leadership opportunities, home or the classroom, in nature walking or on his bike. In a similar vein, the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia (5:1-25) about the nature of Christian faith, freedom of thought, and living one's life led by the Spirit of God. And the fruits therein, the harvest!- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Of those nine adjectives, in talking with people about Neil or asking people to share memories, it is remarkable how many of those "fruits" were used to describe him, his core values. . .his "essence" if you will.
Third, I would lift up the importance of his relationships with family, friends, students, service clubs, and church. The headline in the Herald & Review article a few weeks ago read "Neil Baird remembered for conscientiousness." He loved family gatherings and their genealogy. He took seriously leadership in the West End Neighborhood Association, and Golden K Kiwanis Club, and the Christian Church in Illinois-Wisconsin Disciples Men's Council, and the Scovill Mobile Zoo, and the Decatur Public Library, and Central Christian Church's Peace and Justice Task Force, and his beloved Millikin University. Neil was conscientious, responsible, dependable- truly a man with a servant's heart rooted in a Great Commandment love of God and neighbor.
Having said all this, one would almost wonder "Was Neil perfect?" And the answer would be, "No! None of us are. The Apostle Paul is correct, 'We only see through the mirror dimly.'" In fact, I think Neil would likely be embarrassed, certainly humbled, by this adulation. But I can easily say, "Neil, more than most, found the 'essence' of what it means to be a human fully alive in God and seeking to grow in one's ability to love God and enjoy God forever." Neil has left us with a significant legacy that has taught us much and can continue to teach us. Truly, how we grow in that ability is through what we share with one another.
I want to close with a very touching reflection shared with me by his brother John, as it is a witness to the divine, healing power of God's love in our midst as well as evidence of the growing edges in our own lives:
One day, several weeks before Neil died, I stopped in the church office to drop off something. This was while Neil was in the hospital. Herb also happened to be in the front office and he inquired how Neil was doing that day. Herb suggested we step out of the office; and he then mentioned to me that Neil and Karen had been having open discussions with each other and him about end of life issues. Herb then counseled me that I might want to have some good talks with Neil myself, about our lives together, about my appreciation for him and the ways I admired him, and about what he meant to me as a brother. Herb said it would be a good thing for both of us.
Neil and I had already had some meaningful conversations with each other, and had exchanged some fond memories of the past. In these last weeks I had also begun a new routine of hugging him when I left. But I think it was that same day that Herb counseled with me that I got a start on moving into the new territory in my conversations with Neil. We had several pleasant discussions that brought smiles to our faces.
Then Neil was back home. During a visit two weeks before he died, Neil told me he had been talking to his daughter, Kathy, telling her some very nice things he thought about me. Neil told me Kathy then asked him, "Did you ever tell that to John?" Well, he supposed he had not. So that day Neil told me these wonderful things. We told each other sincere and appreciative things about the other. That day, when I leaned over his bed to hug him goodbye, he kissed me, and I kissed him back.
Now, I can tell you that had never happened before!! Probably one would say our relationship deepened that day, and I suppose it did, but the practical effect was a lightness and easiness of our being together from then on. Maybe it was the "no unfinished business" thing.
In any case, Neil and I both received counsel, independently of each other and from different sources, to have good talks with each other. It was good advice for which I am grateful. To anyone interested, I commend to you such wisdom.
I thank John for sharing that because- truth be told all of us, we often wait until it is too late to share affirmations with one another. I celebrate Neil was able to do so with so many, especially at the end of his life. But this is also a reminder to us all, we are called to do likewise.
The little boy painting the picture of God could well have been Neil, I don't know. But what I do know is the "essence" of this fine man was a curious student of life, a passionate teacher, a model of servanthood toward God and neighbor. We all give thanks to God for having had the opportunity of knowing him, sharing life together in our varied and divergent spiritual walks, and helping now to bind up such memories in our hearts as we grieve this loss of a loved one and friend.