I’ve been moving through today slowly. I learned yesterday—first through Twitter, and then through several emails—that Greg Colomb, the Director of UVA’s Writing Program, passed away in his sleep. Judging by the reactions of friends in Charlottesville, this news was sudden and shocking. Several wrote on Facebook of meeting with Greg only days ago. They wrote that he was in those meetings his typical, jovial self. I was certainly surprised. I met Greg for coffee when I was in Charlottesville this summer. We spoke on the phone only a few weeks ago, planning a panel we were supposed to present together at CCCC this March. In those meetings he was full of life, full of energy, full of ideas. He was, in other words, Greg.
I felt Greg’s loss in my classes today, as I discussed my students’ use of evidence in their first “Intro to Lit” papers. Greg modeled how to make writing matter to students. He couldn’t discuss, say, characters and actions in sentences without a smile and a perfectly-apt anecdote, and students responded to his enthusiasm by writing, critiquing, and revising with gusto. I know I’ll never hold a room’s attention the way he could; I can only hope to carry some of his energy to new audiences. In every one of my classes, whether they focus on writing or literature, my teaching follows Greg’s model.
As the Director of UVA’s Writing Programs, Greg came into contact with every Ph.D. student in the English Department. We all taught composition regularly, and so we all worked for Greg. Those of us who got more involved—directing the Writing Center, developing the college’s digital writing curriculum, or mentoring new writing instructors—spent as much time with Greg as we did with our dissertation advisors. Greg knew that he had a special connection with the grad students; he was the only faculty member who regularly dropped into the grad student lounge to talk about our classes (or anything else). Greg genuinely wanted to make sure we were doing okay, not just as scholars but as teachers, and as people.
Though he was pulled in so many directions—his administrative duties, his consulting jobs, his own courses—he was generous with his time and his talents. When I went on the job market, Greg read every document I wrote before I sent it out. When I was offered a job—the one Greg first encouraged me to apply for—Greg volunteered to read each chapter of my dissertation—though he was not on my committee—to ensure I could graduate on time. When I moved and started that new job, I could always call Greg and talk through issues I was facing. In the past few months alone Greg and I exchanged emails in which he helped me strategize for an upcoming faculty workshop, shared an extensive stash of student papers he’s accumulated for in-class demonstrations, and promised with characteristic humor and generosity to help me run a review of our writing program: “for you I’ll work cheap—whatever you can sell to your dean” and “I’m not afraid of a Wisconsin winter.” Greg was, in other words, a true mentor—someone you could rely on for clear, practical, useful advice.
One of my colleagues at St. Norbert is a fellow UVA Ph.D. She graduated ten years before I did, but her memories of Greg are very similar to mine. As we reminisced about Greg yesterday, she said that what she most loved about Greg was that, when you talked with him, he was really there with you in that moment. He was, she said, “unaffected” in a way few academics are. Greg was the most joyful and affirming academic I’ve known. He reveled in his life. He had a story for every occasion, and when he told those stories he came alive—he was animated and charming and more than a little cocky. Last year Greg visited Green Bay, and my colleague and I took him to dinner. We’re both glad, we agreed, that one of our last memories of Greg will be of that night. He spun his stories and joked with the wait staff, and we didn’t leave the restaurant until they (politely) kicked us out to close. It’s good today to remember Greg’s stories—to remember that he lived a full life, which makes his sudden passing feel a little less tragic for him, though perhaps not for those he left behind.
On Facebook yesterday, many of Greg’s current and former students said something like, “I wish I could have told him how much he taught me.” I do too. But this evening I’ll be discussing style with my writing center tutors, and Greg will be there. And Greg will be there whenever I talk about writing with students or colleagues in the future. That’s the best I can do. Thanks for everything, Greg. Safe travels.