Eulogy for David Reyes

Delivered at David Reyes' Funeral (10/7/2014)

by Ruben Quintero

In the Old Testament, in the Book of Job, Job has lost of all of his children and all of his livestock, his family and his wealth, all within a single day. In anguish, he tears his mantle and shaves his head and says: “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, / and naked shall I go back there. / The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; / blessed be the name of the LORD!”

With such pious resignation as that of Job, we struggle to accept that the Lord has taken away David.

We were blessed with his person and now must mourn his sudden loss. He was a good man – generous, caring, responsible, giving, always true to his word. His life, as he chose to live it, with noble purpose, merits superlatives, for he was exceptional to each of us, either as a son, a brother, an uncle, a nephew, a cousin, a friend, a colleague, a student, or a teacher.

I first met David twenty-one years ago at Cal State L.A., as one of his instructors. David was an outstanding graduate student, earning straight A’s in all of his classes. In 1994, he began teaching composition to freshman students as a Teaching Associate in the English Graduate Program. Two years later, in 1996, after graduating with his Master’s degree in English, he would become a Lecturer for the English Department and teach at Cal State L.A. for the next twenty years. He was one of our most dedicated teachers and the best of colleagues.

David and I traveled a similar path of intellectual interests. My first degree was in Philosophy and so was David’s, for he had graduated in 1991, with a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy while at Cal Poly Pomona. We both shifted our direction and subsequently pursued degrees in English. Why? I, for one, had discovered that in the English major not only could one explore matters of philosophy but also, more broadly, those complex mysteries of our human nature that are represented in literature across the ages. I believe that David must have felt this same attraction to the literary arts and to the sensitive exploration of the many nuances of language made possible by studying English.

This last weekend I read through his Master’s thesis, entitled “The Coyote Stories in Mary Austin’s The Basket Woman: A Book of Indian Tales for Children: An Ethnocritical Approach.” I wanted to hear his voice and see his mind thinking again. I wanted to confirm again that he possessed that same love of language and literature that had pulled me away from Philosophy as a field of study – and I was not disappointed.

Mary Austin, the author who published The Basket Woman in 1904, left Illinois to homestead with her brother in the Fort Tejon region of Central California in 1888. There, David writes, “she discovered the numerous cultures that had inhabited the west’s arid lands for hundreds of years before the coming of the Americans. Chief among these were the indigenous tribes of eastern California – the Paiute and Shoshone Indians. In listening to their tales, which had been passed orally from one generation to the next, Austin encountered many characters, but few could match Coyote the trickster for his range of memorable deeds. At once a creator and destroyer, benefactor and villain, family member and vagabond, Coyote presents an intriguing paradox for audiences of all ages” (iv).

David sees in Austin’s Coyote trickster stories, which were based on spoken native-American narratives, “…’a set of ethics’ by which people can guide their own lives” (40). He was interested in those exemplary native-American tales that “would help us [as either listeners or readers] to find ‘life’s splendor’” (51). And, it is clear in his thesis that David valued the personal journey that led Austin to Central California and to learning the native-American stories she wrote about. Austin’s example seems to have awakened his own appreciation of life’s splendor. David remarks: “She found the arid land ‘enchanting,’ ‘magic,’ and alive, in a way the quickly urbanized Midwest never had been; she suddenly found herself ‘spellbound in an effort not to miss any animal behavior, any bird-marking, any weather signal, any signature of tree or flower’” (56). What David sees in Austin’s literary efforts at conservation and restoration he extends to his personal life.

It is not a coincidence that David was a proud member of the National Audubon Society, which is devoted to conserving and restoring “natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity.” Indeed, the passion that one recognizes in the subject of David’s thesis continued for him in his lifelong pursuits. As his close friends and longtime colleagues at Cal State L.A. have all remarked, David loved birding and was an avid birdwatcher. As was the case with Mary Austin, he too became “spellbound in an effort not to miss any animal behavior, any bird-marking, any weather signal, any signature of tree or flower.”

This love of nature, of plants and animals, of landscape, and of native-American culture comes through in reading his sophisticated literary analysis of Austin’s short stories. His five-chapter thesis, of more than a hundred pages, is thoroughly insightful and exceptionally well written. The quality of his work reaffirms my original opinion and that of his other instructors at Cal State L.A. that David could have easily pursued a doctorate.

That David could have traveled in a different academic direction – and did not – tells us a lot about David. The great Samuel Johnson told his biographer, Boswell, that no man ought to do all he can do. There is no doubt for me that David could have earned a Ph.D., but he deliberately chose not to do so. He chose to continue teaching at Cal State L.A. as a Lecturer. That was his calling. And English instructors at Cal State L.A know full well how demanding, physically and financially, serving as a lecturer for two decades can be.

David had found his niche in teaching composition and settled into to it. For David, teaching was an avocation, not just a job. His love of teaching and his love of students were his linchpins all of these years. So, David, himself a student who never missed classes, was never late with his papers or unprepared with his assignments, and was an excellent writer and insightful reader, challenged himself by teaching underskilled students in pre-collegiate courses.

David’s passing is the second of the English Department’s shocking losses in just over three months time. Our advisement secretary of some thirty-one years, Terry Flores, David’s close friend, recently passed away. She too was a lover of nature and would talk with David in her office for hours about everything. They both were fans of baseball and of the Dodgers. Terry, as with David, loved helping students. One way she helped graduate students was by editing and publishing a department newsletter designed for graduate student readers – called The Owl. On the completion of their graduate program, she would give an opportunity to all graduate students to contribute a farewell message to the department. Keen on truthfulness in The Owl, Terry never allowed faculty to see what graduate students would write about them, so that students could say what they wanted.

In the Summer 1996 issue of The Owl, David shows us his wit, as he writes: “I’ve always hated those Academy Award winners who make sure they thank all the people possible for their Oscar, faithfully reciting an endless litany that includes everyone from the President of the Academy to their gardener. Now, at the completion of my graduate program here at Cal State L.A., I find myself in much the same situation, with a million people to thank for any semblance of success I’ve enjoyed, so if you really want to hear about it, as Holden Caulfield would say, bear with me, and I promise that I won’t bore you with my whole autobiography or anything.” True to his word, David seems to thank everybody in the department.

His greatest debt may have been to our department secretaries, David confesses: “How could I ever begin to thank the Big Three – yes, that’s right, Terry, Jeanne, and Yolanda – for all their understanding and academic guidance. I’m not a paperwork person at all, and were it not for their help, I’m sure I’d still be filling out the admissions application. They made sure I knew what had to be filled out, which form went to what office, and when it was due (including this letter!); you have my deepest gratitude.”

I would like to close here with reflections from English Department friends of many years.

Andrew Montana, an early friend and later a teaching colleague, writes: He “Loved political history - Even as boys at Toys R Us, we would have political discussions”; he had a “Great sense of humor – David and I had differing views regarding climate change, and he good-naturedly teased me about it. He once loaned me his copy of An Inconvenient Truth to show in class. When I opened the DVD cover, there was a letter from Mitt Romney thanking me for my support. I burst out laughing in class”; “The man was a baseball almanac - He absolutely loved the sport”; and he was a “Mentor to all - When we reconnected at CSULA, David immediately took me under his wing and helped with all facets regarding composition.”

Margaret Hart, who studied as a graduate student and taught alongside David in the English Department for 21 years, writes, “For many years, our offices [were] side by side in the English Department. We both enjoyed teaching Basic Writing courses to students entering the university.

“He was extremely dedicated to teaching and displayed infinite patience with both the people on his class roster and the people in his department. He spent many hours holding individual conferences with students so that he could give them personal attention, which was often the key to helping them over the hurdles that had prevented them from succeeding in a course. He devoted enormous amounts of time just to listening, to students and colleagues. He knew they needed to be heard.

“He was generous in sharing his knowledge and could give good information on practical matters outside the limits of academia….

“He was probably the most entertaining person in the English Department. His impersonations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and others kept me laughing for hours. He loved a bargain. He delighted in the great buys he had made at book sales. One time he gave me a paperback dictionary he had purchased for 50 cents, because he noticed mine was falling apart….

“Yet he had the guise of an ordinary man, not one to call a lot of attention to himself.  It may be the lasting imprint he leaves will be more memorable because he flew below the radar. While he was here, students, faculty and staff members may not have fully comprehended what he was doing because he was low-key about it. You could even call what he did a magic trick or a sleight of hand, but that would not do him justice because there was nothing of the charlatan about him.”

Judy Kendall told me that he talked in detail for hours about films, such as one of his favorites, “The Road to Perdition,” with Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. He thought that the baseball great Stan Musial was not so great because, unlike other great players, he had not served in World War II. He went birding annually to register visually the changes in the bird population and behavior. In short, he could and would talk about anything in great and accurate detail.

Sue Rosvall, another longtime officemate and member of the “end of the hall” crowd who loved him dearly, writes: “David worked quietly to teach and mentor his students without an ounce of self-aggrandizement. Both his students and I myself learned from his avid interest in books and his ability to bring technology into the classroom. He was always updating his course materials, keeping his course themes fresh and relevant. David went way beyond what was required in helping his students, not only with their writing skills, but also with the broader skills and attitudes that they needed for success in college.”

Lastly, Dr. Martin Huld offers this wonderful insight into David’s character: “One of the most interesting facts to emerge after David’s death was the great number of best friends that David had. This multiplicity of best friends is not a sign that David’s friendship was a slight commodity, a thing lightly given. Rather it is a reflection of the fact that David, who could easily and knowingly speak of the Dodgers, ornithology, history, paleontology, and a host of other topics and ideas with insight and depth, lived a life marked by and exulting in the diversity of the world and its contents, physical or conceptual, past or present, geological or biological, literary or athletic.”

Let us hail, David, and now say farewell to an extraordinary man.

I thank his parents for this opportunity to speak.