This last week I had the incredible opportunity to see and hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the campus of the University of Arkansas. I had not realized what a blessing it would also be to hear Professor Vincent Harding and Sister Helen Prejean. Their paths to peace activism are fascinating. All of three of these amazing individuals were so grounded, earthy, humorous, and astonishingly authentic. The Dalai Lama even said in his keynote address that he thinks of himself only as a simple Buddhist monk. They are all living lessons in what it means to be humble and to work unceasingly for peace and social justice.
On my walk from the event at Bud Walton Arena to my car on Dickson Street, I happened to walk by Kimpel Hall. I spent my undergraduate college days and many years of graduate study mostly in Kimpel Hall. Even the sight of the building evokes something more profound than nostalgia. I loved every minute of my studies, and I adored my professors and the English Department.
Readers familiar with Kimpel Hall will probably be anticipating right now what I saw next, the memorial to Professor John Locke out front. In August of 2000 John Locke, head of the Comparative Literature program for decades, was shot and killed in his office. The shooter (a graduate student who had just been dismissed from the program for lack of progress) then killed himself as well. Locke’s office was on the second floor, just across the hall from where my fellow doctoral students and I shared an office for several years.
At the time of the shooting I was just starting my second year of teaching at Georgia Southwestern State University, a little more than a year out of graduate school. News of the murder of a professor spreads quickly across higher education, of course. At GSW there were actually three of us on faculty who were UA grads and who had worked with John Locke. We were devastated, of course, and it was helpful to have others with me on campus who understood the tragic irony of Locke’s death.
John Locke was my first English professor at the UA after I had just transferred from Iowa State. The course was Honors World Literature I and it was a small class. Frankly, I remember little about the coursework. What I do remember were Locke’s lessons to us in nonviolence and Buddhist principles. I already leaned emotionally to a real commitment to nonviolence but Locke (and Dick Bennett also) gave me the language, history, and theory to understand its principles. Locke was so gentle, but he told stories of his more violent days in the military, and his personal values were obviously intentional and carefully studied.
I stood in front of the memorial to John Locke and couldn’t fathom the wildly violent death of one of the gentlest people I had ever known and a man who had himself taught and pursued nonviolence so avidly. The irony is too profound. It underscored everything I had just heard from our campus guests and reminded me that while our work towards a peaceful world may be never ending, it remains absolutely essential. I am deeply grateful for the lessons of the HHDL, Professor Harding, and Sister Prejean as well as for the privilege of having known and been a student of John Locke.