O Captain! My Captain!
There are those people that come into your life, and shift it. They alter your trajectory, put you on a new trail, to a new place that you weren’t expecting, and maybe didn’t even know existed. I’ve been lucky enough to have learned from many wonderful people, and a few extraordinary teachers. Dr. Mac Luckey was the finest professor, the most wonderful teacher, and one of the finest men I have known in my life. He died yesterday, after an extended series of health issues, and the world is a dimmer place this morning.
For those of you that might read this that did not know him, the closest I can come to explaining his command of teaching and his laser-focused care for his students is to compare him to Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating.
The stories of Mac’s teaching are innumerable. The one I will always remember is that once, upon showing up to an early morning philosophy class to find it inexplicably empty (was the day before a holiday, everyone skipped to go home early and miss the weather), Mac lectured to the empty classroom. He said it was good practice.
When I walked into college my freshman year, I was registered as a pre-med major. I loved biology, and was full of youth and the desire to move the world. I was also a smart kid from the holler, where the only reasonable and responsible employment for said smart kids was as a medical doctor…they were the smartest person in each tiny town, and so conventional wisdom was that’s what you went to school to become. But because I was one of the smart kids in high school, I was also a member of the Honors Program at my university. The Honors Program that was largely created, crafted, and directed by Dr. Mac Luckey.
Mac was a philosophy professor, and I had just the previous summer had my initial introduction to the idea of philosophy as a subject during my summer as a Governors Scholar where it was my minor. The Honors Program curricula was heavily centered around philosophy, and Honors 101 was taught by Mac. The combination of the people and the ideas, all guided and curated by Mac, set my head on fire. It was like having your forehead opened and someone pouring new ways of thinking directly into your brain…it was exhilarating and life changing in ways that could not be fully enumerated because I would end up simply waving my hands around shouting “everything” over and over.
In addition to the thrill of mainlining new ideas, Mac believed in you, and fought for you. My freshman year, a group of honors students decided that while the program was great, there wasn’t student-directed parts of it, and decided to form the Academic Honors Student Association. A group of us huddled in the Honors House until wee hours in the morning, writing what would be the first constitution of the new group. Mac dutifully helped us work it through university processes, and the group still stands today at the university. My time as VP and then two years as President of that organization were my first experiences really leading others, and that wouldn’t have existed without Mac.
He’s also responsible for my first academic presentation. Morehead State had, at the time, never sent any students to the National Collegiate Honors Council annual conference. My sophomore year, Mac had the idea that it was time to change that, and worked with myself and Lenore Womack (now Dr. Lenore Wright), to put in proposals for presentations at the annual conference….in Los Angeles. When they were accepted, he worked to find money to cover our travel so that we could go without worry. The two of us delivered the first national academic honors presentations from a student at Morehead State University that year, and that experience led to hundreds and hundreds of other students being able to do so over the following years.
It was because of the Honors Program that I met, fell in love with, and married Betsy Sandlin (now also Dr. Sandlin, something that Mac certainly had a hand in). The people associated with the Honors Program are some of the most meaningful relationships of my life, and the deepest friends I may ever know. It was because of Mac that I changed my major to philosophy, that I went on to graduate school in philosophy, that I decided that a life of the mind was the life I needed. It is impossible to overstate the degree to which I am who I am today because of Dr. Mac Luckey.
In addition to all of the intellectual and academic bits associated with Mac, he was also unfailingly kind and supportive. He would challenge you, but only in order that you could see how better to understand the opportunities in front of you. He and his wife Dr. Sue Luckey opened their house to students regularly, through dinners and parties and more. He was an unwavering supporter.
I could go on for another thousand words about Mac, and I still couldn’t come close to how important he was to so, so many people. He was, in many ways, the type of person I want to be. What more could I say than that…
I couldn’t think of a better way to eulogize Mac than with the poem made famous in the modern day by Dead Poets Society, originally written by Walt Whitman to eulogize President Lincoln.
Mac was, for so very many of us, Our Captain.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
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