Remembering Dr. Dennis Simon

It’s 2008 and I’m 16 years old, actively following a presidential campaign for the first time in my life. Orthodox opinion at my Catholic high school is that this is a race between a baby-murdering communist and a tax-cutting vanguard of the status quo. I’m engrossing myself in AP United States History, memorizing the names of all the presidents and their failed opponents because that’s my idea of a fun afternoon and Quiz Bowl is the closest thing to a sport in which I’ll ever participate. The week before the election, you come to my school to give a guest lecture on campaign message and advertisements. You show me a treasure trove of old commercials: I Like Ike, Morning in America, and the Daisy ad, among others. Their messages range from messianic to apocalyptic. For one of the first times in my life as a student, I begin to discern patterns in American political history. Obama wins the election and my classmates are sore for days, but my interest, like the atomic bomb in the Daisy ad, has only begun to mushroom.

It’s 2011 and I’ve just gone to my advisor to declare my political science major (second to my study of literature and prior to my study of history). I check the course catalog and see an available Honors section of a class for my American political studies distribution: The Politics of Change in America. Per the syllabus: “The purpose of this course is to document major changes and reform efforts in American politics and to demonstrate that ‘political and social change’ can be explained and understood in a systematic and rigorous manner.” It says that the focus will be on America since the year 1950. The description is all I needed to be sold on the course; I enroll and convince a few friends in the department to sign up with me. Imagine my surprise when I walk in on the first day of class and see the man who had taught me all about campaign advertisements three years prior. My term paper is on the evolution of format and issues discussed in televised presidential debates; it was hardly groundbreaking, but an excuse to use the rhetorical analysis I’d been practicing in English class. You give me an A (emphasis on the “giving” part of that transaction).

It’s 2012 and I’m in the latter part of my sophomore year. Your other major class, The Politics of the Civil Rights Movement, is being offered this semester, and includes a week-long travel component over Spring Break. The Honors Program has announced they will help fund the trip, so it’s an opportunity I can’t pass up. We read the memoir of Melba Beals, who was one of the first students to integrate Little Rock Central High School and had to be escorted to school by the National Guard each day. We hear a guest lecture from R. Gerald Turner, SMU’s president, about his time as chancellor at Ole Miss spent dealing with the school’s racist and exclusionary legacy with Greek life. We take a bus across the American South and break bread with some of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement: Joanne Bland, who survived the Bloody Sunday March in Selma, Julian Bond, one of the former presidents of the NAACP, and Robert Graetz, a reverend who marched alongside MLK. Graetz brings the entire room to tears when he makes an impassioned plea for gay rights and tells us about his gay son, who was “God’s greatest gift” to him. We stand in the driveway where Medgar Evers was assassinated, hold hands as we march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and stand in the halls of the 16th Street Baptist Church where a bombing killed four little girls in 1963. I had been a student of history for years now, but this pilgrimage is what made me recognize why we study history.  We study it to understand and bring sense to a world whose indifference to us defies our sensibilities, to see how nearly every issue facing us today has deep (but always visible) roots, to remember the legacies of the heroes that inspire us, and to get better, every day, no matter how many inadvertent steps backward we take.

It’s 2014 and I’ve just gotten my first job out of college teaching high school American history. I stand in front of the classroom on the first day and think to myself, “If there’s an emergency in this building, they’re all going to look at me to tell them what to do next.” I’ve spent weeks putting together lesson plans that I generally throw out the day of each class for fear that they’re not good enough. I’m constantly afraid one of the kids is going to ask me to describe the Defenestration Prague and I’m going to give them a blank stare (never mind that they can’t even pronounce the word “defenestration” yet). How did you make this job seem so easy when it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do up to this point? When I make it to the twentieth century in my class, I comb through my laptop to find copies of your old PowerPoint presentations. I decide to use them in lecture, but I always make sure to credit you. At least that’s one set of presentations I know I can’t screw up.

It’s 2016 and we’re in the midst of the most acrimonious presidential campaign that’s occurred in my short life (though history suggests there were plenty that were far more divisive in centuries past). My department is hosting a day of guest lectures to engage students in the political process, and my boss asks me if I know anyone who could be a good presenter. I immediately think of you. You’ve been sick recently and I’m uncertain whether or not you’ll feel up to attending, but you pull through. When I ask my students which guest speaker they enjoyed hearing the most, they nearly unanimously said it was you. I hope you were able to convince yet another young student to take a political science class in college.

It’s 2017 and I’ve just heard my first grad school acceptances. After years of discernment, I’ve decided it’s time for me to pursue further studies in the field of American politics, and I’ve applied to several PhD programs. You wrote my recommendation letter; did I ever get a chance to thank you for it? I’m stuck between UCLA and UNC right now, and I won’t be able to make a decision until I find time to visit both of them next month. It’s a little scary to think about the challenges ahead: reacquainting myself with stats, learning to code, spending all day in the library combing through primary sources again. I won’t know if I’m ready until I actually get started. But I know the work is going to be worth it if it allows me to even attempt to make the same contributions to the academy that you did. Thanks so much for teaching me and instilling the value of teaching into my life. Dr. Dennis Simon, you are missed, and your inspirational influence will be forever appreciated.

This memorial was written by guest writer Brandon Bub.