Five-plus years ago, on one of my visits to my hometown of Bellingham, Washington, where I also attended college, I encountered one of my old professors at the local supermarket. His name was Hugh Fleetwood, and his son Seth, now an attorney and former member of the City Council and the Whatcom Council Council, was one year behind me throughout school.
In 1981, my freshman year at Western Washington University, I enrolled in Professor Fleetwood’s Introduction to Philosophy course. Did that course totally change my life? No, but it did expand my horizons. I’ve often recalled that course for its intellectual rigor. Was free will an illusion? Did one cause lead to another, ad infinitum, throwing into question the existence of the self, let alone a soul? Was Descartes correct, that the most compelling proof of his own existence was that he was capable of doubting it? I had no great knack for the conundrums of philosophy, but just the fact that people had argued about such questions for so many centuries stimulated me.
After the course ended, I received a letter from Professor Fleetwood, urging me to consider majoring in philosophy. My dad was so flattered on my behalf that he mimeographed the letter and sent copies to our relatives. Neither my parents nor I grasped that the likely reason I received the letter was that the number of philosophy majors was dwindling. I myself was setting out on a more practical double major in journalism and political science. Most of my poly sci professors had come of age during the 1960s, and almost all of them were on the political left. Being moderately conservative at that age, I sometimes argued with my professors.
During the fall of my junior year, Professor Fleetwood became a controversial figure, at least among student activists. Over the expanse of decades, the details have grown hazy, but one quote from him, uttered in the Faculty Senate, has stayed with me: “Students are not a particular font of wisdom.” Or some other version of the same sentiment. From the uproar that ensued, you might have thought the professor had said that students shouldn’t be allowed to speak at all. He also noted, in a letter to our student newspaper, that the word in question was font, not fount. In 1982, not long after the dawn of the PC revolution, I had no idea what a font was. I don’t think anyone did. In any case, I editorialized in Professor Fleetwood’s favor.
In March 1984, I graduated from Western a quarter early, the better to position me to get my first professional newspaper job. It was in Waterbury, Connecticut. A year-and-a-half later, I moved to Boston. There was no likelihood that I would ever see Professor Fleetwood again. But there I was, on my annual trip to Bellingham, in what I believe was the spring of 2011. And there was he, looking, for lack of a better term, demented. He was leaning unsteadily against his shopping cart. Only later did I learn that his disease was Parkinson’s, not Alzheimer’s—not that the distinction would have meant much to me back then, when I expected to live to at least 86, the age my dad had achieved. There was a fleeting moment when I could have done the gracious thing: Greet him, lay my hand on his shoulder, tell him how much I appreciated his philosophy course.
But I suffered a lack of nerve. There was no possibility that he would have recognized me—by 2011, I scarcely resembled my twenty-year-old self, he had taught thousands of students, and his disease had done its dirty work. But he might have remembered my name, once I stated it. Perhaps I could have expressed my gratitude for helping me widen my intellectual ambitions. But I soon realized that I had flunked the moral philosophy exam. Professor Fleetwood, I recently learned, died a few months later.