It was with great sadness that I received the news that Kermit Schroeder died this morning. Kermit was in his mid 70’s, and spent the last 5 years of his life battling Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, it’s a progressive, neurodegenerative disease in which the brain loses the ability to control motor function. There is no cure, although stem cell research is somewhat promising for future treatment. It’s a horrible disease.
Kermit was an integral part of my life through my 20’s and well into my 30’s. I was engaged to his younger son during college. Though we did not get married, Kermit, his wife Betty, and Dan’s siblings and various other relatives continued to make me feel like family and I participated in a wide range of activities and events with them. The impact he and the family had on me is many layered and complex. I think the fact that several of them drove many hours to come to my wedding speaks volumes about who they are to me–and I suppose, who I was to them. Though we do not now have the strong connection we once did, the love is everlasting.
In addition to making me a part of his family, Kermit played another role in my life. An inorganic chemistry professor at my college in Brockport, NY, he also had a degree in mathematics and taught some math courses at the school. I had put off taking the one required math class for my liberal arts degree, having brought with me to college the internal message that “I don’t do math”. Nervous about the possibility of looking like a dunce in front of him, yet wanting to have a chance to take a class with Dr. Schroeder, I took the math class with him. At 8:00 in the morning. Yeah.
I did well enough, getting a B or B+ as a final grade. At the end of the class, he pulled me aside and said “Deb, if I’d gotten to you sooner, I’d have persuaded you to become a math major.” I was STUNNED and told him so. He explained that he could see that though I had little experience with various formulas I understood concepts and played well with numbers. I thanked him profusely, but I regret not telling him what a powerful message he’d given me to share with myself: I can do math. I can. I love numbers. I am not brilliant, I will not be giving the world complex puzzles and formulas never before imagined. But on the strength of one message from a trusted, knowledgeable friend, my self-perception began to shift. It took two decades to get back to school to see about learning all of those formulas. Better late than never. It’s a pretty sure bet it would’ve been never if he hadn’t come into my life.
The reason for the title of this post? The man could whistle long classical pieces without stopping for a breath. His was the last whistle I remember hearing and enjoying before my hearing took the plunge and I heard no more whistling until about 5 years ago thanks to my cochlear implants. I can still see him, long and lean, gliding down the hallways of the science building on campus, the whistled tune announcing his presence even before he came into view. Now that he is free of the paralyzing effects of ALS, I see him out there, gliding all over the Universe, whistling his beautiful tunes again. I can almost hear it.