The Man in the Blue Oxford Shirt

CMV with Annie 1993 2

A Remembrance of Charles M. Vest,  former President of MIT

When I think of his memorial service at MIT planned for later this week, it is hard not to envision Chuck Vest himself coming up to he podium, looking around at what is sure to be an impressive gathering, and saying, “Well, hello there!” Legions of others will have better stories of the man in the ubiquitous blue oxford shirt, and I look forward to hearing all of them. All I can say is that these moments are uniquely mine, and they’re dear to me because of both who he was and the singular place he occupies in my life.

I was fortunate to be designated as Chuck’s transition assistant in 1990 and there were moments when we shared a kind of bewildered joy to be there, tucked away in Building 14, with a meeting schedule that could have passed for a list of the greatest minds of the 20th century. I don’t think he ever stopped being tickled to find himself among people he admired. Chuck and I developed a kind of rapport that summer; he would call me Radar for my ability to anticipate what he needed (and my propensity to blurt out an unsolicited opinion at the exact wrong time). But when he announced that everyone needed an e-mail username and address (it was that long ago) and I chose a contraction of my name – Scamp – that was the nickname that stuck over the years.

We have ways of creating stand-ins among the living for those who are with us only in spirit. There comes a point, inevitably, when our parents die and we find ourselves feeling a specific kind of aloneness. When my mother was dying, she had all kinds of crazy wisdom for me, and my favorite was, “You’re turning 40, and we’ll be gone. I never really felt grown up until both of my parents were dead. Your life is your own now; you won’t have me looking over your shoulder. It will be liberating.” I get what she was saying, and, liberated or not, she left me reams of advice that sit in a binder on my shelf.

But with my Dad it was trickier. His illness was shorter than Mom’s, and he was much more reticent to create any sense of closure. On matters of the heart, Mom did all the talking. Dad and I had said goodbye without my realizing it was the last one; I am certain he knew. Several weeks earlier he’d phoned me at MIT – the first and only time Dad called me at work. I happened to be in Chuck’s office that day – I was filling in for Laura for a few weeks while she was away. The call had followed me down the corridor from ASPG.  I rushed to the outer office, my face flushed with embarrassment and concern, and took the call in which my father informed me that he was sending me plane ticket so I could go home for a birthday party he was planning for my mother (another first and only). I had told him before that I was too busy to come; it was a crazy summer. But I was summoned and I went.

At first glance my father and Chuck could not have appeared more different, but they shared some characteristics: a firm handshake, a low voice that was seldom raised, a quiet devotion to family and faith, a way of chuckling through a funny story, a gallows sense of humor and a fondness for mixed nuts. They each had a kind of heartland sensibility that is largely undemonstrative; the hint of a smile or a furrowed brow spoke volumes.

So I flew out to Missouri for the party and had a wonderful time. Dad spent an afternoon at the head of the table, regaling the family with stories we had heard a million times before. When it came time for Dad to drive me to the airport, as he did every time I visited home, he told me that my brother-in-law would drive me instead. I should have known then. But instead I wrote it off to the fact that there were so many people visiting that weekend, Dad could not make all of those trips himself, and I blithely kissed and hugged him goodbye. Two weeks later I was flying back for the funeral. When Mom called to tell me he was ill, I asked if I should come home and she said “No, don’t come. It’s fine, you’ve had your turn.” And it was tough to take, but I guessed she was right.

TQM with CMV July 1992When I returned to Cambridge after the funeral it was the first day of a Total Quality Management Workshop for Constantine’s VP Staff Group. Shioji Shiba, the TQM guru, was there and it was a big deal. I was exhausted and as I stood in a daze during the pre-conference coffee, Chuck approached me, and wordlessly hugged me and kissed my forehead. And that was it. In one moment I got the goodbye I had missed from Dad and the hello that I needed to move forward. I went to the rest room and wept. Then I joined the group and promptly nodded off while Professor Shiba was talking (Yo-One!) and even though everyone around the table could see me, they let me snooze. We gathered for one of those team building group photos, and somebody directed me to a chair and I sat down. I was startled and delighted to find myself seated with Chuck, CBS and Professor Shiba; I’m not quite sure how that happened. We all look so happy, and in that moment, despite my loss, I truly was happy.

I understand much more clearly now the value of the sense of belonging I enjoyed at that time in my life. I look back and wince at my many rookie mistakes – CBS would refer it to it as “letting my slip show” – but I also miss the unbridled enthusiasm I had for nearly everything. I knew from the moment  I arrived in ASPG that that I was part of something extraordinary, but I didn’t grasp then how rare it is to work for and with people who share a common vision and have respect and admiration for each other, even under difficult circumstances. I worked hard and I was rewarded, which is such a simple concept but in these times it seems like something of a miracle.

Twenty-one years have passed. I left my job to stay home with my children, engaged in a new and challenging set of tasks but still working behind the scenes with and for people to whom I am devoted. The affirmations of parenting are both clearer and murkier – a child’s love is magic but you’re never really sure if you did a good job. No calls at the end of the day from CBS on the cell phone patting me on the back while he sped down the Mass Pike in his Volvo, no nod of bemused appreciation from Chuck at my fabulous color coding of the Faculty Meeting agenda. In my case the job has been more hands-on for a longer time; having a child with a disability presents a slew of joys and challenges, and there are no performance evaluations or raises – just a constantly changing job description (there are plenty of meetings, though, and lots of notes to take).

I look back on those days when I was out there in the working world, in that very brief moment where I was not so defined as a daughter or a mother, and feeling that I was in the right place at the right time with the right people. Those moments of synchrony (thank you, MLAM, for giving me that word) are as important to me as falling in love with husband and children. I feel a little nostalgic but mostly I feel incredibly, tremendously lucky.

A few years back, in the process of advocating for my child I got some press and sometime later I heard from Chuck. Over the years we kept tabs on each other, sending photos and occasional pithy e-mails (thanks to Laura, ever the catalyst). In one of those e-mail exchanges about family updates came a small moment – he told me he’d seen the piece in the Globe and that was proud of me. And because it was Chuck, whom I don’t think ever said anything he didn’t mean, it was the kind of validation I thought I had learned to live without.

I have a thin file folder that contains a few handwritten notes and short e-mails from Chuck that mean as much to me as anything I own, and I am grateful for the presence in my life that they represent. I am proud to be among the many people who enjoy the indelible imprint of Chuck Vest on our lives. I’m pretty sure I’m the only Scamp, though.

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