Friday, January 31, 2014

Lives Well Lived

This afternoon, I left the office early to attend the memorial service for my old professor, Ron Rebholz.

When I was at Stanford in the early 1990s, Ron was already a legendary teacher, with his Shakespeare course considered one of the top "bucket list" courses at Stanford (along with other legendary classes like ME101 and of course, the notorious SLE).

Ron didn't disappoint when I finally took the course.  Not only was he a passionate, insightful lecturer, he made a point of reading numerous passages aloud in his expressive, mellifluous voice.  (Sadly, I couldn't find any of his lectures on YouTube)

He also made a point of making Shakespeare interactive, believing that the best way to learn was by watching or giving performances.  Thanks to him, I got the chance to play Richard II, and to direct Hamlet, both of which gave me a much greater appreciation for the Bard's techniques.

Outside of class, he was kind, wise, and giving.  He encouraged me in my studies, and even wrote a recommendation for me when I tried to follow in his footsteps and applied for a Rhodes Scholarship (Spoiler alert: I wasn't accepted, which resulted in my joining D. E. Shaw, moving to Cambridge, and getting into the startup world.  Just lucky, I guess!).

Ron's memorial was moving, inspiring, and a perfect reflection of the man.  The various speakers included a number of former students, one of whom had gone on to become a fellow member of Stanford's English Department, another of whom had Ron as a groomsman at his wedding, as the godfather of his son, as his son's teacher when that son attended Stanford, and at a combination 25th wedding anniversary/graduation party for that same son when he completed Stanford.

For better or worse, I've begun attending more funerals of friends in the past few years (the peril of growing old).  Each time, it strikes me that those memorials are truly the sign of a life well lived.  Whether at Ron's memorial today, Arynne Simon's memorial in San Jose, or Ranjan Das' memorial at SAP, the friends and loved ones in attendance, and their stories and memories demonstrate just how much impact a life well lived can have.

Yet while I get a lot of inspiration from attending these memorials, I wish that we could celebrate people's lives before it's too late.

While I would love to be able to attend and enjoy my own funeral, there's some fundamental barriers to achieving that goal.  Failing that, I would love to throw a pre-memorial party when I'm 80 or 90, and can still enjoy seeing the many people who have been a part of my life.

That's one of the reasons I was delighted to run into my old advisor, John L'Heureux, at the memorial.  I had hoped that he would attend, and I scanned the room a number of times trying to find him, to no avail.

After the memorial ended, I looked around again, then started walking to my car.  But I stopped and turned around.  Having just left Ron's memorial, after not having seen him in years, I decided I had to go back and try harder to find John.  After another minute or two of searching, I spotted a man who looked like him.  But as I got closer, I thought, "It couldn't be him.  He looks far too young."

Nonetheless, I was determined, so I did the only reasonable thing: I stalked him and his wife, and eavesdropped on their conversations, hoping to hear John's distinctive voice.  Success!  It was clearly him.  I intercepted him and his wife Joan before they could leave and introduced myself.

"John, I'm Chris Yeh," I said, "One of your students from the 1990s."  I couldn't have possibly anticipated what he said next."

"Chris Yeh?"  He stared into my face.  "It's good to see you.  You're connected to all sorts of famous people on LinkedIn, you know.  I also have a Facebook account now--my publicist insists on it--but I have no idea how to answer people.  That's the problem with getting old!"


We talked for a bit longer, he wished me well, and then he and Joan took their leave.

John is 80 years old, and his latest novel, "The Medici Boy," comes out on April 1.  Amazing.

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