The Sherpa

Professor Robert Solomon, 1942-2007, could prepare you for any path

My memory of Bob Solomon is indissolubly connected to the Austin of the Eighties, the decade in which I met him. I came to the Department of Philosophy at the University of Texas to get a master's degree in 1985. It was a different Austin and an academic culture that was shifting from Sixties activism and Seventies hedonism to ... a much less utopian culture of business-school rules. I can't help but think of Bob in that context still: The era when Les Amis was still serving black beans and rice; there were four bookstores on Guadalupe, one specializing exclusively in foreign language books; and art students were imitating some composite of Robert Wilson and the Butthole Surfers at Cafe Voltaire. I TA'ed for Bob's Existentialism class, through which passed all kinds of students on their own eccentric courses. It was fashionable for Plan II students to turn up their noses at the course two years after taking it, but in truth, it presented a very solid introduction to what happened in European philosophy from 1806 to 1950. That's a lot of material, and a lesser teacher would founder in the mass, but Bob radiated a certain sherpa sureness about finding the right and passable paths for students who might never take another philosophy class, but would always encounter the questions posed in his as they lived their lives.

At that point in time, the drinking age was 18, and it was possible to throw a keg party for college students out in a park. Bob would do that, to the delight of those who, perhaps for the first time, got to rub shoulders with a famous professor and not have to swallow strong vibes of self-importance. He never played that game. On the other hand, he wasn't happy with bullshit. He'd get this frowny look on his face, like a bulldog to whom you've fed something unfriendly.

Bob loved silly movies starring Bill Murray, in which he could see deep metaphysical points. He loved his wife, Kathleen Higgins, who he married back then in the Eighties and who visibly made him happy. He loved the idea that we lived in a culture rich enough to afford people from 18 to 21 a time to wander about a bit and ask the big questions – and he was unhappy that the cultural fashion of the age turned to an über-productive one, in which, if you weren't studying for your career, you were wasting time.

At the same time, he was a strong believer in business ethics. He saw nothing in it to be cynical about. He thought it was a good idea to respond to the times we live in, and if the times demanded business students, they better demand business ethics, too.

There are people who you see in your everyday life and you go home and you forget you've seen them. Bob was one of those people who you'd remember when you went home. He was and is memorable. He will be missed. end story


Roger Gathman can be reached at www.limitedinc.blogspot.com.

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