Making Dallas Squirm
To speak of Dallas’s legacy, his gift to us, is to praise him and I’m somewhat reluctant to do so given how nervous praise made Dallas. For most of us praise improves our hearing---but not Dallas. I’m reminded of the story of the famous preacher who’d just given a stirring sermon and afterward a congregant came forward to tell him that she’d never heard such great a sermon in all her life. “I know,” replied the minister. “I’ve heard that comment before. It’s just what the devil told me the instant I finished speaking.” Just so with Dallas, a genuinely humble man, he shied away from praise; it made him squirm. Nevertheless, in speaking about his legacy, I can’t help but praise him and were he here today I’d have to make him squirm just a little.
His legacy extends far, wide and deep and I’d be foolish to try to capture the full extent of it, from his philosophic defense of the many faces of realism to his understanding of our moral life and the history of our moral thought, to his deep influence in the church broadly speaking, and to the countless lives he made better. However, I think I can speak directly to the indispensable energizing source and fount of his gift, and it’s in his very person and his chronic goodness. His legacy, as far and as wide as it might reach, begins in his deep, abiding and self-evident goodness. Everything else about his legacy flows from that goodness, everything.
I’d like, if I may, to direct my comments to the countless undergraduate students whom he taught for over forty years, something I saw first-hand as Dallas’s TA in at least four of his courses. As he lectured in class, met with students, listened to them, counseled, encouraged and challenged them, he exemplified more than anyone I’ve known what Hume calls “the beauty of virtue.” That beauty drew young students to him magnetically.
One example will suffice: I saw a noticeable pattern emerge in Dallas’s classes: about three weeks into a term during discussion sections or in the hall, some student would ask me, “is Professor Willard for real?” I took that question to mean, “Is he as authentically good as he seems or is he a sham like so many other stage managed lives—lives only seemingly good or good for effect? Please,” they seemed to plead, “let him be as good as he seems. Keep our hope for genuine goodness alive.” I think that question revealed the ever-present yearning for goodness among the young, a yearning that seemingly went unmet in their time by the mostly tawdry and debased pop culture that incubated them and second, a hope that just possibly they’d met someone in Dallas to satisfy their yearning. It became clear to me that Dallas’s self-donating, humble, gracious, joyful presence evoked from countless young students the hope for a better self, for something beyond self-seeking advancement, self-indulgence, and hype and for a life larger than the self. The hope he evoked and drew from them resembled a loadstone attracting iron.
But secondly, those who pursued Dallas found an unexpected challenge as well. They came to sense that their hope for goodness could only be realized via a reformed and remapped life. What they glimpsed in Dallas’s goodness required a wholesale revamping of themselves all the way down, all the way to their hearts and minds, to their intentions, motives, thoughts, to the sum and substance of their lives. They saw what W. B. Yeats said, that they’d have to “lie down where all ladders start, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”, or as T.S. Eliot saw as well that goodness demanded, “complete simplicity, costing no less than everything.” Seeing this, some refused the challenge Dallas’s life presented them and they left, most likely haunted by what they didn’t choose. But others who took Dallas’s invitation came to experience and to share some of the goodness that inhabited him, and they, of course, have become the living and breathing force of his legacy. Goodness, as they say, is contagious. These changed lives count in the thousands as they continue to multiply to this day. They now inhabit academia where they carry on Dallas’s intellectual work, the church they’ve helped revitalize, the professions, business and private life. I don’t think we can make sense of Dallas’s legacy without centering it on the changed lives he occasioned, many of whom sit here today.
I have a lasting impression of Dallas: he’s standing with one arm out with his hand connected to a source of purified and purifying power and his other arm stretched out to anyone who might wish take his hand and partake of that goodly power themselves.
Of course, it’s appropriate to note within these church walls the unstated presence in the room, in fact the presence Dallas believed lived in every room, namely, the God he so deeply adored and to whom he bent his knees daily in humble fidelity.
When I think of Dallas’s legacy today, and I often do, I think of his calm joyful, loving, generous and wise presence spreading nationally and internationally far beyond university walls. Yet I can't help but revert to my early days with him in the intimate classroom setting as his very person pointed like an arrow to a better way to live. If we allow for a moment Aquinas’ view that beauty is goodness made visible, then I would add to his legacy that he was the most compellingly beautiful man many of us have ever met. He put the lie the claim that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Dallas’s legacy and his contagion of goodness remains anything but interred; it courses through the hearts and veins of countless people made better by his life, as if by brining rain to dry land.
Of course, more could be said, much more. But I will honor his humility, a rare virtue: I’ve made him squirm too much already.
Ken Walker met Dallas over 45 years ago when Dallas, as chair of the admissions committee, interviewed him for admission to graduate school at USC. Ken studied with Dallas for four years and Dallas guided his dissertation. In addition, Ken TA’d for several courses and had the good fortune to not only travel throughout Europe with Dallas but also to become close friends and conversational partners for over four decades. Ken is Professor Emeritus, Philosophy, California Polytechnic St. University, San Luis Obispo.