Mel Pollner Eulogies
Mel Pollner

November 6, 2007
Judith Richlin-Klonsky

I never knew for sure what would come out of my mouth when I talked to Mel. Ideas that I didn’t even realize I had seemed to speak themselves. And sometimes, more often than with anyone else, ever, I actually did say something remarkable or clever. Where did that stuff come from? I think it’s that he kept listening, through the drivel, and took each thing that I said, even the most mundane, and handed it back in a way that it meant something. I felt smarter. Maybe I even was smarter.

Once, when I mentioned this phenomenon to one of Mel’s colleagues, he assured me that Mel had this effect on everyone. Mel was, I think, a kind of magic looking glass for our better selves. And that is a reason why this loss is so huge, I think. We not only lose his truly unique brilliance…we lose the brightness he helped us find within ourselves as well.

Here are three things I learned from Mel:

1. Correlation does not equal causation. In fact, causality in human affairs is a messy notion at best and generally not all that interesting. My favorite chats with him were those that poked around at the fuzzy, slippery nature of what we call “reality.”

2. Everybody has to stand somewhere. There is no unincorporated territory when it comes to how we view the world around us.

3. Integrity matters. He modeled this in the work of research, where he held tremendous respect for his subjects. And he demonstrated it in relation to students. I was fortunate in working for him, as many others were, because I was exposed early on to a high standard of regard for the classroom and for student learning.

Mel complained from time to time that I didn’t laugh enough at the things he said. It was hard to convince him that the problem wasn’t that I didn’t recognize or didn’t appreciate the humor – I come from an entire family of pun makers -- the problem was that it was too funny. I laugh at “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” I laugh at reruns of “Friends.” But what Mel said on a regular basis was beyond a chuckle or a guffaw. It generally cut to the heart of the matter. It often unraveled assumptions or brought together ideas or talk that may have seemed separate until he tied them up in a pithy little package. It was deep-down, bone-deep funny as hell. And sometimes, of course, he was just plain silly.

Mel chaired the admissions committee that at first denied my application for graduate school at UCLA, citing my overly broad and unfocused interests. They probably had a point, since I didn’t grow up to be an ivy tower scholar. But Mel persuaded them to give me a chance. And throughout the following decade, and beyond, he supported and encouraged me as I balanced academic learning and my personal growth, as I became a wife, a homeowner, and a mom, as I became an applied researcher and a teacher. I don’t think it would be overstating the case to say that he did not begrudge me – at first a lowly graduate student and never more than a non-academic, junior colleague -- my humanity. This is no small thing in the harsh reality of academia, no small thing in life. I will always be grateful to him. I will try to live up to his faith in me. I will always, always miss him.