This piece is dedicated to Dr. Peter Magolda:
A man who taught me that the written word offers tremendous power to those who can command it.
Peter, you taught me that writing can soothe deep hurts and wounds, but your lessons on brevity have yet to sink in.
The doorbell rang at 8am. On most days, this would have been unusual; but it was July 25, 2013—the day after Dad’s death, the day after unusual and unexpected became our new normal. I gathered my strength after an evening full of futile attempts to find any semblance of rest. I opened the door, and standing on the other side, in a button down denim shirt with a wax-paper bag of donuts in hand, was Peter Magolda.
I smiled when I saw him, which wasn’t unusual. And then, I broke down because my life was anything but usual at that moment.
My friendship with Peter began only two years before losing Dad when I applied to Miami University’s graduate program in Student Affairs in Higher Education (SAHE). Although I had many people pushing me to go on to graduate school, I was reluctant to do it. Even though I had been a successful undergraduate student, I had an underlying fear that I wasn’t enough. I didn’t think I could handle the caliber of work that graduate school required. I wasn’t smart enough. I couldn’t work hard enough. I couldn’t be enough to get a Master’s degree. I was full of anxiety and trepidation as I wrote my essay for the application, constantly revising and resketching and reorganizing, scrapping the essay multiple times and starting again, hoping more than anything that I’d have the brilliant breakthrough that never came.
In my feverish anxiety, I told many people at Miami that I was in the process of applying for a graduate program at Miami, and whenever I mentioned that I was applying to the SAHE program, the response was usually the same: “Oh! Have you met Peter and Marcia?”
It’s rare in the world of academia that a program is defined by the people who design and manage it, but Peter and Marcia were intellectual celebrities that earned every bit of that recognition and respect. Peter Magolda had been a faculty member at Miami since 1994, having earned a B.A. in Psychology from LaSalle College, an M.A. in Student Affairs from The Ohio State University, and a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from Indiana University. Peter’s work was ingenious. With respect and inventiveness, Peter was able to take anthropological tools and concepts usually associated with studying foreign cultures, and he applied those cultural study techniques in college settings. Prior to coming to graduate school, I would have never thought of that approach as a real or viable option for research; but Peter was exceptional at taking something that seemed undoable and bringing it to life.
His intellectual acumen was only matched by that of his wife, Dr. Marcia Baxter Magolda. Marcia’s name was everywhere within the field of higher education. To this day, her work on student development theory and self-authorship serves as the cornerstone of many graduate programs in education, and many colleges and universities use her findings as their primary pedagogical foundation. That she and Peter were able to find one another and grow together as partners was always so wonderful to me.
I always answered the question about Peter and Marcia the same way: “No, I haven’t met them yet, but I sure have heard a lot about them!” In reality, I didn’t know a thing about Peter or Marcia before I came to graduate school. I felt like one of the few people in my cohort who had not familiarized myself with the readings of the field before coming to graduate school, so their names and academic accomplishments were completely foreign to me.
Nonetheless, I submitted my application to start in the SAHE program as a part-time student, and I was fortunate enough to receive an interview. The anxiety of the application process and essay writing faded only temporarily, and I was paralyzed by worry when thinking about taking that next step. “Surely, they’ll see through the act in person,” I thought to myself, still believing that my success in the application was a complete fluke. I was full of doubt and dread as I thought about the interview. In my best suit and tie, I made my way into the office at McGuffey Hall in Oxford, and prayed I could find the strength to get through the day.
This was the day I first met Peter. I wasn’t actually scheduled to meet with him, but his office just happened to be right next to the room we were interviewing in. In typical, inquisitive, Peter fashion, he poked his head into the room to see what was going on. I looked up and was a bit surprised to see a man with glasses and long, gray hair asking in an East-coast accent “So, what’s going on in here?” He wasn’t at all what I expected.
And in the years that I got to know Peter, I always loved that he was never, ever what I expected. As a teacher, as a mentor, and as a friend, Peter was always much, much more than I could have ever imagined.
On that interview day, Peter moseyed into the room and shook hands with the three of us who were interviewing to become part time students, nodding curtly as he repeated our first names and shook each of our hands. With the same curiosity that he applied in all of his intellectual pursuits, Peter started asking questions about each of us. He joked about my tie and said I was entirely too professional to be in the program, and I laughed and wondered if I should run out at exactly that moment and buy a button down, drab green sweater like the one he was wearing…
After Peter left the room, I continued with the rest of my day, considerably more at ease than I was before meeting him without knowing quite why. And a few days later, I got a call from Peter delivering the good news—I had been admitted to the program! Peter told me to take some time to think about whether or not I would like to accept a spot in the program. I took his advice and waited about 14 seconds before letting him know that I was definitely in. He laughed and said he looked forward to being my advisor, and I felt overjoyed as I hung up the phone. I was a first-generation college student who had never thought about graduate school as a realistic opportunity. In a few months, I would begin working on a graduate degree at Miami. Life takes many wonderfully beautiful and surprising turns. I was glad that this turn led me where it did.
My first semester in the program was difficult because that was also the time when my own struggle with anxiety began and when I first started seeking out help from a counselor to manage my mental illness. My anxiety wasn’t fully caused by starting graduate school, but it did contribute to the feeling of being overwhelmed and insignificant. As the semester wore on, I began to feel like I was finally on an upward trajectory, personally and academically, but I was still suffering from a healthy dose of impostor’s syndrome. In each class period, I had multiple instances of self-doubt where I thought to myself “I’m not smart enough to be here,” or “I can’t stack up against the intellect of many of my classmates.” It was a nauseating feeling, and it constantly kept me on edge in my classes and when I was working on assignments.
The other thing keeping me on edge that first semester? Knowing that I would be taking EDL 666 in the Spring.
Any graduate of the SAHE program from the Peter Magolda era will certainly know about EDL 666. The course went by many names. The official name on the course bulletin at Miami was Student Cultures in the University Environment. Most of the students in the program just called it “Cultures” or “The Cultures Course.” Some people had other not-so-family-friendly names for it, depending on how close they were to the midterm or finals being due. But more than anything else, I heard people call the course “Peter’s Course.” Everyone knew that this course was Peter’s baby.
The gist of the course was simple yet powerful. Peter wanted future student affairs professionals to take the principles of anthropology and ethnographic research that were typically used to study unfamiliar people and apply those in our study of college students. He wanted us to take what we thought we understood—what we thought to be familiar—and look at it through an entirely different lens. Peter wanted students in his course to understand the different subcultures that existed within the university environment, avoiding the tendency of lumping all college learners into stereotypical categories or generational molds. Masterfully, Peter was able to take very important, often difficult readings about cultural studies and anthropological fieldwork, and apply those to our study of and practice with the students on our campus. It was a brilliant approach—and I don’t think I realized just how brilliant it actually was at the time because I was so freaked out about actually having to take the class.
Peter always loved the frenzy and hysteria that his course created. Not in a sadistic way or anything, but he did find it fascinating that people were so worked up about something that seemed so natural to him. Although, Peter did love the fact that the most challenging course in the program was given the course number “666.” He laughed about that many times throughout the semester, and I often wondered if he indeed went to the University Registrar to request this number for the course rather than having it assigned. Aside from the number, however, Peter didn’t understand why people lost their minds about this particular course. Yes, it was challenging—but aren’t the most important things to learn in life often challenging, difficult, and complex?
I’d love to say I understood this, but when I started in Peter’s course in the Spring of 2012, I completely bought into the hysteria. I was a nervous wreck. The topics looked intense. The readings were extensive. The assignments were hefty. THE COURSE NUMBER WAS THE NUMEROLOGICAL REPRESENTATION OF THE DEVIL! For someone who already felt he didn’t have the intellectual chops to hack it in graduate school, the looming danger of this course was real and paralyzing.
Nervously, I waded into Peter’s course in a corner classroom at McGuffey Hall, and my first experience with Peter in the classroom was not what I had expected. My classmates had filled me in on the academic rigor of the course and how Peter challenged his students to really grapple with the material to understand it and apply it. I had expected Peter to be this expert, this fountain of knowledge, spewing information for two hours and forty minutes every Thursday afternoon in the hopes that we could just retain an ounce of his brilliance. That wasn’t Peter—at all. Peter would often come into class, throw out a quote from a reading we had done, and then he would sit back in his chair with crossed legs and a hand on his chin, saying very little throughout our discussions, and sporadically brushing his long, gray hair behind his ears. On occasion, Peter might probe or push someone on a particular idea or thought if it was unclear. But most of the time, Peter just wanted to sit back and watch the action. There was never a day in all the classes I spent with Peter in which I felt like I was simply and passively absorbing knowledge that he was giving. He was helping us to discover it on our own, always present, gently guiding and shepherding us along.
As comforting as his presence in the classroom was, however, this didn’t ease my trepidation as the midterm due date loomed on the horizon. Peter had given us our midterm questions very early—and they were doozies. Each question was a paragraph long and required us to synthesize multiple readings and apply them within real life scenarios we observed in our work at Miami. Peter asked us to limit the first two responses—to six pages each! The last response need only be three pages, and I had never been so excited to only have to write a three-page paper in my entire life.
As I began to write my midterm, my anxiety got the best of me. I began to panic as sentences refused to form. I would scan highlighted passages from our course materials that I had read and understood in class, and my breath would draw very tight when those concepts no longer made any sense to me. Before I knew it, I was spiraling. I would write a paragraph, read it back to myself, realize it was incoherent, and delete the entire thing, only to repeat this vicious cycle for hours on end. Before I knew it, an entire day had gone by and I had only two pages of a fourteen-page midterm complete. I remember laying on the ground near the desk in my parent’s home and starting to tear up. The voice inside my head just kept saying “See, I told you you aren’t good enough.” It had only taken one course to expose me for what I was—an academic fraud.
I’m glad the voice in my head was overridden by Peter’s voice just one day later. In my panic, I dashed out an e-mail to Peter letting him know that I was struggling extensively with the midterm. He called me the next day, as the due date for the exam was quickly approaching, and Peter talked with me on the phone for nearly an hour, helping me walk through the questions on the midterm and process my thoughts. He didn’t give me the answers. He didn’t tell me what I should write. He just asked me important questions that helped me put my own disconnected thoughts into a more coherent argument. What readings stood out to me as being important? What were those readings saying? Did I see evidence of that in the students that I interacted with as an admission counselor? How could I connect one reading with another and find relevance and common ground between the two? On that day (and many more to follow) Peter did what only the best teachers are able to master: he took complex, seemingly unrelated concepts and showed me why they were important to my work and my own life.
I wrote the midterm essays—not easily, not quickly—but I wrote them. And I submitted them to him. A week or so later, I got Peter’s feedback on the essay. His notes were extensive. Sometimes, they were illegible (Handwriting was not his strongest asset), but once deciphered, they were extremely valuable. Peter gave me positive feedback in the areas where I had earned it, but he also pointed out sections and passages where I might have been able to improve the quality of my work. He gave me this feedback not because it was his job to find holes in my arguments, but because he wanted me to be the best student affairs professional and educator I possibly could be.
I laughed when I saw his comments on the last page of my exam: “Exam Grade: A-. Well done. If this represents your confused state, I look forward to reading your paper on topics you claim to understand.”
With just fourteen pages of thoughtful, handwritten notes that were altogether positive, sometimes critical, and always constructive, Peter helped chip away at the feelings of doubt and insecurity that had been holding me captive for that first year of graduate school. For the rest of that semester, I reminded myself of the faith Peter had in me. Anytime a reading was incomprehensible, I read through it twice. If a concept didn’t make sense to me, I asked Peter about it outside of class. I wasn’t trying to impress Peter—I was just trying to live up to whatever he saw in me that I could not see in myself.
I did my best to keep that positive attitude throughout the biggest obstacle of the semester: the infamous Cultures fieldwork team assignment. Peter didn’t just want us to learn about anthropological principles and the value they held in working with and researching college students—he wanted us to live it, and to experience it firsthand. With that charge, Peter divided our class into teams based on the functional areas we showed interest in, and we were tasked with conducting a fieldwork project that ran the entirety of the semester. In our fieldwork teams, we would serve as participant-observers and write a hefty narrative and cultural analysis of the student groups we studied. Fortunately, my group was granted access to the Division I basketball team at Miami thanks to the connections of one of my classmates, and we spent the entire semester attending practices, sitting courtside at games, interviewing coaches and players, hearing post-game talks in the locker room, and trying to make sense of the unique dynamics that characterized this college subculture.
Before graduate school, I don’t think I ever had the desire to write a 60-page paper with two of my classmates. During the process, I don’t think I always enjoyed writing a 60-page paper about the basketball team. I especially didn’t enjoy the night that I locked myself in my office at Miami Middletown putting my finishing touches on the paper until 5:00am the next day—one of only three all-nighters I ever pulled in my entire student career at Miami. But looking back with the perspective I have now, I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much from an assignment in my entire life.
Through that assignment, Peter taught us more than what it takes to write a lengthy and coherent paper. He taught us that we should refuse to accept everyday, ordinary things at face value. He taught us that we should always dig deeper. He taught us that we should take things that we thought we understood and ask a lot of questions about them, because nearly every we would learn that we never knew as much as we thought we did. It was the goal of a masterful teacher, and Peter was that…and so much more.
As much as I remember learning from the intellectual challenge of that course, however, I remember Peter’s hilariously quirky and snarky personality making those nearly-three hour meetings memorable and fun. Peter would do and say things that he likely didn’t intend to be funny, and those things would often put all of us in the class in stitches. Like the day he declared that he was boycotting the Jimmy John’s in Oxford.
Our class started at 12:45 each Thursday, and on most days Peter would order a sandwich from the Jimmy John’s in Oxford as he ran between classes, meetings, and his third floor office in McGuffey Hall. Peter typically ordered a #5 (The Vito, probably just because he liked the name), and even though he ordered a sandwich to be delivered multiple times a week to the same exact location, the driver was continuously getting lost.
“I just don’t understand how you get lost coming to the same place multiple times a week,” Peter exhaled after meandering into our class one afternoon. “I don’t want to have to do this, but I think I’m going to have to boycott Jimmy John.”
“Like, the restaurant?” one of my classmates asked. “Or the guy himself?”
“In essence, I’m doing both. But I hope he takes it personally,” Peter said.
I don’t know how long his boycott lasted, but my classmates and I couldn’t resist trying to serve as peace negotiators. The following week, we went to the Jimmy John’s uptown and ordered a Vito to go. As we walked to McGuffey Hall, we took out a permanent marker and wrote a note on the sandwich paper.
“Dear Peter, This is Jimmy. I miss you. And I’m sorry. Please forgive me for the wrong I’ve done. I promise I’ll never get lost again. Love, Jimmy John.”
When we handed the sandwich to Peter, we got to hear that all-too familiar chuckle as he threw his long hair back, and his face turned red as he laughed about the note. He opened the sandwich and took a few bites. And then, he just turned to us and said he wasn’t sure if the boycott would end, but he’d think about it. One of my classmates, Ashley Korn, even kept the joke going when she introduced Peter at our program’s graduation ceremony
“Okay, Peter,” she said, “I know you hate people talking about you, so I’ll try to make this freaky fast…unlike your Jimmy John’s deliveries to class.”
It was that type of fun-loving, carefree personality that caused students to adore Peter, even though the last thing he cared about or craved was the adoration of others. Only Peter could get students to write 60-page papers about observing the Ultimate Frisbee team or the Secular Students organization at Miami. Only Peter could get students to willingly read books about hegemony and privilege and the principles of ethnographic fieldwork and have meaningful, thoughtful conversations about those topics for hours on end. Only Peter could launch a boycott on a national sandwich chain and make a semester-long running joke of it.
Only Peter could get me to take a summer course on qualitative research at Miami during the precious months of May and June. My fifteen classmates and I knew we were in for a wild ride when Peter suggested we meet for 8 hours on a Saturday to kick of the class in an effort to knock out a few weeknight sessions. On that long, dreaded Saturday while reviewing the syllabus, Peter informed us of his philosophy on summer courses.
“So, this is a three credit hour course that lasts for four weeks. And some professors here at Miami think that during the summer, you should take it easy and pare down the curriculum and workload to fit within those four weeks. I don’t believe that. So, we are going to do sixteen weeks worth of work; we are just going to do it in four weeks. Sound good?”
For some unknown reason, my classmates and I all nodded our heads yes as our hearts sunk into our large intestines.
Peter was right. Those four weeks were absolutely jam packed. We did four different assignments in that short class, including a participant-observation analysis, a midterm examination, and a 25-page research assignment that walked us through as many phases of the research process as humanly possible in a short amount of time. His reading list for the four-week class was even longer than the list for the Cultures class! I nearly admitted myself for psychiatric evaluation when I found myself thinking that I wanted to go back to EDL 666….
Those four weeks, however, were some of the most important and entertaining weeks of my time in the graduate program. I learned more about the different types of qualitative research methodologies and research paradigms than I ever knew existed. Prior to that class, I had always wondered whether or not I could be an effective researcher; Peter showed me that I could. He took complex and mundane readings about research guidelines and paradigms and showed us how they applied to our everyday lives and the work we were all going to be doing with college students.
Even with Peter’s break-neck curricular pace and expectations for such a quick course, we all found ourselves laughing together on most nights. Specifically, I remember Peter needling one of my classmates over his laptop. My classmate, Travis, had a Toshiba laptop that was a bit…vintage and out of date. On occasion during our class, Travis’ laptop fan would start to buzz and whir, and each time it did, Peter couldn’t resist. He would look at the laptop with a pained expression, like he was afraid it was getting ready to cause the classroom damage.
“Is that your laptop?” Peter exclaimed. “What is that thing?”
I remember him making jokes about Travis’ laptop getting ready to take off or explode; but Peter’s humor was never meanspirited. It was always fun and enjoyable, and he knew how to bring levity to each and every interaction.
Peter had an uncanny way of making the simplest moments fun. During that same course, myself and a group of classmates had to facilitate a portion of the class and share our understanding of the case study methodology. For our task, we decided to do an activity that involved poster boards and markers. I grabbed my markers from the house before leaving for class, and one of the marker packs happened to be a 10-pack of scented Mr. Sketch markers.
Upon starting the activity, Peter spotted the Mr. Sketch markers. “Hey. Are these those markers that smell?” he said, not intending to be funny at all, but causing all of us to laugh. He grabbed the markers and went through each one, taking the cap off and waving it under his nose, giving us a play-by-play commentary of each scent. “What the hell is that supposed to be? Lime? I’ve never smelled a lime like that,” he said.
Our class activity continued, and Peter continued to sample and sniff each marker. When my classmates and I were up in front of the class trying to facilitate the discussion, I nearly doubled over laughing when I looked back at Peter in the back of the room. He was in his typical thinking position—leaned back in a chair, legs crossed, and hair thrown back. But this time, he was sniffing a blueberry Mr. Sketch marker with reckless abandon. For our entire class meeting, Peter huffed Mr. Sketch markers while simultaneously teaching us the principles of qualitative research.
And I’ll never forget it—the lesson, or the way in which it was delivered. And if it took me getting my professor high on a Mr. Sketch blueberry marker to get an “A” in a summer course on qualitative research, it was worth it.
To celebrate the end of the grueling four-week course, Peter invited our entire class to his and Marcia’s home in Oxford for a grillout and final class meeting—something that Peter and Marcia did rather regularly when they taught at Miami. We spent a few hours in Peter’s basement study talking about the lessons we had learned about qualitative research over the last few weeks, and then we moved to the back patio where we watched Peter grill hamburgers while he asked us questions about our plans for the rest of the summer. We enjoyed the conversation, and we definitely enjoyed the meal, but there was one thing Peter was looking forward to more than anything else on that evening. He had been talking about it for weeks.
Of all the things I expected Peter Magolda to be obsessed with, snow cones were not at the top of the list. But he had informed us that he loved snow cones, and that he loved them so much that he had bought a snow cone machine, and all the flavorings, and all the paper supplies, and he intended to make snow cones for anyone who wanted one. And if you didn’t want a snow cone in June in Oxford, Ohio, according to Peter, there was likely something wrong with you.
After plugging in the machine, Peter stood in his kitchen and joked that he wasn’t allowed to make snow cones when Marcia was home because the machine was too loud. With unanticipated glee, Peter then proceeded to make snow cones for each of us, and he was supremely interested in the flavor combinations we all chose and what they said about our personalities. After he made himself a large snow cone with cherry and blue raspberry flavoring, he led us out of the house to return home. One of my favorite images of Peter Magolda is looking back over my shoulder on that night. Peter was sitting on his front porch, in a denim button down and jeans with brown boots, leaning back on his left arm with a snow cone in his right hand, soaking in the rays of a beautiful Oxford summer sunset with a mischievous grin on his face.
There was absolutely no one in this entire world like Peter.
I went on to do a few independent studies with Peter as my advisor, but that summer course on qualitative research was the last time that I had Peter as a teacher in a formal classroom setting. Nonetheless, I learned more from Peter in the years that followed as a mentor, colleague, and friend than I ever thought was possible. He taught me just as much about life outside the classroom as he did when I was in it.
And then, my life shattered on July 24, 2013. Everything I thought I knew and understood came crashing down when I found out that my Father, Scott Bradshaw, had died—a victim of suicide at age 50.
I had heard the news of Dad’s death and collapsed in the front yard before being whisked away by my neighbor, Billie. She took me into her home and sat me on her couch, tending to my grief with love and thoughtfulness. I was trying to process my thoughts and come to terms with the tragedy that was my life without the man who had been my hero, all while our family and the authorities were trying to get a handle on the crisis. After meeting with a detective and answering his questions to the best of my knowledge, Billie asked me who I needed to get in touch with immediately to inform them of the news. I said that I needed to talk with my pastor, Harville, and to my undergraduate mentor and Dean of Students, Dr. Bob Rusbosin. And when I talked with Bob, I asked him to get in touch with Peter to relay the message. I knew that I was going to need a good teacher to help me navigate the valleys of desperation I was headed towards.
Thank God for Dr. Peter Magolda.
Within minutes, I had a call from Peter. And it renewed and refreshed my soul in a time of complete and utter desperation. Peter had a way of doing that, and I thank God for him in that moment and all the moments that followed.
Peter knew that we didn’t have much time, but he expressed how sorry he was. He told me that he knew how much my Dad meant to me and my entire family, and that his heart was broken for the magnitude of our loss. He talked about the interactions he had with my Dad when he and Marcia attended my housewarming party just one year ago, and how friendly and caring my Dad was to him. He apologized that he couldn’t get to the house on that day, because he was in the process of traveling home.
But the next morning, Peter arrived. And I’ll always remember those hours we spent together.
When I opened the door on that morning, Peter walked into the house and wrapped me into one of his familiar bear hugs that I always got upon meeting him or parting ways. When I first met him, Peter never struck me as the hugging type—but when I look back on our interactions together, I remember getting a hug from him every time we parted ways. After walking into the house that morning, he handed me the bag of donuts, and I feebly ushered him into the living room where we both sat on the couch. The blinds were open, and the morning sun illuminated the golden walls of my small living room; but my heart was completely darkened. I was lost, baffled, confused, and reeling from the pain of losing my Father.
Thank God for Peter Magolda.
Peter and I sat there together, and like he had done in so many classes, and in so many research projects, and in so many genuine and loving conversations he had with thousands of students and colleagues in his career as an educator, Peter listened. Intently. With purpose. Free of judgement. Peter just let me talk. And sometimes, he let me sit there silently, collecting my thoughts. When it was appropriate, he asked me questions. He offered encouraging words.
And in that moment, even though the wounds of grief were still fresh and new, I remembered thinking that life would eventually be livable again—so long as I had people like Peter to help me get through it.
Peter stayed at the house that day, not just for an hour or so, but for five hours, and his presence was calming and full of a grace that human words can’t fully articulate. That isn’t an easy thing for anyone to do. A house full of grief and inconsolable loss, riddled with inexplicable tragedy is not a fun and welcoming place to be. It’s depressing and sad; but Peter didn’t care about any of that. He was there for me—and for all of us—when we needed him most.
Peter had met my parents and some of my family before, but his interactions on that day would have led outside observers to believe he had known the Bradshaws for years and years. When my Mom entered the house and saw him, she broke down in tears as she made her way towards him. With a tenderness that I’ll never understand, Peter, a rather tall man, wrapped my tiny, grieving Mother in his loving arms, and told her how sorry he was for her loss. Mom and I sat together and talked with Peter, and when we couldn’t talk because we didn’t know what to say, Peter didn’t try to force or speed along our grief. He didn’t try to give us any quick solutions. He just sat there with us, with the patient understanding that goes beyond all understanding. As more and more family members and friends made their way to my house, Peter had conversations with everyone. He talked with my Grandfather, Vern, for a long time and gave him valuable encouragement. He talked to one of our family pastors, Dave, and they got to know each other in spite of the horrible circumstances that brought them together.
Despite the uncomfortable nature of a house stricken with grief, Peter was there. He was just there. And he stayed there. And him being there on that terrible, terrible day was one of the greatest gifts God gave me in the aftermath of losing Dad.
By the time Peter had gone for the day, many members of my family and close inner circle felt they had known him for years. That was the type of man Peter Magolda was. He was a gentle but memorable presence, and he made people feel loved, valued, important, and listened to. And every bit of that—every single bit—was 100% genuine. That was Peter Magolda, and I’m so thankful for him.
Peter wasn’t just there in that one, crucial, critical moment, however; he was there in all the important, difficult moments that followed, especially during that first year after losing Dad. Although I’ll never forget Peter’s service to me and my entire family on that horrible July morning, it was his compassion and constant attention in the days and years after Dad’s death that left an impression on my heart and soul that still carries me forward. Immediately upon leaving, Peter took it upon himself to communicate with our entire cohort of SAHE students, the faculty on campus, and other individuals I knew at Miami to let them know about the tragedy and the forthcoming services. Peter orchestrated a network of support that enveloped me within days of losing my Dad. He took care of all the things that he could to help to remove a burden from me—and he helped me carry that burden through the weeks and months to come so I didn’t have to do it all myself.
After the funeral services, life started to fall into a new, different, and often painful normal for me. Peter and I had a heart to heart discussion about whether I should continue with my scheduled classes for the Fall or take a semester off, and we both agreed that it was worth a shot. Peter and I both believed that getting back into the classroom, a place that had been very comfortable for me for as long as I could remember, could actually be a healthy coping mechanism—and he was exactly right.
Throughout that first challenging semester (along with the other faculty members in the SAHE program), Peter made it a point to check in on me regularly. Often at the most unexpected times, I would get a phone call from Peter. After hearing the cadence of his familiar greeting (always a simple salutation, saying my name as “TY-ler” with a higher emphasis on the first syllable), Peter would ask me the most basic but important questions that so many other failed to ask during that phase of life. How was I doing? How was my family? Was I taking care of myself? What things were working, and what things made my grieving more difficult? Peter would often talk with me about my church family and how helpful it must have been to have a community of fellow believers as built-in support during those difficult moments, and I would explore some of my biggest fears and doubts with Peter because I felt safe and secure in those moments. I would tell him about my sorrow. I would tell him about my anger towards depression. I would tell him about the guilt I felt in moving on and enjoying life again in spite of losing Dad. All the while, Peter would sit and listen—something that made him famous in both his academic life and his vast personal relationships—and I always, always felt better after talking with Peter.
We spent many an hour on the phone or at a local Oxford restaurant catching up and talking with one another, and in those moments Peter showed me how valuable it was to a grieving soul to be vulnerable. It was over one of those meals when Peter shared his own feelings of grief over losing his Father. He shared how difficult it was to go through some of his personal possessions, but how much those things meant to him—something I had been struggling with tremendously at the time. Peter had an uncanny way of knowing exactly what needed to be said at the exactly right moment.
It was during one of those discussions when Peter had shared with me the influence his Father had made in his love for photography. As if being a stellar, world-renowned academician wasn’t enough, Peter had a talented eye through the lens of a camera. Whenever there was an event, big or small, formal or informal, Peter was always there to snap a picture or seventy of the festivities and all the people he loved. In fact, it was Peter who insisted on taking a few pictures of me in the parking lot of a Frisch’s in Hamilton after breakfast one morning.
On that morning, I had shared the miraculous story of recovering and buying my Dad’s truck that had been sold after his death. Peter could not believe that my Dad’s truck had been returned to the dealer on the exact day I had inquired about purchasing a new vehicle, and he couldn’t wait to get a few pictures of me with the truck. He sent those pictures along to me and told me how thankful he was that I had posed for them and shared the story. I had no idea how valuable those pictures would be to me. I cherish them now because of the story they represent and because of the kind-hearted artist who captured them.
Of all the pictures he took, however, he would rarely pose for a photograph himself. If you did ask for a photo with Peter, he would often make jokes about how he would only take one, and he would scramble and squirm to get out from in front of the lens as quickly as possible. I look back on those moments, however, and his anxiety over being photographed and preference for being the photographer make perfect sense because Peter Magolda was one of the most humble, other-centered men I have ever met in my entire life. Peter’s academic career was spent observing and telling the stories of others. His works—which were vast and impressive in both quality and quantity—were never braggadocious. Peter wanted to shine a light on those who he felt were overlooked and undervalued. His photography was just an extension of this life calling. He spent an entire life snapping pictures of the people he loved because he knew it made them feel the love they deserved.
The loving heart of Peter Magolda is one of the main reasons I was able to graduate with my Master’s degree less than a year after losing my Father to suicide. Peter’s calls, lunch meetings, and continual encouragement helped push me towards the finish line when my grief was telling me to lay down, to stop fighting, and to give up.
Especially when it came to the phase of our study that every student in the SAHE program dreads and fears: Comps season.
Our program required the completion of a comprehensive exam: a 35-page, 3-question written exploration of our pedagogical philosophy and vision for the future. The examination’s varied questions required that we dig deep into the knowledge we had developed during our entire residency in the program, drawing upon the theories and studies that would inform our practice working with college students moving forward. We were all given about a month to complete this assignment, which often induced more panic because of the extended timeframe. More time to work often meant more time to freak out in the fetal position in the corner of the room. Students in our program talked about comps as if they were a 35-foot monster looming on the horizon, just waiting to tear us limb for limb. “Comps” took on a life all their own. Care packages were sent to one another. I’m sure tears were shed. Laptop computers were smashed in frustration (although I’m sure the whirring Toshiba withstood the punishment). I had seen the anxiety over “comps” take down many a capable and determined student.
Peter never, never understood the hysteria. He and I talked often about the madness that comps seem to create within the cohort, and Peter was baffled. “If you’re reading what we ask you to read and thinking about the material critically,” I remember him saying, “this should be easy.”
Once I started writing the examination, I realized how right Peter was (I realized this about a lot of things in life that Peter had discussed with me). The exam wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and I found myself remembering more about the readings than I thought I could. It was difficult, yes, but Peter had taught me that difficult assignments could also be extremely valuable. I submitted the examination with a sense of relief and pride, but also with a nagging seed of doubt that maybe, just maybe, I would be the student that completely missed the mark.
The worst part about the comprehensive examination was not the assignment itself, but the waiting game between submission and getting word from your faculty advisor that you had passed and would, indeed, graduate in a few weeks. On one April evening, word got out amongst the members of our cohort that calls were being made. Within a few minutes, while doing some landscaping work in my backyard, I saw my phone light up with the name “Peter Magolda” across the screen. I threw off my work gloves and leaned against the greenhouse in my backyard.
“Hi Peter!” I said, mixing my excitement with the anxiety of big news to come.
“TY-ler,” he replied. “How’s it going?”
“I’ll let you know in a second,” I replied.
“Oh yeah, that comps thing,” Peter said with feigned interest. “Yeah, you passed. You did a really good job, and I enjoyed reading it. Now, let’s talk about stuff that actually matters. How are you doing? Work okay? How’s your Mom holding up?”
That was classic Peter Magolda—and I loved it. Peter knew what mattered. Although it was a big accomplishment, at the end of my life, I doubt I will be all that proud of having my faculty approve of a 35-page paper that I wrote. But I will be proud of the legacy I left behind. I’ll be proud that, in spite of it all, my family grew closer together during a time of tremendous heartache. I’ll be proud that my Mom and I overcame the grief of losing my Dad to suicide. That’s what will matter most, and that’s what Peter wanted to hear about. On that night, we talked for nearly an hour, just as we did with nearly every phone call we ever shared, and Peter reminded me of the need to connect with one another on a human level.
Graduation day brought many, many mixed emotions for me and for my entire family. Although I was looking forward to the excitement and finality of earning a graduate degree—something I never thought I’d be able to accomplish—this new marker also represented another phase of life completed without my Dad. I felt proud and guilty all at the same time. That guilt was constantly nagging away at me, and as much as I looked forward to the day itself, I was also dreading the ceremony of the entire moment without my Dad.
I walked into Yager Stadium on that windy May afternoon in 2014, and my mind instantly flashed back to my first college graduation in that same stadium in 2009. On that day, I remembered looking back into the stands and eventually locating my family —Mom and Dad and the rest of my family, standing in the stands, waving at me amongst the sea of red caps and gowns. I could picture my Dad—clad in his favorite khaki suit—smiling from ear to ear. I don’t know what he was saying on that day, but I wanted to believe he just kept saying “That’s my boy, my son.”
Now, just five years from that moment, I looked back into the stands and saw my mother, wiping tears from her eyes, no doubt feeling the same painful absence that I was.
I was happy, and I was proud; but above everything, I just wanted to have my Dad back.
After the large commencement ceremony at Yager Stadium, my family and I went to a smaller graduation ceremony that was held for students in the SAHE program. As wonderful as the pomp and circumstance of the big ceremony was for me, it was this ceremony that I was more excited to participate in. During the SAHE ceremony, each graduate got to pick an important person in their life who would deliver a graduation speech to recognize their accomplishments.
Without hesitation, I chose Peter.
Before the ceremony started, Peter came up to me and wrapped me into one of his usual bear hugs. He said hello to my Mother, my grandparents, and my great Aunt, and then he pulled me aside for a second.
“Hey, I thought I should check with you. I’ve got your speech written up here. I was planning to talk about your Dad. That okay?”
“Of course,” I said to Peter.
“Good, because I guess I can’t really change it now anyway,” he said through a chuckle.
When Peter called my name (same cadence as always), I stood next to the podium, and tried as hard as I could to hold back tears as he talked and shared my story. He talked about how proud he was that I had worked part time at Miami University Middletown all while earning my graduate degree. He talked about my ability to deal with adversity, recounting a story from shortly before Dad’s death when I had extinguished a severe electrical fire in my home that could have caused me to lose my entire house less than a year into owning it.
And then, he told the story of my Father—beautifully, eloquently, and with compassion and love. Peter shared how much my Father had meant to me and our entire family, and how his loss had affected us deeply. He said that my Father would have been proud that, in spite of the trauma, I had still worked hard to earn my degree. And Peter shared how proud he was of me.
Hearing that two of the men whom I deeply idolized—my Father and Peter Magolda—were proud of me was more valuable than any piece of paper the University could bestow.
He stepped back from the podium and gave me a tender hug as tears streamed down my cheeks, and in that moment I knew that I’d never, ever have a professor and teacher as special as Peter Magolda as long as I lived.
I had the honor of being one of Peter’s last advisees. Peter gleefully retired from his faculty role at Miami shortly after I graduated, and he would often joke about how I had driven him into retirement sooner than he had planned. Although I knew that Peter would miss the people that he worked with at Miami, I also knew that he would not miss the bureaucracy, the politics, and the drudgery that can accompany even the most exciting jobs. I always loved it when people asked if Peter was excited about retiring. “Excited?” he’d respond, and then he would pull out his cell phone and open the countdown app that showed—to the minute—how much longer he had until reaching the finish line. He would then make a joke about a number of people at Miami who probably had the same countdown clock on their phones anticipating the moment that they’d never have to deal with him again.
I laughed to amuse Peter, but in my heart I kept thinking the same thing over and over again: Miami University would just not be the same without Peter Magolda. Yes, Peter would definitely miss some aspects of Miami after retiring; but there was no doubt that Miami University would miss him more. His teaching skill, his intellectual greatness, his capacity to think deeply, and his quintessential kindness had all made Miami University a much better place.
Peter did retire from Miami, doing his best to shun the well-deserved attention that folks all across campus tried to shower upon him. He and Marcia moved to a beautiful home in Blacksburg, Virginia, and although our face to face visits grew less and less frequent, they never became less meaningful.
Peter helped me in so many ways, even after his retirement from Miami freed him of that obligation. I’ll never forget his wisdom when I navigated a career crisis in 2016 which caused me to leave Miami, only to return less than four months later. After briefly diagnosing me with Stockholm Syndrome, Peter gave me the confidence I needed to swallow my pride, admit I had made a mistake, and return to a place that had been and would always be home in spite of its faults and my own faults. Peter helped me work through all of those confidence issues, and he reminded me that my work was about the meaning I made of it, not the means that came from it.
Whenever Peter was back in town, we always did our best to get together for a meal and reconnect. Although his dodgy cell reception in the mountains of Virginia could often make it difficult to connect for a phone call, he always found time take an hour or two out of his day to catch up. I so enjoyed hearing about his retirement escapades—his family get togethers, his travels to speaking engagements, his continued research, and his love of spending more and more time with Marcia. We would text and catch up, promising to stay in touch and inquiring about one another’s family. And most importantly, even though years were passing along at a rapid pace, Peter never, ever quit asking me how I was coping with my Dad’s death.
Because of his reception issues, Peter and I had been communicating through e-mail more and more as of late. Through e-mail, Peter and I would trade greetings, articles we thought would interest one another, and I always anxiously awaited each December when Peter would send along his infamous holiday newsletter.
Peter always joked with me about the newsletter and how, each year, he did his best to find the most uninteresting and ordinary things to include in the newsletter. “I mean, who the hell would ever want to read this thing?!” he would say to me every year, laughing about how he had done his very best to include even the most mundane snippets of his life in the newest edition. He would include photos he had taken, conferences and workshops he and Marcia had attended, and well-wishes to everyone who received the letter. He often told me that, although I had always viewed it as a blessing to receive the newsletter, it was probably a horrible, terrible punishment for something I had done in a previous life. “People are probably trying to get me to their Spam folders every year they see it!” he would joke.
As much as he joked about preparing the newsletter, I think Peter actually loved putting it together. Not because of the stories that he shared within it, but because it was an impetus for connection. Without a doubt, Peter’s inbox would be inundated within days of sending out the newsletter, and it gave him an excuse to do what he loved most: to talk with other people and hear about their lives.
This past year, I received Peter’s newsletter, and on the day I returned to work after the holiday break, I read through it with the same frivolity I did each and every year upon its arrival. Among pictures of family and friends who had visited Peter and Marcia in the past year, Peter also included a picture of a black bear captioned “Our Bear” and told readers that this was a neighborhood bear that was currently hibernating. He told stories of Marcia decorating their beautiful home with seven full size Christmas trees, his trip to Jazz Fest and an annual Reds game, and other highlights of the year. I hammered out an e-mail to Peter and let him know how much I always enjoyed reading this newsletter, even if he didn’t understand why people were interested in his life. I told him that I hoped he fed the bear daily, and that it was likely still more friendly than some of his former colleagues in Oxford, and I asked him if he might have time to chat in the coming week.
That evening, I got a phone call—not the call from Peter that I had anticipated, but a call about him. Tyler Wade, a dear friend of mine from our days as fellow graduate students in the SAHE program, was on the other end of the line.
“Tyler,” he said, “I have some horrible news. Peter died today.”
The news of Peter’s death sucked the air out of my lungs. I didn’t even know how to respond. Hours earlier, I had been emailing him to let him know how much I enjoyed hearing updates of his life, and now I was hearing that his life had ended. Peter had passed away, unexpectedly, at his home with Marcia at his side. I was reeling, unable to string together a coherent sentence. It wasn’t just the rug that was pulled out from under me with that phone call; the foundation itself was crumbling. After thanking Tyler for calling, I shared the horrible news with Paige. Then, I sat down at our kitchen table. As the magnitude of losing someone whose life was so important began to wash over me, I began to cry and weep uncontrollably.
And now, nearly two months after his death, I still find myself crying when I think about Peter. I will walk by McGuffey Hall and think of sitting with him in a classroom or his office, and I will immediately tear up. I see his handwriting on the papers that he graded, and I fall apart. I see pictures of him that hundreds of former students posted online after news of his death began to spread, and I wonder why a man so caring, so gentle, and so important is gone from a world that desperately needs people like him.
Peter’s death has not felt real to me; and now, nearly two months after hearing the news, it still doesn’t seem real that he’s gone. I can still hear his voice, his chuckle as he told amusing stories, and his unmistakable dialect. Over the past two months, I can’t begin to count the times when I’ve wanted to call Peter and seek his wisdom. As I continue to work on my doctorate, I want his advice about research topics and resources and dissertation committees. As I navigate challenging circumstances professionally, I desperately want to hear his perspective and vent with him. I want to tell him about my upcoming wedding, and I want to hear all about how much he is enjoying a retirement that he deserved more than anyone I know. I cry when I talk to others about Peter because I already feel the deep pain of his absence, and I feel an unrelenting guilt that I should have done more to connect with him and make our friendship a priority.
But I can’t share those things with Peter, and the finality of his loss hurts at a soul level. Peter’s death still hangs over me because he lived a ridiculously impactful and significant life; and now that he is gone, there is an emptiness to my world that only he could have filled.
My pain is also magnified, however, because of the vital role Peter played in helping me grieve the loss of my Father. There were so many wonderful people that were absolutely essential to surviving my Dad’s suicide and death—and Peter Magolda was one of those central pillars.
I have often said that the God I serve, all-knowing and omniscient, began to surround me with people that I would need to help me grieve and survive long before Dad’s death actually occurred. I firmly believe that God didn’t try to replace my Dad with a single individual, but instead, He created a team of people who each kept a certain element of Dad’s personality alive in my life.
Peter was my encourager. Peter was my jokester. Peter was the man, just like my Dad, who reminded me that I didn’t always need to take life so seriously, and that I should enjoy those little moments. Peter was my conversationalist—the person I could talk to for hours on end, never feeling weary or bored because he was so engaged and so interesting. Peter was my processor and my wise mentor. His perspective, advice, and words of wisdom were a beacon of maturity and thoughtfulness to me—a young, often brash, emotionally charged rookie in the world of student affairs and college administration. Peter was my teacher—just like my Dad—giving me guideposts for how to live an authentic, significant life. That was who Peter Magolda was for me, and losing him feels like I’m losing another piece of my Dad all over again; and although Peter never claimed to be a replacement for my Father, he was surely there to be a Father-figure when I needed one most. And Peter, I will never, ever be able to say thank you enough.
That is who Peter Magolda was for me, and I have no doubt that he was that and more to the thousands of family members, friends, students, colleagues, and research participants that he spent his entire life loving and connecting with. My story is unique, but it is not uncommon or atypical—and that is because Peter Magolda was a humble man of influence who would deny he ever made a difference.
It’s fitting that Peter’s last book—and in my opinion one of his greatest legacies—was an ethnographic study of campus custodians. Peter spent years working side-by-side campus custodians at different institutions across the country, and he wrote a brilliant analysis of the many ways that college campuses overlook, ignore, and diminish the contributions and value these individuals bring to the academic community. Peter believed that custodians were the lifeblood and true loyalists within most college campuses, and he was upset at their lack of recognition as educators and sources of organizational knowledge. Peter believed this because he had worked side-by-side with many custodians doing research for his book, and I believe he wrote this book to give voice to their stories. By the same token, those of you who are interested in supporting Peter’s legacy can contribute to the Peter M. Magolda Custodian Emergency Fund at Miami University (click the “Give Online” link near the bottom of the memorial).
I read the book shortly after it came out, and I found myself smiling and laughing from the moment I started to read. Peter’s opening to that book—which is classic Peter—reminds me why I love him so much:
“For the past 39 years I have worked on college campuses as a student, student affairs educator, and faculty member. Needless to say, I have participated in thousands of icebreakers and acquaintanceship activities, and I abhor them. Revealing my favorite color is hardly the way I forge meaningful relationships with strangers. A common getting-acquainted activity involves answering the question, “Who do you most admire in the world?” I especially dislike this question for two reasons. First, I struggle to pay attention to participants’ responses because I am too busy brainstorming a list of likely responses, like “Gandhi,” “parents,” “Rosa Parks,” or a third-grade teacher. Second, sharing my true response, “Juanita ‘Pat’ Denton,” who was a campus custodian, could mistakenly convey I am mocking this activity. Although I seldom seriously analyze others’ responses to this question, I am intensely serious about my response.”
I think there was likely a third reason why Peter hated these ice-breaker activities. I think that Peter likely hated these types of ice-breaker activities because they forced him to talk about himself when all he really wanted to do in this life was tell the stories of others. That’s what made Peter Magolda so special—a rare treasure. In a world focused on “me,” Peter Magolda led a life that was focused on others. Peter was a storyteller, advocate, and voice for those who deserved to have their stories told. I hope, in some small way, I’m able to tell his story in this new phase of life without him, because Peter’s life matters, and it was tremendously significant because of the choices he made.
In one of the first articles I ever read written by Peter Magolda (“Using Ethnographic Fieldwork and Case Studies to Guide Student Affairs Practice, 1999), he outlined a perspective of his work (which I heard him repeat quite often) that characterized his perspective on intellectual pursuit. The goal of Peter’s work, which he credited to Michael Quinn Patton (1990), was to make the obvious obvious, make the obvious dubious, and make the hidden obvious. When Peter first tried to explain this concept to me, my head spun. As I look back on his life, however, it makes all the sense in the world. In his work and the way he treated others, Peter refused to simply accept what he saw at face value. He wanted to dig deep, trying to affirm the things he knew, question the things that we thought we knew but likely didn’t, and reveal underlying insights that were often hidden from a face value interpretation.
Peter didn’t do this with abstract research subjects; he did this with people. Colleagues, friends, family members, students. Students like me.
And I am a better person because of Peter Magolda.
I’m glad that Peter Magolda saw me as more than what I represented on the surface-level all those years back. I am a better person—and thousands of others are better people as well—because Peter wanted to know more about us. He wanted to learn about our lives, and to see behind our masks into our most personal motivations, doubts, and fears.
Peter had another mantra that he lived his life by, and one that will stick with me for as long as I live. Peter always encouraged us to look at the espoused values of any individual or organization and ask whether or not those espoused values aligned with the enacted values. Did what a person said match what they did? Did they walk the talk they put into the world, and if not, why? Did mission statements actually reflect what was happening in the organization? Were people “doing” instead of simply “saying”?
Each day, I think about that lesson that Peter taught me in my own life. I claim to be a loving, caring individual…but do my actions fully represent that value? Did the terse response I gave at work seem loving? Did my neglect of a loved one represent a caring heart? Did my less-than-loving-gesture to a fellow driver—albeit entirely deserved—reflect the grace and forgiveness I hope to receive from others?
Peter Magolda, even in his death, is challenging me to be a better educator, a better eventual-husband, a better son, a better colleague, a better writer—and a better human being. Peter’s contribution to the world is magnified because he instilled this character calling into the lives of all the students he educated.
And above all, I am thankful that all of the values Peter Magolda espoused—namely love, care, and compassion for his fellow man—were enacted in every single moment of his all-too-short but insanely consequential life.
The legacy of Dr. Peter Magolda lives on in my heart because he put his convictions and espoused beliefs into action, and that life consistency was my most indelible educational moment. He may have spent an entire career telling the stories of others, but for me, Peter’s story is one that will always be worth telling for as long as I live.
Peter, I know exactly what you would say had I been privileged to share this post with you: “This is entirely too long, and you make me sound entirely more important than I actually am.” I feel as if I could have written many, many more pages, however. Even then I would have been unable to capture the impact your life made upon mine. Peter, you were an educator in every sense of the word. In the classroom, you taught me to analyze, and to examine, and to criticize and better the world around me. In our friendship, you taught me to enjoy life and spend less time worrying about the things that didn’t matter. And in the depths of my despair, in the darkest moment of my life, you helped me see through the walls of grief and loss that threatened to consume me. Peter, I will never be able to say thank you enough for the value you brought to my life and my journey. After losing my Dad, you were a Fatherly figure in my life. You helped council me and offered advice during difficult decisions, just as my Dad had always done. You encouraged me and pushed me with a perfect balance of compassion and motivation, just as my Dad had always done. And just like my Dad, you helped me laugh again. Peter, losing you has felt like losing another piece of my Dad, and even though you taught me how to be resilient and courageous, I’ll always be deeply saddened when I think of a life without you. Peter, your loss has already left a void in my life that is hard to articulate, and there are so many others who loved you that feel the same way. We wish you were still here, because we were all better people when you were in this life. In your honor, Peter, I hope we are all able to carry on the things you taught us. And Peter, thank you for never giving up on me.
“We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us…[If your gift] is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach.” Romans 12:6-7 (NIV)
Writer’s Note: I would like to offer a special thank you to my former classmate and colleague (and former student and friend of Peter’s) Dave Sheehan for reviewing, editing, and ultimately improving this narrative. Dave’s advice, authentic reactions, and suggestions helped to dramatically enhance my writing and recollections of a man we both loved and cared for deeply. I am deeply appreciative for Dave’s time, his generosity, and most of all, his brilliant intellect and kind friendship. Dave, thank you for fighting through your own grief to share stories and important moments from your last conversation with Peter; they’ve helped me grieve positively more than I could ever thank you for.