Melvin Gary - In Memoriam
1938 - 2015
Dan Ogilvie's tribute to Mel Gary at the memorial service on March 14, 2015
A few years before I retired, I created and offered a course on beliefs about the soul and its afterlife. It was an unusual course that explored the history of afterlife beliefs, how beliefs are learned, how they function, the human capacity to fight about whose beliefs are correct, and a variety of other facets of the topic. Invariably at the end of the course, a few students would ask me what I believed about the afterlife of the soul. I hemmed and hawed and pretty much avoided answering their question. However, if had I been asked if Mel Gary’s soul would survive his death, my answer would have been OF COURSE!
When Mel retired in 2002, physically he disappeared from Rutgers, but his spirit remained. At the present time, Rutgers is one of the most diversified institutions on the face of the planet. I see that as one of the results of Mel’s early commitments. When I hear about courses that address difficult problems in great depth from expanded perspectives, I sense Mel’s presence. He introduced a course titled Prejudice and Conflict in the early days of Livingston College that provided students with substance to think about and act upon for the rest of their lives. As the only black member of the psychology faculty during the racially tense period during the late 60’s and early 70’s, he was under intense pressure from all sides to be more militant or more liberal or more conservative or more conciliatory or more demanding – to represent this side or that side of the civil battles that were raging during that period of time. Surely these experiences helped shape his popular course titled Psychology of the Black Experience. It was a rigorous course with lots of reading materials that required students to think and write about their own experiences and locate themselves in a broad historical perspective. Even more demanding was his graduate course on the topic of Race, Culture, and Behavior. Students were taught how to THINK in Mel’s courses – in all of his courses.
Mel held students to high standards. Faculty members who continue to do that remind me that Mel’s spirit remains with us. He held himself to high standards. When Mel was teaching or advising students (he did a lot of that) or attending or more likely presiding over meetings (he did a lot of that as well), one had the distinct, reassuring feeling that an ADULT was in the room. As the Department’s primary student advisor for several years, his intimate knowledge of all facets of the University enabled him to navigate students through the complexities of the place with great skill, unbending patience, and an unforgettable hearty chuckle here and there.
And nobody was more committed to social justice than Mel. In that and in many other regards, Mel’s soul or spirit is with us today. It resides and will continue to survive in the bones of the healthiest parts of Rutgers. Thank you Mel and keep up the good work.