John G. Messerly, PhD
CHILDHOOD AND PARENTS
My earliest memories are vivid and illicit nostalgia: the aroma of baked goods from my mother’s kitchen, a large cottonwood tree in our backyard, the smell of burning leaves in the fall, the glow of a real fireplace in our living room, sledding down the hills at the golf course up the street in the winter, and spring … when one could play baseball again. Was life ever better than when playing baseball? Or when playing sandlot football in the rain, snow, mud, and freezing cold? I don’t think so.
I was loved by my parents more than I deserved—they loved me unconditionally. How indebted I am to them. My mother died on September 18, 2005, at the age of 86. She is no longer the beauty that stole my father’s heart in the 1930s; no longer the wife who waited through world war II for her husband to return; no longer middle age—but she was my first love, she was my father’s only love, and she was beloved by all her children.
My father died in 1989 at the age of 71, but not before he talked with me about politics, religion, history, sports and so much else. He labored physically for more than 50 years so that his family could have more than he did in his depression era youth. My parents did their best. They may not have received the wages due them—not many parents do—but they labored nonetheless. So now, after more than 50 years, I thank them for their labor and their love. My mother was comfort, consolation, and tenderness; my father was strength, guidance, and toughness. Both resonate within me still.
A house like mine on the street I grew up on.
GRADE & HIGH SCHOOL (1961-1973)
I grew up in Greendale, Missouri, a middle-class suburb of St. Louis in the midst of the baby boom. There were plenty of kids to play with and I grew up “with a ball in my hands,” as a childhood friend used to say. We played outside every day—baseball, soccer, and football mostly—since there wasn’t much to do inside back then. Our grade school soccer team won multiple city championships, and some of my soccer teammates went on to play college and professional soccer. (Needless to say, I was not among them.) Our baseball team was less successful, mostly because I was a pitcher who threw every ball right down the middle—with little or no velocity. As for football, I was “all-sandlot,” at least until we neared puberty when I found out I was too little for football. By high school, my sport of choice had changed to table tennis. I was lucky enough to play a number of the top-ranked players in the world, but I was beaten soundly by all of them.
A picture of my high school, long since torn down.
The private high school I attended marked the beginning of my academic life. There I encountered the New England Transcendentalists—Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman—the first philosophers I had ever read. They taught me, among other things, that the search for truth would be unsettling. But it was the summer before college that marked the true beginning of my intellectual voyage. A good friend was a philosophy major and discussions with him awoken me, as Kant said of encountering Hume, from my dogmatic slumber. I now realized that there was a world of ideas to explore. It was as if a dam had broken within me, exposing the parochialism of my youthful indoctrination. I was determined to explore this mindscape and die with as large a mind as possible.
COLLEGE – UNDERGRADUATE (1973-1978)
The University of Missouri – “The Welfare of the People”
My first semester of college, I eagerly enrolled in a class called, “Major Questions in Philosophy.” There I was introduced to Descartes’ epistemological skepticism, Hume’s critique of religion, and Lenin’s critique of the state. Wow! Knowledge, the gods, and the state all undermined in 16 weeks. I am not sure why I was open to new ideas, whereas so many cling to the first ideas they are exposed to, but I was hooked. Subsequently, I took the maximum number of philosophy courses possible; learning about Medieval, American, Modern, and Asian philosophy, and a bit of philosophy of religion, science, mind, and law from instructors like Edward Costello, Peter Fuss, Paul Gomberg, and David Griesedeck. In the meantime, I discovered women, and later, high stakes poker.
YOUNG ADULTHOOD & CHILDREN (1978-1986)
I headed off to Las Vegas with my poker winnings in 1979 and made a meager living playing poker over the next few years. On returning to St. Louis, I wooed my soon-to-be wife with the hundred dollar bills I carried around in case a game surfaced. She was quite impressed, although less so when she found out that that was all the money I had. (And that only 1 of the 4 doors on my dilapidated car opened!) But she married me in 1980, and during the next few years, we welcomed two beautiful children. We struggled financially during these years, as my poker income was inconsistent. By 1985 we had moved to Las Vegas where I dealt blackjack. However, the desert wasn’t to our liking and we moved back to St. Louis where I started graduate school in 1986. I wanted to go to Washington University but unfortunately, I missed their deadline. So I accepted a graduate fellowship to St. Louis University, planning to switch schools. For a number of reasons, I never did switch.
GRADUATE SCHOOL (1986-1992)
Dubourg Hall, St. Louis University
This is when I really became a good student. I helped raise my children, studied hard, taught my own classes, and made some good friends. I learned much, both from my fellow graduate students—especially Darrell Arnold and John Ries—and from my professors—especially Richard J. Blackwell and William C. Charron. (For more on my professor’s influence see the “academic genealogy.”) I’ve always had mixed feelings about attending St. Louis University, which often leads people to mistakenly assume that I’m religious. The idea of attending a Catholic university sent shivers down my spine before I started, and haunts me to this day. Yet, I received an excellent education there for which I am immensely grateful.
The other significant event was the addition of a new daughter in 1988. Like all my children, she has provided much joy.
My first full-time job was at Ursuline College in Ohio—big mistake—both Ohio and the college. I rose to become chair of the philosophy department and had an office that overlooked the campus lake, but I still wanted out of Cleveland. Yet I had some good students there, many of whom I recall fondly to this day. (Especially Darcie Amirault,
Wendy Whidden, Michelle Fegatelli, Judy Anthes, Donna Owen, Mary Bartell, Nancy Poling, and Meredith von Saucken.)
In 2000 I accepted a position as lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, where I taught in both the philosophy and computer science departments. I enjoyed teaching at this flagship university, and I was always inspired when walking through a quad whose main building has an inscription: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” (Of course, this had no religious significance for me.)
A cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy
We left Austin in 2009 to follow our grown children to the Northwest—it was lonely in Texas without them. Since then I have taught part-time at a few different institutions, but now spend most of my time doing my own writing and research. I have left teaching behind, and have no desire to return. As the lyrics of an old Cat Stevens song say: “I’m not making love to anyone’s wishes, only for that light I see, Cause when I’m dead and lowered low in my grave, that’s gonna be the only thing that’s left of me.”
My wife Jane has been the only woman I have ever loved, and we have been married for more than 30 years. She is an extraordinary woman in every conceivable way; intelligent, thoughtful, introspective, disciplined and conscientious, while at the same time possessing a heart full of warmth, compassion, and love. She is too good for this world. And, if all that is not enough, she is remarkably fit. I can’t keep up with her when we walk together. For her, the most appropriate words are not my own, but the Bard’s:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
As I look back over my life in search of its purpose, my sentiments are best echoed by the prose from the Prologue to Bertrand Russell’s autobiography. It is so beautiful that I long ago learned to recite it verbatim. (Which I can still do)
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy—ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found.
With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what
human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.
Seattle WA, December 2012