A grand and far too rare experience in life is learning from a great teacher.
I have been blessed in my life to have been mentored by two wonderful men who were extraordinary teachers. The first was my father, Dr. Walter M. Kirkendall, who died around this time in 1991.
The other was Dr. Ross Marlo Lence, who died on Tuesday morning, July 11, 2006 in Houston at the age of 62 after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer (Chronicle obituary here). With Ross’ death, Houston has lost a genuine treasure.
Ross was one of Houston’s finest teachers of this generation. Over a phenomenal 30 plus-year teaching career at the University of Houston, Ross taught classic and American political philosophy to scores of eager students and citizens.
Utilizing a marvelous intellect that was refined at the Universities of Chicago, Georgetown and Indiana, Ross was a master craftsman in the art of teaching and was an unparalleled expert in the Socratic method of teaching.
Ross deployed a delightful mixture of insightful philosophy, passionate oratorical skill, and self-deprecating humor to ignite and stoke a passion for learning in his students (“Be bold in thought, precise in speech, moderate in action,” he would continually urge). When I once asked Ross to confide his primary goal as a teacher, he replied with a twinkle in his eye:
“Tom, my goals are modest. All I want is to teach my students how to think, and the difference between right and wrong.”
As a result of Ross’ outstanding talent and dedication to the University of Houston (he served on virtually every academic committee at the University over his career), a large group of his students over a decade ago raised funds to honor him by endowing a chair in his name in the political science department at the University of Houston. Accordingly, as of his death, Ross was the original holder of the Ross M. Lence Distinguished Teaching Chair at the University of Houston.
How many professors have an endowed chair funded and named in their honor during their lifetimes? Such was the excellence of Ross Lence.
Ross was also a John and Rebecca Moores University Scholar at the University of Houston, where he was continually honored with numerous awards for his teaching, including the Minnie Stevens Piper Professor Award, which annually honors the most outstanding teacher in the state of Texas, (1987), and the Henri Stegemeier Award for the Outstanding Faculty Advisor in North America (1987).
In addition to his superlative teaching talent, Ross’ selfless heart and humanism attracted students like a magnet. His office had the quintessential open door and always resembled a scene from a Robert Altman film with students and colleagues milling in and out carrying on multiple conversations with Ross and each other on the various subjects of the particular day.
Inasmuch as he dedicated his life to teaching and his students, Ross never married, yet he has the largest family of anyone that I have ever known. To enter one of Ross’ classes was literally to be drawn into Ross’ huge family of students, former students, colleagues and friends. The devotion of Ross’ family members was surpassed only by Ross’ devotion to them and his wonderful mother, Nickie, for whom he cared lovingly over the past 25 years.
What was it that made Ross’ life so fulfilling? An experience that I had several years ago with Ross provides some insight into the answer to that question.
I had the privilege of helping Ross coordinate a strategy in regard to a legal matter that had a political component, the details of which are not particularly important. Suffice it to say that it was serious and could have adversely affected much of what Ross had worked for during his professional career. Due to the nature of the problem, we had to work quickly in devising and implementing our strategy.
With but a few phone calls, we were able to put together a legal team of over a half-dozen prominent Houston attorneys, each of whom had been a student of Ross and were instantly willing to provide their services on a pro bono basis (Ross took great pleasure in reminding his university colleagues of his personal legal team, the aggregate hourly billing rate of which was in excess of $2,500).
As we devised and implemented our strategy to resolve the matter, Ross never exhibited even a moment of personal despair over the seriousness of the matter and instead relished the opportunity to engage his old students and friends in matters of legal and political intrigue.
Even when we resolved the matter favorably for Ross after a couple of weeks of intense posturing and negotiation, Ross’ main goal was to arrange the post-resolution party where he could dissect and analyze what had occurred, and revel in the success of his crack legal team.
You see, it was not the reward that he received from the successful resolution of the matter that drove Ross, although he certainly appreciated it. Rather, it was the reward of renewing and deepening the relationships with his former students and old friends — even during one of the most threatening moments of his professional life — that was most rewarding to Ross.
What a special gift it was to have my old mentor and friend remind me of the true source of happiness in his richly-rewarded life.
Ross was diagnosed in August, 2005 with pancreatic cancer, which is particularly pernicious. So, the final 11 months of his life have been draining physically for Ross, although his mother’s loving care undoubtedly extended his life by at least several months.
Consistent with his remarkable nature, Ross used the experience of dealing with terminal illness to provide a remarkable lesson on faith, which he exhibited in a series of confidence-boosting email messages to his extended family over the past 11 months. I have accumulated those email messages in chronological order here — they are an inspiring reflection of the true nature of this fine man, who was literally a conduit of God’s grace.
As regular readers of this blog know, A Man for All Seasons — the story of Sir Thomas More’s conflict with King Henry VIII — is one of my favorite movies, and it was one of Ross’ favorites, too.
Ross particularly enjoyed the scene early in the movie when Sir Thomas attempts unsuccessfully to persuade his student, Richard Rich, to eschew a desire for a political appointment and become a teacher. After rejecting Thomas’ advice, Rich takes a political appointment from Henry’s henchman Cromwell in return for agreeing to betray Thomas.
“Sir Thomas knew that Rich had a corrupt heart and would never be able to resist the temptations of politics,” Ross observed to me.
But then Ross quickly posed the following question with a wry smile.
“But is Thomas also suggesting that a corrupt heart facilitates a great teaching career?”
As I have talked and corresponded with hundreds of Ross’ friends, colleagues and former students over the past several months leading up to his death, I was reminded continually that Ross Lence’s life is proof of the truth of Sir Thomas’ advice to Rich during their exchange that Ross so enjoyed:
Sir Thomas: “Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.”
Richard Rich: “If I was, who would know it?”
Sir Thomas More: “You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.”
Yes, my dear friend Ross, “not a bad public, that.” Your job has been extraordinarily well done. Rest in peace, friend.
A visitation will be held for Ross at the the Settegast-Kopf Co. Funeral Home at 3320 Kirby Drive (77098) beginning at 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 13 to be followed by a Rosary service at 7 p.m. A funeral mass will be held for Ross at 10 a.m. on Friday, July 14 at St. Anne Catholic Church at the corner of Westheimer and Shepard. The University of Houston is planning a memorial service for Ross later this year after the beginning of the fall semester.
Update: “On Teaching” by Ross M. Lence, Ted Estess eulogizes Ross at his funeral, and the Abbeville Institute provides a moving tribute. Finally, the Chronicle’s obituary on Ross includes this online guest book that includes dozens of tributes to Ross from his students, former students, colleagues and friends.
Update II: In a fitting tribute on the final day of classes for the fall semester, the University of Houston hosted a wonderful memorial service for Professor Lence at 1:30 p.m., on Friday, December 1, 2006 in the AD Bruce Religion Center on the UH campus. A reception followed the service at the Commons of the the UH Honors College, and a joyous time was had by all as we exchanged remembrances of this special man.
Bill Monroe, Ross’ dear friend and long-time colleague on the Honors College faculty, did a masterful job of opening and closing the service. He opened the service on the right note by recalling another colleague’s experience with Ross’ often unpredictable and disorienting opinions:
“A colleague and mutual friend said that for over a decade he thought Lence was a liberal Jew from Chicago, only to discover that he was actually a libertarian Catholic from White Fish, Montana.”
The following are the tributes to Ross from his friends at the memorial service:
Professor Susan Collins (colleague)
Professor Ed Willems (colleague)
Professor Andy Little (former student) presenting Dr. Lence’s essay “On Teaching“
My Tribute (former student)
Orlando Sanchez (former student)
Jeff Dodd (former student)
Ted Estess (colleague)
Update III: James Patterson, another former student of Dr. Lence, wrote this fine remembrance of Ross in 2013 over at the Minding The Campus blog.