26 September 2010
Sometimes Regret hits you right in the solar plexus and sends you reeling in a way that is absolutely merciless, and without even a remote chance of remedy. About six months ago, I was cleaning out files. I came across this nasty – though well deserved – letter I wrote and sent to the Dean of DAAP and the Director of Architecture at UC (my alma mater). The note was my reaction to an outrageous letter they had written to one of my favorite professors where they essentially told him in so many words that he was no longer welcome to the school in which he had taught (and to most of us, practically personified) for the last 40 years. If he dared to show face on-campus again they would have security escort him out. (Really, that is what it said… I’m not kidding!) Anyway, re-reading my acerbic response brought back a flood wave of angry memories, and I felt a sudden need to contact my dear professor and make sure that he knew how much he had meant to me, and how more than three years after the incident, the memory of it still turned the blow torch on in my mind.
Other than sending him a postcard from a visit to his beloved Copenhagen, I had not really kept in touch, so I contacted an old class mate who does much better with those things, and got his number. As I was battling a cough bad enough to prevent meaningful conversation at the time, I put off calling him. By the time the cough disappeared, I had all but forgotten. I never made the call. If I thought I had enough leverage to make it really hurt, I would kick myself!!! This was my chance, and I blew it! Coach passed away in his sleep on the night of September 23rd.
Generations of UC students looked forward to the year when they would be learning from Coach, and we were no exception. Always in his trademark light blue Oxford shirt and a striped tie, he spent countless hours coaching us through our work, arguing with our reasoning and ultimately pushing us toward the light at end of our respective tunnels. As long as you were serious about what you were trying to achieve, he’d be by your side, nudging you along. As a plenty successful architect in his own right, he didn’t have to go the teaching route – he received more awards than the rest of the faculty combined, and was extensively and internationally published in journals that most other architects only dream of. No, he did it because he loved to teach, which was evident to all of us who had the privilege of learning from him. He was on a first name basis with many of the icons and starchitects most of us learn about in books and glossy publications, and his stories kept us spellbound.
Armed with a sparkling wit and a wonderfully human warmth, his lectures were delivered with a fabulous sense of humor and peppered with his own personal brand of verbal embellishments. I will never forget the meaning of a whoop-di-doo or a woo-woo. He could be very convincing, and I fondly recall the time when half of the senior class were eagerly watching through the plate glass of the DAAP stairwell, as Coach, in his grandfatherly way, put his arm around the campus police who had just put a boot on his white Volvo for a parking violation. We were making bets as to whether he would be able to convince the cop to take it off, and most of us were cheering him on. The display of body language was priceless – I would absolutely have loved to hear the actual conversation! Another time he interrupted me as I began a presentation, and pointed out that he wouldn’t listen until I buttoned up my overalls. In my defense, this was during Rhythm Studio, which was taught in the sweltering heat of the humid Cincinnati summer. Blushing and dripping with sweat, I obliged of course, but I honestly can’t remember much of what else was said during that critique.
The memories of him are many, and all of them bring a smile to my lips. Contrary to what that offensive letter from the sourpuss school bureaucrats stated, Coachs life work was indeed in the best interest of his students. The school wasn’t nicknamed “the David Niland School of Architecture” for nothing. If anyone ever doubted it, as evident by the alumni uproar caused by that letter – his students loved him. I am forever grateful for the time I had with him. Rest in peace, David.