Friday, January 23, 2015

Memories of My Father

My father, Kirkland R. Gable (born Ralph Schwitzgebel) died Sunday. Here are some things I want you to know about him.

Of teaching, he said that authentic education is less about textbooks, exams, and technical skills than about moving students "toward a bolder comprehension of what the world and themselves might become." He was a beloved psychology professor at California Lutheran University.

I have never known anyone, I think, who brought as much creative fun to teaching as he did. He gave out goofy prizes to students who scored well on his exams (e.g., a wind-up robot nun who breathed sparks of static electricity: "nunzilla"). Teaching about alcoholism, he would start by pouring himself a glass of wine (actually, water with food coloring), pouring more wine and acting drunker, arguing with himself, as the class proceeded. Teaching about child development, he would bring in my sister or me, and we would move our mouths like ventriloquist dummies as he stood behind us, talking about Piaget or parenting styles (and then he'd ask our opinion about parenting styles). Teaching about neuroanatomy, he brought in a brain jello mold, which he sliced up and passed around class for the students to eat ("yum! occipital cortex!"). Etc.

As a graduate student and then assistant professor at Harvard in the 1960s and 1970s, he shared the idealism of his mentors Timothy Leary and B.F. Skinner, who thought that through understanding the human mind we can transform and radically improve the human condition -- a vision he carried through his entire life.

His comments about education captured his ideal for thinking in general: that we should always aim toward a bolder comprehension of what the world and we ourselves, and the people around us, might become.

He was always imagining the potential of the young people he met, seeing things in them that they often did not see in themselves. He especially loved juvenile delinquents, whom he encouraged to think expansively and boldly. He recruited them from street corners, paying them to speak their hopes and stories into reel-to-reel tapes, and he recorded their declining rates of recidivism as they did this, week after week. His book about this work, Streetcorner Research (1964), was a classic in its day. As a prospective graduate student in the 1990s, I proudly searched the research libraries at the schools I was admitted to, always finding multiple copies with lots of date stamps in the 1960s and 1970s.

With his twin brother Robert, he invented the electronic monitoring ankle bracelet, now used as an alternative to prison for non-violent offenders.

He wanted to set teenage boys free from prison, rewarding them for going to churches and libraries instead of street corners and pool halls. He had a positive vision rather than a penal one, and he imagined everyone someday using location monitors to share rides and to meet nearby strangers with mutual interests -- ideas which, in 1960, seem to have been about fifty years before their time.

With degrees in both law and psychology, he helped to reform institutional practice in insane asylums -- which were often terrible places in the 1960s, whose inmates had no effective legal rights. He helped force these institutions to become more humane and to release harmless inmates held against their will. I recall his stories about inmates who were often, he said, "as sane as could be expected, given their current environment", and maybe saner than their jailors -- for example an old man who decades earlier had painted his neighbor's horse as an angry prank, and thought he'd "get off easy" if he convinced the court he was insane.

As a father, he modeled and rewarded unconventional thinking. We never had an ordinary Christmas tree that I recall -- always instead a cardboard Christmas Buddha (with blue lights poking through his eyes), or a stepladder painted green, or a wild-found tumbleweed carefully flocked and tinseled -- and why does it have to be on December 25th? I remember a few Saturdays when we got hamburgers from different restaurants and ate them in a neutral location -- I believe it was the parking lot of a Korean church -- to see which burger we really preferred. (As I recall, my sister and he settled on the Burger King Whopper, while I could never confidently reach a preference, because it seemed like we never got the methodology quite right.)

He loved to speak with strangers, spreading his warm silliness and unconventionality out into the world. If we ordered chicken at a restaurant, he might politely ask the server to "hold the feathers". Near the end of his life, if we went to a bank together he might gently make fun of himself, saying something like "I brought along my brain," here gesturing toward me with open hands, "since my other brain is sometimes forgetting things now". For years, though we lived nowhere near any farm, we had a sign from the Department of Agriculture on our refrigerator sternly warning us never to feed table scraps to hogs.

I miss him painfully, and I hope that I can live up to some of the potential he so generously saw in me, carrying forward some of his spirit.

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I am eager to hear stories about his life from people he knew, so please, if you knew him, add one story (or more!) as a comment below. (Future visitors from 2018 or whenever, still post!) Stories are also being collected on his Facebook wall.

We are planning a memorial celebration for him in July to which anyone who knew him would be welcome to come. Please email me for details if you're interested.

16 comments:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

From Brett McDougall:
I recall Kirk spinning some yarn about 'Earthworm Cupcakes'. Apparently he taught a course in 'Abnormal Psych' and wanted to test the students abilities to follow instructions. At the front of the class on his table was a tray of delicious looking, frosted cupcakes. Above it, on the chalkboard, he had written, "Please Read the Instructions, Then Help Yourself to a Cupcake." I am not certain if there were two types of cupcakes frosted differently or just one. Regardless of my clouded recollection, the instructions clearly stated that they read the list of ingredients in the cupcakes PRIOR to eating one. Well, Kirk in his circuitous mind had devised a cupcake made with earthworms that had been cleaned and minced and cooked prior to adding them to the cake mixture. Several students simply took a cupcake and ate them without reading the ingredients. Upon realizing that their classmates were eating worms, the whole ordeal flamed out of control. I do believe that the Dean was brought in by one or more students parents's protesting his feeding their children worms. The situation was dismissed as the course was 'Abnormal Psych' and their students would need to have the ability to focus and discern the fine print in everything as future psychologists and psychiatrists. Long story short, Kirk fed worms to his students and laughed heartily about it.

Sandy Ryan said...

This is beautiful, Brother. I loved that he was the smartest man I knew, yet was always ready to laugh at himself. He loved to describe his own ideas as "goofy!" I remember being in the car as he was driving on the CLC campus in the 70's. I was in grade school and always watching him carefully to see what he might be up to next. This sunny fall day, he slowed way down for a speed bump, but as we got closer and you could no longer see the bump, he looked around bit puzzled. I always imagined, his brain told him to slow down for the bump, moved on to other, more exciting topics, and then when he came back to be focused on driving, he must have wondered why we were driving so slow. So he hit the gas pedal. It was just in time for the speed bump. We caught a little bit of air. I will never forget his face. First he looked so surprised and then he smiled delightedly. I hope his moment of passing was a bit like that. I hope when he hit this bump, he caught the air and is still flying and laughing at himself with great delight.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wow, such great stories, Brett and Sandy!

Shecky R. said...

Just a quick note of condolence, Eric, on your loss. You write that you don't know anyone who brought so much creative fun to teaching... but I DO! -- your uncle Robert. I had him for a single course at the Claremont colleges in the 1970s -- it was the most creative, unorthodox class I ever took, and he often made mention of his twin brother, so I can well imagine what your father was like. Great memories...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Shecky, thanks for that correction! I'm glad to hear that my uncle too was such an inspiring teacher. Not too surprising, since they are so similar in so many ways. I wish I'd had the chance to see Uncle Bob teaching.

Sandy Ryan said...

He was the only person I know who would often ask to speak to the store or business manager in order to compliment the job someone was doing. The manager would usually approach with a sad or concerned look, as people generally only ask for a manager in order to complain. I think this positive feedback about employees to their managers should live on. It feels great to do it and when I do, I make a few people's days better and always think of my dad.

"Shecky Riemann" said...

Eric/Sandy I don't know which of you two was the first (or if you are the only 2 siblings?), but FWIW, I do recall one of Robert's stories to our class had to do with how badly your parents wanted to have children. I'm sure your arrival was greeted with much much joy. :-)

Sandy Ryan said...

Thank you, Shecky! Eric was the first, but since he looked weird and smelled funny they had to try again!

Robert Gable said...

Eric, That's a terrific and moving tribute to your dad! I think his creativity, zaniness, scholarship, and passion for life was motivated by his close-to-death heart operations at the Mayo Clinic when he was in his early 20s.
A letter I wrote to him a day before his death read, in part: " Your spirit resonates through the consciousness of the many people you touched..." Eric, you clearly have that spirit and the talent to keep it going.

Sylvia said...

What an inspiring portrait, although it was written for such a sad occasion. My condolences. Even though I have never met your father, it is nice to be able to remember him through these stories. And since I am currently preparing for next semester's course, reading this does incite me to include some goofy & memorable activities.
Take care.

Dennis Lee said...

Eric, this is a very fine and moving tribute. So many great stories. I first met your father in 1986 when he came to visit you in college and have had many great talks with him over the years. He was always eager to provide helpful or inspirational advice to someone who was very unsure what he wanted to do with his life. We've had many talks about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) over the years, and he was very much an archetypal ENTP, but with a strong compassionate element. I wish I could have talked to him more.

smef said...

Wonderful post, one feels as if one had known him and I feel inspired to copy his openness towards young criminals or his unconventional approach (beware, students of the next semester!).
Further point: I have a somehow similar situation, since my parents were in the Academia and since I deeply admire them also as professors and intellectuals, but I always feel at odds in paying such open tributes, just because I feel shy about sharing so much of my private life. How did you deal with that?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind words, everyone. Smef: please feel free to email me about the question at the end of your comment.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Transplanting some comments from Facebook:

Dan George: "and he sold his car to a kid for 25 cents!!!!" [Yes, I remember his saying that sometime around 1970 he drove up to two teenagers loitering on a streetcorner and offered them his car for 25 cents. One backed off, figuring he was up to something. The other got the car for 25 cents, title forms and all.]

Another one from me: Mom was out of town and we went over to the neighbor's for dinner, bringing a bundt cake as dessert. We had four different icings: unflavored, cherry cough syrup, Pepto Bismol, and Hall's throat medicine. Everyone rated the icings. Cherry cough syrup came in first, then Hall's, then unflavored, then Pepto. When we revealed what was in the icings, the neighbor teenage girl said "Ew! I think I'm going to be sick!" Dad said, "Then have more cake!"

Mark Badstubner: "Dr. Gable never let the boring confines of reality get in the way of discovery. During interim of 1991, he was obsessed with (among many others things), developing something he called "Flavor-wave." His goal was to have some kind of seasoning packet you could put into the microwave with other food and it would flavor it - the absurdity and the wonder of that idea have stuck with me. Also, my favorite part of his office in the chicken coops was he had this big picture of baby that he had placed into one of his hanging plants. It was so weird and random. Oh - and I'll always remember dropping by his house unexpected and him answering the door in a kimono. Great memories of a wonderful man."

Tim Zeddies: "When CLU was in the planning stages to build a new chapel around 1990, Kirk was a faculty member on the building committee. After patiently listening to the other faculty and administration voice ideas for space designations, he calmly asked, "So where are we going to put the human brain?" Apparently, his humorous urging for more thoughtful discussion and allocation of resources went largely ignored. For me, however, Kirk's question epitomizes how he would promote self-reflective awareness and growth in others: never in-your-face or challenging, but a gentle and often humorous invitation to grow and develop."

Jeanette McMullin King: "Me: 'Why do you have the drug smugglers hot line number posted on your microwave?'
Kirk: 'Just in case.'"

Loren Geeting: "my freshman year, I took a break from midterm exam studying with some friends and made chalk body outlines all over campus. Next day people we're talking about it like it was some kind of protest or major statement. It wasn't. I remember a student asking Dr Gable what he thought of it and he said 'Whoever made those needs to be locked away immediately after they take a few art classes to improve their technique.' He was one in a million."

Leslie Denoff-Sanders: "Oh, this is really too bad. He was truly one of a kind and a fantastic educator. I will NEVER forget him bring black bin liners full of freeway trash into class, or the way he would sometimes take a box of matches and open the box, turn one round to face the other way, and then begin the class, never to explain why he did this!! He was one of the most interesting and entertaining teachers i have ever had the pleasure to have. I do hope he and Dr. Barb are together watching out for all of us!"

Teresa Powers said...

I am a 1983 graduate of Cal Lutheran and I recently learned of Dr. Gable's passing. I am so very sorry. I posted on the obituary page and I will briefly share a funny story about my first class experience with him, Psych for Living. After a test, Dr. Gable (Schwitzgebel at the time) would allow us to argue our point on a particular test question we got wrong. If our argument seemed valid he may give partial or full credit on the test question. These were often lively discussions but on this day as I went through my test, I noticed that one answer was left correct when, in fact, he should have marked it incorrect. I waited until after class and approached him, pointing out the error that was not in my favor and which would ultimately lower my grade if changed. Dr. Gable just gave me this big smile. (I will never forget his smile...it looked like he was surprised and delighted at the same time) and simply said, "thank you". The next day at the beginning of class he proceeded to talk to us about integrity and honesty and then pointed out that while everyone was asking him for credit, I did the opposite. Well you can imagine, I was sinking into my desk, mortified, flaming red with embarrassment, yet proud that he acknowledged me and valued my choices. Then he called me up in front of the class and bestowed upon me a Peaches and Herb record album in recognition of my character! Peaches and Herb!! Ha! I loved it! My friends teased me and called me a suck up but I never forgot that day nor the professor who cared so much. I took more classes from him than anyone else at CLC. Currently I teach high school students with a mental health diagnosis and severe behavior disorders. I would have loved the opportunity to have some more of those lively discussions or just ask him questions! What an amazing teacher, role model and an inspiration. My deepest sympathies on the loss of your dad.
Teresa (Iverson) Powers
CLU Grad 79

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wow -- thanks, Teresa, for that terrific story!