Claremont Insider: Passings

Monday, September 15, 2008


The Claremont College community lost two members this past week.

Claremont McKenna College senior Atul Vyas (Class of 2009), was killed in the Chatsworth Metrolink train crash on Friday afternoon. Vyas was studying physics and math and had planned on going to medical school.

CMC issued a statement yesterday announcing that memorial services are pending. The statement read in part:

“As saddened as members of our community are, our heartfelt sympathies are extended to the Vyas family,” said Dean of Students Jefferson Huang. “I met with the Resident Assistants last night to discuss this with them, and it was very clear how much Atul’s passing is going to hurt our community.”

"It is always sad when we lose a young person,” noted President Pamela Gann. "It is especially poignant when one of our own, bound for a career of helping others, is snatched from a life of public service. All of us at Claremont McKenna College feel great sadness at Atul's tragic death. We extend our heartfelt condolences to his brother, Aseem Vyas, who graduated from CMC in May 2008, and to his parents, here in California.”

Memorial services are expected to be held within the next week, although arrangements are still being finalized. The CMC Web site will update this information as it becomes available.

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The community is also mourning the loss of writer and Pomona College professor David Foster Wallace, who was found dead in his home Friday evening. According to news reports, Wallace was was an apparent suicide. The Los Angeles Times carried an obituary yesterday:
Wallace, who had taught creative writing at Pomona College since 2002, was on leave this semester.

Times book editor David Ulin was in New York City for a National Book Critics Circle Board meeting Saturday.

"What was a party is now a wake," Ulin said as the news of Wallace's death circulated. "People were speechless and just blown away.

"He was one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years," Ulin said.

"He is one of the main writers who brought ambition, a sense of play, a joy in storytelling and an exuberant experimentalism of form back to the novel in the late '80s and early 1990s," Ulin said. "And he really restored the notion of the novel as a kind of canvas on which a writer can do anything."

Wallace won a cult following for his dark humor and ironic wit, which was on display in "The Broom of the System," his 1987 debut novel; "Girl With Curious Hair," a 1989 collection of short stories, and "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments" (1997). In 1997, he also received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

The LA Times observed that Wallace was the Pomona College's first Roy E. Disney professor of creative writing, and one of our readers recalled that Wallace was a dedicated teacher who touched the lives of many students.

The New York Times also noted Wallace's passing:
A versatile writer of seemingly bottomless energy, Mr. Wallace was a maximalist, exhibiting in his work a huge, even manic curiosity — about the physical world, about the much larger universe of human feelings and about the complexity of living in America at the end of the 20th century. He wrote long books, complete with reflective and often hilariously self-conscious footnotes, and he wrote long sentences, with the playfulness of a master punctuater and the inventiveness of a genius grammarian. Critics often noted that he was not only an experimenter and a showoff, but also a God-fearing moralist with a fierce honesty in confronting the existence of contradiction.

“David Foster Wallace can do practically anything if he puts his mind to it,” Michiko Kakutani, chief book critic of The New York Times, who was not a consistent praiser of Mr. Wallace’s work, wrote in 2006. “He can do sad, funny, silly, heartbreaking and absurd with equal ease; he can even do them all at once.”

Mr. Wallace, who had taught creative writing at Pomona College in Southern California since 2001 and before that had taught at Illinois State University, came to prominence in 1986 with a broadly comic first novel, “The Broom of the System” (Viking), published when he was just 24. It used the narrative frame of a young woman’s search for identity to draw a loopy portrait of America on a comic and dangerous spiral into the Disneyesque confusion of reality and artifice.


In contrast to the lively spirit of his writing, Mr. Wallace was a temperamentally unassuming man, long-haired, unhappy in front of a camera, consumed with his work and its worth, perpetually at odds with himself. Journalists who interviewed him invariably commented on his discomfort with celebrity and his self-questioning. And those who knew him best concurred that Mr. Wallace was a titanically gifted writer with an equally troubled soul.

“He was a huge talent, our strongest rhetorical writer,” Jonathan Franzen, a friend of Mr. Wallace and the author of “The Corrections,” said in an interview on Sunday, adding later, “He was also as sweet a person as I’ve ever known and as tormented a person as I’ve ever known.”

Pomona College President David Oxtoby had this remembrance
on the college's website:

In Memoriam: David Foster Wallace

A Letter from President Oxtoby

The death of Professor David Foster Wallace Friday night was, for the world, the loss of one of literature’s brightest stars. For Pomona College, it was the loss of an equally brilliant teacher — as well as a colleague and friend.

When the search committee for the inaugural Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing first convened to discuss this important new position on our faculty, they began by talking about the type of writer they wished to find, and they agreed — conceptually — that it should be someone like David Foster Wallace. By this, they meant a writer not only of note, but of genuine importance — a writer who had already raised the bar in American letters and whose promise for the future was truly unlimited. When they actually spoke to David himself and he agreed to come to Pomona, they were overjoyed.

By that time, the College knew that David was also considered a fine and thoughtful educator. What they had no right to expect was that he would be as spectacular a teacher as he was a writer. But after his arrival in 2002, he showed himself to be exactly that. Many of his students have come to me over the years, marveling at the transformative experience of working with him in one of his intense creative writing classes. They told me how tough and demanding he could be, and at the same time they wondered at how a man of such creative genius could also be so kind, so caring, so generous of his time, his energy and his wisdom.

He was a man who truly understood what a liberal education at a place like Pomona is all about. In fact, in a commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, I think he said it as well as it can be said: “The really important kind of freedom,” he said that day, “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think.”

It is this Dave Wallace, as he preferred to be called by friends and students — the brilliant teacher who worked so tirelessly to teach his young writers how to think and how to be serious in their engagement with the world — who will be most profoundly missed here at Pomona. In the near future, we will find appropriate ways to memorialize his life and work among us, but for now, our deepest condolences go out to his wife and family as we mourn this tremendous loss within the privacy of our college community.

—David Oxtoby
September 15, 2008