Eulogy for Tom Dyer, Given By Jim Cobb at Emmanuel Episcopal Church

Tom Dyer and Jim Cobb were friends for more than 40 years. Tom died on Oct. 28.

Thomas G. Dyer (credit: UGA)
Thomas G. Dyer (credit: UGA)

In the interest of at least beginning my remarks on a note of historical precision, let me say that I first laid eyes on Thomas G. Dyer in the winter quarter of 1972 when he and I were both enrolled in Will Holmes’s graduate class in the history of the New South. I had just finished a year of active military duty, and I was none too sure of myself after such an extended absence from the academic arena. It did not help much that the class included a very erudite and composed guy who struck me as the type one would expect to meet in New Haven or Cambridge but not so much in the Athens of Georgia, at least back then. This impression was resoundingly affirmed when, early on in the course, this fellow commented on the tendency of southern intellectuals to engage in what he described as “vicarious self-flagellation.” Still wide-eyed when I related this incident to Lyra that evening, I would never, even in my wildest dreams, have imagined that I would one day count this truly imposing figure, with an immense vocabulary and a facility with words fully sufficient to send William F. Buckley scrambling for his thesaurus, as one of my very closest and most cherished friends or that nearly forty years after we met, I would write in a book dedicated to him that:

In the course of a truly distinguished career, Tom Dyer has led, supported, sustained, and otherwise made possible more good things for the University of Georgia and the people of the state in general than anybody I know. On a personal note, I don’t know if there are truly no friends like old friends, but I do know that there are few friends of any vintage like Tom Dyer. We met as graduate students at the University of Georgia in 1972, and over the intervening years he has offered unfailingly wise counsel and has done more thoughtful, helpful, and courageous things on my behalf than I could ever recount, and, in fact, has probably done even more of these than I know. His intelligence, integrity, and rich sense of humor are legendary not only around Athens but across the state. Although he was born in Missouri (and therefore persists in thinking he knows more about farming than I do), Tom Dyer is, in the best sense of the term, one of the finest Georgians I have been blessed to know.

As friends, Tom and I were an unlikely pair. I was certainly no match for him intellectually, and even at that point, he had already read more books than I ever knew existed. Still, we seemed to hit it off, and I began to understand why a little better after discovering that we shared a common indelible recollection of going into town with our dads in battered pick-ups crusted over with cow manure and having the almost predictable misfortune of encountering practically every good looking girl in our high school class. As an added incentive to prove yourself, such an experience served handsomely, especially if you were pursuing a Ph.D. in history in the mid-1970s. Even so, neither of us was the least bit inclined to deny our rural agricultural roots, and when the Cobbs took up residence outside Athens on Highway 78 and there was ample space for a garden, Tom and I resolved to revisit our agrarian heritage, the result being prolonged debates about whether top-crop or half-runners were the best green beans to plant or when it was actually time to pick the squash. Though we never reached a consensus on which of us was the best vegetable gardener, Tom would eventually strut his stuff in the flora category as their beautiful yard always reminded us.

At some point, it also began to dawn on us that ol’ “vicarious self-flagellation “was actually a first-rate cook who could turn the most basic southern dish into something truly special. Anyone who finds shrimp and grits a bit mundane these days has surely never tasted Tom Dyer’s version. He was also an absolute wizard at the grill, and as a pancake chef, he knew no equal. Best of all, for me, he shared my passion for good barbecue and was always up for checking out a new place wherever he went and providing an especially detailed analysis of the sauces offered at each establishment.

Tom and Anna were still more or less newlyweds when we met them in 1972, and we were anticipating the arrival of a baby almost any day. Even if I could still recall all of it, I would not know how to put into words how much fun we had, but this may well be a case where the specifics are best consigned to oblivion anyway. As our careers took us in different directions, we were blessed to maintain the kind of friendship with them where the miles between us didn’t matter, and bless their hearts, the Dyers were always there for us whenever we managed to conjure up any sort of excuse to make a return visit to Athens.

Indeed, we had just descended on them a few hours before Elizabeth was born, and it was obvious immediately that she had staked a special claim on her Dad’s heart. No one was more loathe to tout his own achievements than Tom, but though he strove mightily not to come across as the proverbial proud papa, Elizabeth quickly rendered this an utter impossibility. Kash, I don’t want to suggest that Tom might have been an overly protective Dad when Elizabeth hit her teen years, but let’s just say that you should count yourself extremely fortunate that you were not the very first suitor ever to ring the doorbell at 220 Westview Drive. That said, while comprehensive and unconditional, Tom’s love for Elizabeth was not the smothering kind, and his parenting style was, by her own account, a bit on the Socratic side, premised I’m sure on his confidence in her ability to use her innate intelligence and good judgment to sort through her options in life and settle on the best one for her. Although Tom would insist that all the credit for how well this approach has clearly worked out belongs to Elizabeth, his parenting M.O. will doubtless strike a familiar chord with the multitude of deeply saddened former students who are now singing his praises online and elsewhere.

I have always thought that in a truly strong marriage, both partners know that they can take each other’s love and support for granted but for that very reason make it a point never to do so. By this standard, Tom and Anna’s union was truly a thing of beauty and built to last. Where Anna was concerned, even the little things were big things to Tom. He might have a thousand and one things on his mind, but none of these was ever of sufficient import to prevent him from showing his love and appreciation to her. From the moment she left for the store, he was on guard for her return, determined that she should not be left to carry the groceries up the stairs by herself. Nor did he recognize any division of labor where the kitchen was concerned. Much of their life together came to entail a daunting routine of socializing, and though Tom adopted a reasonably buttoned-down demeanor himself, he fairly beamed at Anna’s million-megawatt capacity to light up the room regardless of the occasion.

Tom’s attitude toward his family carried over into his work. When he assumed responsibility for any administrative or academic unit, he made it a point not simply to urge those under his charge to drop into his office but to drop into theirs also. This was in no sense mere managerial artifice, for Tom was a genuinely thoughtful and caring person who would soon know not only the names of all the people who worked under his supervision, but the names of their spouses and offspring as well. For my money, there is no greater compliment to a leader in the academic world than the personal regard he or she enjoys among those charged with holding together the real world of leaking pipes, cracking paint, and worn tires. Speaking of worn tires, I would have given just about anything to be along for the ride a little while back when Tom and Anna just happened to show up in Sturgis, South Dakota, during the notorious(to everyone except the Dyers, apparently) motorcycle rally held there each year. Anna’s tales of Tom establishing rapport with the hairiest, most elaborately tattoo-ed bikers in attendance were both utterly hilarious and a clear indication of the expansive humanity of a man who rarely set foot on campus without a tie and probably thought Harley Davidson was a publishing company.

This incident also reminds us that nobody enjoyed a good laugh at his own expense more than Tom Dyer. One of the highest-mileage anecdotes in our shared repertoire harkened back to the 1970s when the dollars were still a bit scarce for all of us. Tom had gotten wind of what turned out to be a seriously protracted going-out-of-business sale at a local shoe store and seemed to fall prey to something resembling an obsession with the continuing drama of checking the store every day or two so that he could report on the latest in an ongoing series of markdowns. By the time the sale finally wound down, his closet was all but stuffed with some of the ugliest shoes imaginable in an era, that, let’s face it, was not particularly known for its attractive footwear in the first place. The most hideous of the lot, it turned out, was a pair of white patent-leather loafers, acquired for the princely sum of one dollar. Tom held on to those monstrosities forever, simply, I’m convinced, so that we could insist every time we visited that he pull them out and model them for us.

Another certainty about Tom is that he never met a pun he didn’t like, and whether or not you liked it, even on the first occasion he pulled it on you, mattered but little to him. In fact, he perfected the fine art of making a decidedly comedic ritual of inflicting the very worst of his puns on you again and again. One of those destined to stick in my mind forever involved a conversation between two old country boys, one of whom was complaining about his “seenus” headache. When his friend attempted to correct his pronunciation, the first guy protested, “Oh, no, I mean I’ve got this headache because I was carrying on with another fellow’s wife, and he ‘seen us.’” It’s perfectly OK to groan here, by the way. In fact, Tom would probably be disappointed if you didn’t.

Despite his tremendous sense of humor, Tom Dyer did not necessarily suffer fools more gladly than anyone else, but ever the realist, he was also fully aware of their profusion, not excepting even the hallowed ranks of academe, and thus he understood that certain things might only be accomplished by suffering them patiently and tactfully, up to a point at least. I do not mean to imply that his patience and forbearance were merely strategic, for he was one of the genuinely kindest and most charitable people I have ever known. He abhorred gossip and refused to take any satisfaction in the troubles of anyone else, regardless of his own strictly guarded impression of the person in question.

Any number of Tom’s administrative accomplishments and contributions could have been career makers in and of themselves, even if some of the most important of them were rendered largely out of the spotlight. Surely this was true of the wisdom, sensitivity, and firmness he brought to the Office of Academic Affairs in the wake of the Jan Kemp debacle when the University’s academic integrity and reputation were teetering precariously in the balance. The fact that these were not allowed to topple and shatter in those critical weeks and months when old UGA was still reeling and struggling to regain its balance was clearly a precondition for the justifiable pride we can now take in the standing it enjoys today. For that reason alone, all of us who truly love the University of Georgia should feel a special indebtedness to Tom, who I might add, held a reciprocally deep and abiding affection for this institution easily comparable to that of any of the biggest, barkingest, red-britches-wearing Bulldog boosters who ever lived.

Tom’s affection was by no means blind and uncritical, however; it was precisely because he loved the University so much that he wanted to make it better. The striking success and lasting importance of the minority-faculty recruiting effort that he spearheaded in the 1980s was in no small sense simply an expression of his determination to do what it took to do what clearly needed to be done. His efforts to integrate the living environment and the intellectual environment on the campus made fewer headlines perhaps, but it facilitated a much more meaningful and satisfying university experience for hundreds of those students interested in exploring  life apart from fraternity or sorority row.

Tom was every bit as dedicated and loyal to the state of Georgia as to its flagship university. He provided stellar leadership and unflagging support during his extended tenure on the Georgia Humanities Council, a contribution recognized by the receipt of a Governor’s Medal in the Humanities in 1994. Certainly, greater love hath no man for his state than he who undertakes the utterly thankless task of assembling a comprehensive, accessible volume like the New Georgia Guide from the diverse perspectives offered by a striking mix of literary and scholarly contributors. Alongside such an undertaking, herding cats seems mere child’s play. Yet, true to form, Tom pulled it off with his usual unflappability and aplomb, riding herd on erratic editors and obstreperous essayists, yours truly included, and even securing critical state funding for the project in the bargain.

As marvelously effective as Tom was in academic administration and leadership, he was no less talented and dedicated as a historian, and I make bold to say that through it all, history remained his first love. His dissertation and subsequently published book on Theodore Roosevelt and the idea of race could easily have passed as the work of a distinguished senior scholar. Nuanced and sophisticated, it offered insights into Roosevelt’s behavior that were hailed as absolutely brilliant and original when they were recycled in another book on Roosevelt published thirty years after Tom’s. The History of the University of Georgia that Tom wrote in conjunction with its bicentennial broke new ground by demonstrating how wonderfully useful and instructive it can be to place the history of an institution of higher learning within the broader state, regional, and national experience.

Johns Hopkins University Press nominated Secret Yankees, Tom’s study of unionists in Civil War Atlanta, for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, and well they might have, for it was as brilliantly conceived, meticulously researched, and beautifully written a book as I have ever had the pleasure of reading. How in the world he managed such a magnificent scholarly achievement with all of the administrative responsibilities he was shouldering at the time, I will never know.

When I reflect on Tom’s passing, nothing makes me sadder than to think of his passionate desire to devote part of his retirement to preserving and illuminating his own historical roots. He could hardly have been more thrilled when he traced his lineage from Missouri back to ancestors who arrived in Virginia around1770, even if the discovery left me more or less obliged to observe that the Cobbs had already been there some 135 years at that point. The addition in 2010 of both his family home and the nearby community church to the National Register of Historic Places was truly a triumphant moment for him and every bit as much a testament to his dedication to meticulous research as any of his excellent published monographs. The same was true of his work on a history of his family farm in Missouri. I once expressed my indebtedness to Tom for repeatedly convincing me that his writing was going even worse than mine, and it was a real treat to see him so excited, even if it meant hearing a good deal more about hemp production in Saline County, Missouri, than I ever dreamed it was possible to know.

William Faulkner came close to capturing perhaps the most painful aspect of the untimely loss of someone we love in describing “tomorrow night” as nothing but “one long, sleepless wrestle with yesterday’s omissions and regrets.” After a wonderful visit with Tom and Anna out at farm last September, Lyra and I came back dismayed that we seemed to see the Dyers so infrequently back in Athens and vowing to change that. Less than two months later, Tom was diagnosed, and the rest, all too quickly, was history. If a person’s impact on those around him may be gauged, however perversely, by the number of people he left behind who always meant to thank or commend him but never got around to it, then Tom was surely a phenomenal human presence during his lifetime. If, beyond that, a person’s full and enduring measure lies in how little he coveted the thanks and praise he so justly merited, then Tom Dyer wa


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