Monday, September 21, 2009

Remembering Dr. Pat

Dr. Patricia Rickels was the director of the Honors Program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (where I was an undergraduate). She wore mumuus to work everyday because she came to the conclusion sometime in the 1970s that deciding what to wear every day got in the way of more important decisions. She was the much-rumored inspiration for Myrna Minkoff, the windmill-tilting, Negro-loving minx in John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces (much rumored among the faculty at UL who knew Toole from LSU and UL). She befriended and worked on behalf of black people in the South at a time when nice white women never dreamed of such things--Dr. Pat thought being a nice white woman was wildly overrated.

Almost all of my good memories of UL are Dr. Pat related. She co-taught my favorite class, an honors seminar called Culture of Man. The library was our textbook and the course content was whatever caught our fancy. We went to plays and festivals, on road trips to Houston and New Orleans, all of free of charge, all made possible through some generous donation Dr. Pat bullied someone into giving. (I suspect she funded a lot of our class activities herself). I spent many an afternoon in the honors program offices, eating the endless free popcorn and hanging Mardi Gras beads on Baloo, the real, life-sized stuffed bear that, inexplicably, lived in those offices.

Dr. Pat was my advisor, as she was for all honors students who were English majors. She invented a minor for me (interdisciplinary humanities) because I couldn't decide between French and philosophy and history. She convinced me to stay in college an extra semester so that I could finish the requirements for an honors baccalaureate degree. "You would be the first black woman to to do it," she would say to me *every single time* she saw me, for months. "Somebody has to be the first. Why shouldn't it be you?"

She died peacefully in her home last week, having retired after 50 years of service at UL. She was a shameless flirt, an unapologetic liberal, an inspirational teacher, and a friend. Brian and I will miss her very much.


Cassie said...

I'm sorry to hear of her passing and sorry for your (and a lot of other people's) loss. But her spirit lives on in the inspiration she provided, the values she passed forward, and in the work you and others who had the privilege of knowing her do every day.

Thanks for sharing this wonderful commemoration of her life.

Alison said...

She sounds wonderful--and very much like the Honors Program director when I was at Tennessee Tech, Connie Hood. I wonder if they knew each other. Did you all go to any of the National Collegiate Honors Conferences?

I'll bet she was so happy that you went on to be a college professor and to influence students the way she did.

Dera Williams said...

She sounds like a wonderful mentor. What wonderful memories you must have to have had her in your life.