For Will

Unlike many who have written beautiful tributes this week, I was not fortunate enough to be one of Will’s students, colleagues, or—until very recently—friends. But his relationship with Justin made him a significant presence in my life for close to 15 years.

It is difficult to overstate Will’s importance to Justin. He was the reason we came to Florida State, he encouraged and shaped Justin’s career as a political methodologist, and he worked tirelessly to get him interviews and ultimately placements at institutions that outranked his PhD program. 

But his greatest gift to Justin had nothing to do with political science. As Will struggled to make sense of his own late-life diagnosis of Asperger’s, he noticed that Justin was facing similar difficulties. So he was the first (but certainly not the last) to suggest to us that Justin might be on the spectrum. And as we came to terms with what that meant over the years, Will’s guidance, advocacy, and friendship became indispensable to both of us.

I suspect that most of us care deeply about those who love and support our partners. But I think this is especially true for those of us with partners on the spectrum. We have a front row seat to the pain and isolation they feel when they can’t connect with others, and to the special hell they experience when they are misunderstood by those they care about the most. So a friend and mentor like Will, who not only understood Justin, but also helped him to understand himself, was quite literally a lifeline.

Losing Will in the way we did is thus doubly heartbreaking. As an advocate for Justin, I am mourning the loss of my greatest and wisest ally; but as an advocate for Will, I am wondering what more we could have done to give him the connection he so desperately needed.

But I am also just missing a damn good friend who was so much more than his ASD.

We’ve heard a lot about Will’s contributions to political science over the last few days. That’s all well and good. But as an ethicist who has a limited tolerance for political science talk (sorry, folks!), what I most appreciated about Will was his eagerness to read, think, and talk with me about ideas far beyond his area of expertise. Most academics will tell you they are passionate about ideas, but Will was the real deal. I could never keep up with all the new books he was reading and recommending, but his presence in my newsfeed guaranteed that I would learn something new and unexpected each and every day. 

Many people get a PhD because they want to understand the world. But as many of you know, I got a PhD because I wanted to build better people. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about what that means, as well as the sorts of people I want my students to become. But it now occurs to me I’ve got my model. If I can spend the rest of my life working to help young people become even a little more like Will, it will have been a life well-lived.

And on that note, I will always be grateful for how much Will supported my most recent work. I love my job, but I sometimes worry that “real academics” won’t take me as seriously as they did when I was a traditional academic on the tenure-track. Yet, true to form, Will never cared about my title. He read and engaged everything I wrote about teaching with great interest and, when he found it important, shared it widely. That validation was more important to me than he realized, and I’m sorry I never had the chance to thank him.

Of course, the fact that Will was so interested in conversations about teaching will surprise exactly no one. As every tribute I’ve read thus far makes clear, Will was an exceptional teacher. We hear a lot about his graduate mentorship, but I also have first-hand evidence that he was just as committed to his undergraduates. When I first began teaching at FSU in 2006, I discovered I was teaching a student who was also taking a class with Will. Eager to learn from the master, I asked the student what he liked about the course. He told me that Will gave great feedback, and then pulled his paper out of his bag. What I saw there astounded me. In an introductory class with close to 60 students, Will had given each student three single-spaced pages of critical feedback.

I shared that story with Will at least three times. And each time he essentially shrugged his shoulders. I’m not sure what to make of that response, or the “pay it forward” response he would give to graduate students when they thank him, but I hope it didn’t reflect an ambivalence about his identity as a teacher. I know that there was likely nothing that would have made him feel valuable enough to endure his pain at the end. But I hope that there were at least moments of his life when he allowed himself to feel as much joy in the production of people as he did in the production of scholarship. For it was so clearly his greatest gift to us all.

Will and I had a weird relationship. We knew of each other for close to 15 years but had little direct interaction for the first 10. Because I was more likely to organize our social events in graduate school, Justin and I spent more time with the religion department. And when I did interact with Will, it was mostly the small talk we all hate. So it was ultimately Facebook, and our mutual willingness to use it with abandon, that led us to connect and build a substantive friendship. But because we were states apart at that point, and I had few reasons (and no desire!) to attend Political Science conferences, we never really saw each other in person.

There was a single exception, a little over a year ago, when he came to town for a small IR conference Rice was hosting. Ashley and Gary invited all three of us to dinner, and we jumped at the chance. This night has always had a special place in my heart because it really was the stuff that philosopher’s dreams are made of. We talked about dozens of deeply important topics and carried on until the wee hours of the morning. When we got home that night, I talked to Justin about how sad I was that I had missed so many opportunities to really get to know Will in Tallahassee. But I was also hopeful about the future of our friendship. And though I never told Justin I did this until this week, I also spent some time looking up my friends at Arizona State to see if there might be some plausible way for us to move to Will. 

I don’t think I will ever be able to say all I want to say about the ways Will has been so important to Justin, to me, and to our marriage. And, like many of us this week, I’m regretting not sharing my appreciation more than I did. But most of all I am mourning the future of a friendship that was just getting started. ❤️