Memorial Service for Paul C. McKinney

By William C. Placher
  March 25, 2004

From a memorandum Paul McKinney wrote several months ago, headed "Thoughts on Memorial Service":

Two topics are important to me:

First, gratitude.  I wish to give thanks for those who touched my life and for the talents I was given—for those who sheltered me:  Irmi, Katherine, and Michael, my family and friends;

for those who helped me know:  my teachers, my colleagues, and my students;

for those who cared for my health:  my doctors and nurses;

and for the gifts of mind and music.

Second, the miracle of love:  It is a miracle one can know, experience, and take joy in.  It has given me happiness.

So we have heard this afternoon, as Paul requested, the love poetry of the Song of  Solomon, Plato’s meditation on the soul and its love, Nietzsche’s modern reflection on passion, and Yeat’s poem on how love and hope endure even in the midst of an old man’s anger.

Paul McKinney’s  own love reached out in many directions.  He loved his family.  He and Irmi gave us all a model of a wonderful marriage. 

To this college’s lasting benefit, for over fifty years he loved Wabash as a loyal son—forty-five years a member of the faculty, chair of the chemistry department, chair of the division of science and mathematics, eleven years Dean of the College.  Some Little Giant! 

He showed us what it’s like to love an institution—love it passionately—while welcoming criticism and expecting change.  Wabash had taught him that, he would have said.  A Wabash education, he once wrote,

trained us to doubt conventional wisdom, thus helping us to avoid illusion, to transform our boredom with the all too familiar past into creative acts of the present, to use reason and persuasion in search for resolution of moral issues, and to carry with confidence freedom from the fear and ignorance that bind the superstitious mind.

A character is Brecht’s play says of Paul’s hero Galileo, "He cannot say no to an old wine or a new thought."  Paul too loved new thoughts—and old wines as well, come to think of it.

The cover story of a recent issue of the Wabash magazine cited Paul’s account of the most beautiful of all equations.  He loved the beauty of equations.  Austin Brooks tells the story of how, as a student, he had a role in a Scarlet Masque production in which Paul, as a young faculty member, was also acting.  Aus noticed that, when he wasn’t on stage, Paul was writing in a notebook, and thought perhaps he was working on memorizing his lines.  But then he got a look at the notebook and saw that it was full of the equations of quantum mechanics.  Many years later Paul talked about getting through chemotherapy by working on equations. 

The phrase "Renaissance man" is of course a cliché, but it’s hard to avoid when talking about Paul McKinney.  Gifted scientist, actor, classical pianist, master of several languages, lover of literature, scholar of Nietzsche…the list goes on.  He was a good citizen and a good Democrat (I don’t mean to imply that you have to be a good Democrat to be a good citizen—necessarily).  His work for candidates and for his party, his service as county Democratic chairman—that would be a whole story in itself.

Paul had loved acting in his youth, and those who heard him lecture know that he never lost that love.  His teaching career had a wonderful last act, taking on thankless jobs as a citizen of the college, engaged with students, falling in love with teaching all over again.  Several students in the last class Paul taught told me that, at the end of his last lecture, on their feet applauding, they avoided looking at each other because there were tears in their eyes.   Those of us beginning the autumns of our careers can only hope that our late autumns and winters are as beautiful as were Paul McKinney’s.  Likewise, if any of us have to face extended illness, we can only hope to face it with his courage and grace.

Paul worked on the cutting edge of contemporary quantum mechanics, but in part he was also, I think, a bit of an alchemist.  He loved  the Medieval symbols for the planets and the elements.  He  forced Chem 1 students not to dismiss earlier theories of the chemical make up of the world too quickly.  He memorably began a C&T lecture on his knees in supplication, starting a fire on the stage of Salter Hall.  (This may not be a pedagogical device to be widely encouraged, but it sure had the attention of the entire sophomore class.)  Again and again, in his talks and essays, fire was for him the symbol of creativity, and Gaston Bachelard’s Psychoanalysis of Fire was one of his favorite books.  "Why is it," he wondered in his LaFollette lecture, "we cannot forget the fire of Heraclitus…?"

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry has the kind of rhetorical complexity Paul admired, and his poem "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection"  brings together many of the themes of Paul’s life and thought—the darkness of human tragedy, the mystery of hope, the fascination of chemical elements.  It ends like this:

Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone!

Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark

Drowned.  O pity and Indignation!  Manshape that shone

Sheer off, disseveral, a star, death blots black out; nor mark

Is any of him at all so stark

But vastness blurs and time beats level.  Enough!  the Resurrection,

A heart’s-clarion!  Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection…

world’s wildfire, leave but ash:

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond.

Poets may exaggerate, but the chemistry of carbon does not lie.  The dust and ash from which we come and to which we bodily return includes that same substance as enduring diamonds.  And now in all our memories, and, I believe, in the mystery of God that lies beyond all our imagining, Paul endures, and as with a diamond his every facet sparkles.