By Brian Doyle
Died four years ago, just about when you are reading this. She was a biology professor here. She had the coolest smile you ever saw, one of those smiles where when it starts it can’t stop and it lights up her whole face and then everybody else’s face lights up for about a mile around. It was one of those smiles that was nuclear like a star. It was one of those smiles that when it really got going you thought you might get sunburned. Her hair leapt up in aureoles and frazzles and you could tell it was Becky from all the way across the quad if the light was right. She had once won an award as the best university professor in the state of Oregon and if I saw her across the quad walking briskly I would happily shout O my god is that the best professor in the state of Oregon? and she would blush quick as a wink because of course she did not think she was the best professor in the state, although she was, and everyone else in the state knew it, even people with egos so big they have to cart them around in wheelbarrows. After she blushed she would smile that tremendous smile and everyone else on the quad would smile also, a remarkable thing. It always seemed to me that after she smiled there were more swallows and damselflies in the air than there had been before she smiled, but I could never prove that.
As a child she craved the ocean and she became a marine biologist. One of her study projects was an octopus who spit at her every time she removed the lid of his tank; she had once accidentally pinched his tentacle and he never forgot or forgave. Not so many biologists can say they have been so thoroughly hated by an octopus, as she said. She also grew fascinated by embryology and the study of bats and antipodean fauna and she was so brilliant that she ended up teaching university classes in all of those subjects. She taught in classrooms and in her office and on the quad and on ships and while walking through the desert. Among her scholarly feats was identifying a new species of octopus and discovering that many bats are left-handed but her greatest feat as a professor was identifying the loneliness of freshmen and their despair at being far from home and losing their high school sweetheart and failing their first test and being afraid they were not cool enough to make new friends. She made the university create a whole thorough attentive huge project to care for these frightened children, and that was the best thing I ever did as a professor, she said, and she was right.
How did you do that? I asked her once, fascinated, for I have studied university administrations for thirty years, and they are vast creatures who move toward new ideas with the alacrity and eagerness of telephone poles. I laid out all the facts, she said, and then I kept talking about all these children weeping alone in their rooms, a remark I never forgot.
She was small in stature. She wore loose clothing that did not fit her form. She did not command the room with her beauty. She knew this and did not care a fig about it and laughed about it as she laughed about most things that we value that are not valuable. She knew children were valuable, and life, and laughter, and kindness applied like water to those who thirst. She knew who she was and did not care what the world thought. She knew her work and she did it with every iota of energy and creativity she possessed and in those sweet gifts she was rich beyond measure. She was blunt and glorious and her amused generous soul poured out of her face and eyes like she was lit from inside. She was more beautiful a being than I can ever find words for and by god I have tried. I will keep trying as long as I have fingers and a full heart. Rest in peace, Becky Houck. Rest in peace, my friend.