I want to share some memories of my mentor and dissertation director Professor Lisi Oliver, who was killed while cycling in East Feliciana Parish on Sunday.
I remember walking to Lisi’s office some years ago. It was mid-September. The weather was still stifling. I was coming to talk to her about my dissertation, which was stifling me in a much different way. I walked slowly. Just thinking about my writing made my stomach clench and breathing more difficult.
Lisi was sitting at her desk with a stack of homework assignments next to her. She held one of these in her hands. Surfin’ USA was rolling across the office from the small radio that she had placed in her window.
I watched Lisi enjoying the song for a moment before she noticed I was there. She tapped the floor with one foot and bobbed her head along to the beat while she scanned the homework with her eyes.
A smile split across my face. And just like that, the knots in my stomach untied themselves, my breathing steadied, and I was no longer so worried about talking about my dissertation.
Lisi had that effect on whomever she met. People would come alive just by being near her.
Lisi had told me on numerous occasions leading up to my preliminary exam on Old and Middle English how much she loved The Seafarer, a poem that gives many people fits to translate. She would get this look whenever she mentioned it. Her eyes would grow bigger and brighter, as though she could hear the sea faintly but irresistibly calling to her.
I studied The Seafarer until it wasn’t a question of whether or not I could translate any given passage but rather how I would choose to parse specific phrases on the spur of the moment.
Lisi put The Dream of the Rood on the exam. We laughed and laughed when I told her how certain I was that it would be The Seafarer and how much time I had spent studying it. “Oh, but I do love The Seafarer,” she had said with that bright look of hers.
Lisi was fond of saying things like “Knowing Latin makes you a better person” and “Knowing Grimm’s Law is like having The Force.” I believe both of those statements with every bit of my being.
I met Lisi at the end of my first year of graduate school. I was coming to terms with the fact that studying pure critical theory, which I had wanted to do, not only would make me less marketable as a scholar but also that it was too damned depressing for me to make a career out of studying it.
Having settled on medieval literature, which had always interested me for personal and professional reasons, I approached my department chair, who told me without hesitation that I needed to have Lisi chair my master’s thesis.
Lisi did not know a thing about me other than what little the department chair told her about me by way of introduction and what little I nervously added about my background and interests when we met.
Lisi unhesitatingly took me under her wing. She was just that kind of person. And she built me up for the next 9 years.
On the day of my prospectus defense, Lisi confidently told me, “This won’t take long. You know more about the subject than I do.”
When the draft of my dissertation that I initially planned to defend wasn’t what my committee expected, Lisi made it a point to tell me that I was a great writer.
Lisi’s faith in me never wavered, even when I was at my lowest and had little faith that I could finish. On the day I graduated, Lisi was every bit as excited as I was, for me, and for everyone graduating with me.
Lisi made studying medieval literature cool. She once brought authentic Danish axes to class to help her students visualize what Sir Gawain was facing when the Green Knight was about to behead him, or so Sir Gawain thought.
Lisi was unapologetically a nerd. Her office was filled with replicas of trebuchets, posters of medieval towns, and the like. And she wore things like earrings shaped like axes to class.
I was but one of the thousands of students that Lisi helped succeed. I would sit outside her office waiting my turn to see her while she was advising undergraduates. Students would go into her office, shoulders drooping, faces hanging. Invariably, they would leave smiling or laughing, shoulders held high.
I’ve been reading all the comments friends and colleagues have been posting about Lisi on Facebook today. Like them, I am heartbroken that Lisi is no longer with us. I keep wishing that the news of her death isn’t true, even though I know it is.
But I am also thinking about the boundless energy Lisi shared with me and everyone who met her. I am thinking about her infectious smile. I am thinking about the way she laughed. And I am thinking about her rolling along to Surfin’ USA.