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'Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince'

 

 
Professor of English Stephen Lacey '65 died on March 27 of honeycomb pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive lung disease. His legacy includes three courses that Leslie LaPlante '91 calls the "Lacey Triumvirate: the Shakespeare play, the trip to England, and Proust."

That English professor Stephen Lacey '65 changed lives is made lavishly clear by the Web site where more than 100 people-mostly former students-have posted tributes since his death on March 27. Stephen loved books, not the Web, but we think "he would be outwardly mortified and inwardly charmed," in the words of Jeanette Rattner '83. Here, excerpted from the Lacey Memorial site, are glimpses of Stephen teaching, holding court, and championing life, his students, and his friends.

 

The Lacey salon
    When Steve Lacey arrived at Cornell in the fall of 1961, nobody knew quite what to make of him. He stood out amongst other first-year students by dint of his sheer Falstaffian girth, but it was not his size alone that set him apart. Steve brought with him from Oregon a stereo mounted in a mahogany cabinet and a large collection of pre-Romantic phonograph records. Within days, upperclassmen notable more for their athletic prowess than their academic credentials stood, sometimes three deep, before Steve’s open, second-floor Merner door as sounds of Monteverdi or Carissimi wafted out at less-than-discrete decibels and Lacey, ensconced with menthol cigarette in hand, held court. So astounded were these onlookers that Steve was virtually immune from freshman hazing, a barbaric practice that prevailed in those days.
[John Klaus ’64, former professor of music]

     Lacey taught me much about literature, of course, but he taught me even more about living the good life, a life rich with friends, food, spirit, song, generosity, and integrity. I spent many a night discovering the joy of amazing food—Lacey taking a first bite of his latest creation, then gasping and throwing his hands back to exclaim, “Damn that’s good”—while developing a lifelong appreciation for Jack Daniels, Jeff Chaucer, and Will Shakespeare. We would listen to his collection of LPs long into the evening while every attempt to go home early would be thwarted with something along the line of “but ’tis the shank of the evening. Now get me a soupcon more bourbon.” What I wouldn’t do for one more bourbon with Stephen.
     Lacey also taught me the importance of living honestly. He was the first openly gay man I knew. When, in my senior year, I told him I was gay—no surprise to him—he helped make it abundantly and gloriously clear to me that I was going to be just fine, no matter what. He introduced me to some of his dear and amazing friends as a way of helping me understand that being gay would be no handicap to my happiness. It was truly a life-transforming gesture on the part of a man who made countless such gestures in his too-brief life. [Robert Austin '86]

Made literature sing
     Stephen made grumpy, hungover college students love Shakespeare. [Aaron Edmundson ’96]

     During my senior year, I took two Shakespeare classes from him and for those two months I think almost everyone had perfect attendance. His classes were so memorable that to miss them seemed unimaginable. I still carry Shakespeare inside me because Stephen brought it to my bones. He encouraged me to speak in class like no other professor could. He, I think, embraced all students by making the literature sing with modern implications. Stephen Lacey represents to me what it means to live one’s life unafraid, to confront passion and longing head-on and create from that collision a rare beauty.
[Darcy White Shargo ’98]

     The last visit I had with Stephen was in 1997. I told him I was thinking of going back for a PhD. His words, “Of course you are,” are what gave me the courage to actually apply. I thank Stephen for his love of his students, for his larger-than-life perspective, and for always being inspiring and encouraging.
[Briget Tyson ’92]


‘Larger than death

     Alive, Stephen was larger than life. I’d like to think that, now, he’s larger than death. The poet W. H. Auden wrote in an elegy for W. B. Yeats that when he died he “became his admirers.” Stephen, our mutual friend, has now become the many, many people who loved him.
[Scott Klein, former assistant professor of English]


Morality from within

     Stephen tried several religions as a young man, but he came to believe that it is our human life together that matters most. He loved humanity with all his heart. He loathed the petty cruelties and the great injustices that can flow from metaphysical views. As a gay man, he knew too well the pain caused by prejudice and intolerance. He fought tirelessly against bigotry in all its forms, and he wrote last year that “making ‘being gay all right’ will be my most important legacy to the college.” He was the most ethical person I know, because his morality came not from beyond, but from within, from his sense of kinship with others, and from plunging exuberantly into the human condition. The writers he enjoyed the most, Shakespeare and Proust, appealed to him because they portray humanity lovingly, with all its follies and all its grandeur. [Diane Crowder, professor of French]

A living novel
    Several have remarked that Stephen was himself a living novel, challenging us to live our lives truly and fully. I agree. But especially for English professors, it is hard to resist comparisons with the greatest literature we know. Scott Klein sees Stephen as searching for lost time like Proust, or as a character like Falstaff, or Don Quixote, or some figure from Dickens. Ah, yes. Dickens.

The moment Scrooge’s hand was on the lock, a strange voice called him by his name, and bade him enter. … Scrooge entered timidly. Though its eyes were clear and kind, he did not like to meet them. “I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” said the Spirit. “Look upon me!”
Scrooge reverently did so. Its dark brown curls were long and free: free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air.
“You have never seen the like of me before!” exclaimed the Spirit.


     As we know, the Spirit invites Scrooge to touch his robe and they take flight together, first to the Cratchits’ loving household, then to heights and depths of life Scrooge has never imagined. The Ghost warns Scrooge that we must erase ignorance or meet our Doom. Then, suddenly, the graying spirit vanishes, leaving Scrooge forever transformed.
Stephen Lacey will always be my Spirit of Christmas Present at Cornell College. It seems fitting that the best dramatic portrayal of this character should be that of Stephen’s dear friend Desmond Barrit, the Royal Shakespeare Company actor who directed The Comedy of Errors on the Hilltop in 1999. Who can doubt that Stephen was the real-life model Desmond had in mind?
[Dennis Damon Moore, dean of the college]

“I dedicate my performance as Falstaff to Stephen.”
[Desmond Barrit, performing Henry IV with the Royal Shakespeare Company]


[See also the Editor's Column about Stephen and his obituary.]

 
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