Note: I’m a columnist for the Reader Weekly, an alt-weekly newspaper in Duluth, MN. Every Tuesday I post a new column.
“Make this thing good. I don’t want any of this Paul Ryan shit.”
That’s what professor Bruce Kasden was once rumored to have said about the Promethean, the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s student newspaper. I was ending my sophomore year, the newspaper was pathetic and tabloidish, and my column was the trashiest part of it.
Kasden graciously agreed to be advisor for the paper, despite being warned by every professor on campus that it would ruin his reputation. Kasden didn’t care. He saw kids who needed help. We needed an advisor to remain an official campus group and keep our funding, and Kasden was our last hope.
After a year under his guidance, the paper won second place in the Wisconsin Newspaper Association’s college division. The professors who told Kasden he was an idiot for helping us were now praising him. Kasden especially liked that part. There was nothing he loved more than watching mean people feel stupid. “You should’ve seen them,” he told the newspaper staff, chuckling and shaking his head. “You made them all look like fools.”
Kasden died on Oct. 17 of this year, at the age of 67. Despite my stolidness, I’m finding it difficult to hide my emotions today. I feel like JFK or John Lennon just died. Kasden had the same effect on people who knew him. From students to community members, he charmed us all and then changed us for the better.
Despite the initial quote in this column, he and I got along well. Bluntness was his specialty, but he made sure you knew he meant well. In Kasden’s speech class during my freshman year, he would regularly call me out when I acted like an idiot. One time I was subtly flirting with a girl next to me when he stopped in mid-sentence, glared at me, and in that great booming voice of his, shouted, “The lesson is up here, Mr. Ryan, and it has nothing to do with girls or sex!”
What kind of professor says that? A smart one. I was humiliated in front of a class of 60 people, and my attention span was never a problem again. Over the years, Kasden and I grew fairly close. I still wrote my column in the paper, but I also started writing hard news, eventually becoming a top reporter and taking over as editor.
Old Uncle Brucey taught me that making people laugh doesnâ€™t matter if you donâ€™t have class. If you earn a person’s respect, you can be as gutsy as you want with your comedy and nobody can touch you. Earn the laughs and the respect, and your unique way of doing things will be protected. Why do you think I still have this column in the Reader Weekly despite all the angry letters?
That lesson was followed by Kasden himself. His unorthodox method of treating students as friends and equals couldn’t be criticized if his students were kicking ass. And they always were. When UWS went through its ridiculous â€œYou have to have a doctorate to be a good professorâ€ phase, Kasden only agreed to step down because of his bad health. Otherwise they couldnâ€™t have touched him. His students wouldn’t have allowed him to be kicked around. He was our guy, one of us.
Iâ€™m not old enough to have known Kasden when he was young, but itâ€™s clear he always did things his way. Often heâ€™d tell us stories in class about his life, his travels and his adventures. Many of those tales are not fit for print, but they were inspiring and fascinating. We were college students in the prime of our lives, yet we were all jealous of a man in his late-fifties.
â€œTravel when youâ€™re young,â€ he once said. â€œYouâ€™ll have plenty of time for steady work when you get back.â€ I took his advice and moved to California, and Iâ€™m happier for it. He taught me that life is about more than climbing a ladder to sit at the top. Have some fun along the way, he said, and donâ€™t worry so much about your speed. The view will be just as nice.