Jeremy's post did a great job laying out many of William Alston's contributions and helped me understand the role Bill played long after I had left Syracuse and Bill had retired. Thanks very much for your thoughts and reportage, Jeremy. There is one item, though, that I'd like to correct. Bill's dissertation director was Charles Hartshorne, not Wilfred Sellars. In fact, I remember Bill saying that two of the three members of his dissertation committee were Hartshorne and Carnap. And it turned out that Quine was at Chicago on the day of his defense and (somehow) he ended up sitting in. How would y'all like to defend your dissertation in front of those guys? How could one say anything that they'd all agree with? How could one say anything at all?
As for me, my first meeting with Bill Alston didn't go particularly well. I had arrived in Syracuse the week before to begin graduate school. I was at SU primarily because that's where Alston was. I had corresponded with him a bit about the doctoral program there and had been impressed that he had taken the time to write back to a prospective student. Bear in mind that this was in the day of the electric typewriter--there was no email and almost no one yet had a personal computer. So writing a letter meant running paper through the roller, typing out what you wanted to say (undoubtedly having to dab some whiteout along the way), and then addressing the envelope.
I went to Bill's office to introduce myself and to thank him for his correspondence. Nervous about meeting the esteemed philosopher I'd just moved three thousand miles to study with, I knocked timidly on his door. When it opened, I introduced myself and he invited me to take a seat. I sat down and expressed my appreciation for his taking the time to write. "Well, you're welcome," he said, not unenthusiastically. And yet that's all he said. All...he...said. I have no idea how long the silence lasted but looked at through memory's undoubtedly-enhancing lens, I recall it being five minutes if it was a moment. Of course, it was nothing of the sort but it was one helluva long specious present, I can tell you that. I was intimidated and nervous and could only concentrate on how uncomfortable this was. It hadn't occurred to me that I would need material for this little chat. I assumed that he'd take the lead in making small talk, but I assumed wrong. Having just sat down, I didn't want to immediately stand up, thank him again, and leave. But there was no choice, and I did what needed to be done: I slinked out of his office. I vowed that I would never again go there without a list of memorized (ideally, but sometimes just written out) talking points. It's a vow I kept for the rest of my time at Syracuse.
Even when we are reminiscing on the newly departed, a certain amount of honesty is in order. So I've led with my first experience of Bill even if it isn't a "feel good" moment. Bill's beloved and lovely wife Valerie once told me and my wife Georgia that Nelson Pike was the only graduate student Bill ever had who wasn't afraid of him. Of course, Valerie said this in '85 or '86 so perhaps things changed. And even if not it should be noted that "fearing X" doesn't imply anything negative about X or even that the person who fears X fails to have great affection for X. In fact, when it comes to Bill's former students, fear and great affection are virtually universal (I know that while Pike apparently lacked the former, he had the latter).
When I was his student (from '83-'86), Alston was getting more done than seemed humanly possible. Not only was he publishing important papers at a remarkable rate, but he was editing Faith and Philosophy, and giving unselfishly of his time to his graduate students. Examples of the latter abound, but here are two. Because several of us in the program had interests in philosophy of religion and he taught only one philosophy of religion course per year, he decided to supplement the curriculum with a voluntary reading group. Every other week, some of us would gather to discuss recently published, important work in the field. Here's the embarrassing part: the group wasn't very large and I believe that there was only one person who came to every meeting: Bill. Yeah, that's right. While the rest of us (lowly graduate students) managed to find excuses for missing sessions, Bill never let his myriad responsibilities get in the way of taking the time to meet with us--although sometimes we were too busy for him. What were we thinking?
The second example of Bill's commitment to his students came when three of us approached him with the idea of doing a summer independent study on Thomas Reid. We requested that he tell us what to read and then grade long papers at the end of the summer so that we could get three credits for our effort. We valued his time and weren't asking for regular meetings (naturally, we were thinking only of him!). Bill listened to us and then said that he'd agree only if we'd commit to meeting with him for three hours a week to discuss the readings. That summer he ran a seminar on Reid for which he received nothing but our sincere thanks. He cared more for our education than he did his own publications. I do believe there is a lesson here that I need to take to heart: if Alston could sacrifice his research for his students how can folks like me think we're too busy?
There is much more to say: the times the Alstons had Georgia and me to dinner, invited us to concerts, and even fed us on Thanksgiving are all clearly in mind (and these kindnesses were not reserved for me and my spouse--the Alstons reached out to lots of graduate students during his time at Syracuse).
Among a great many, there are two more memories that stick out in my mind. First, during my time at Syracuse, Bill and Valerie had a weekly bible study for interested graduate students and their spouses. I don't recall the exact issue, but at some point somebody raised a question about the geography of Israel and the various political and cultural boundaries in the time of Christ. Nobody knew just how to answer the question and the conversation moved on. As it did, Bill was still curious. So as not to disturb our conversation, Bill slid from his chair and literally crawled across the floor to an end table where he kept his bible atlas. Pulling the book from its home, Bill crawled back to his chair. As I said he was trying to be unobtrusive. But as I watched him I couldn't help think, "Wow, this is William P. Alston crawling on the floor so as not to disturb the discussion of graduate students." This remains my favorite memory of Bill.
The other event that I want to relay occurred in the early 90's when Bill came to Fayetteville to give a paper. Although I hadn't known this before, it turns out that his mother was a graduate of the University of Arkansas, and that he used to spend parts of the summer in Fayetteville to escape the oppressive Louisiana summers. The UA is unique, I believe, in that it has carved the name of every graduate onto some sidewalk or other on the UA campus. So before his paper, Bill and I set out to look for his mother's name. After we found it, he told me that not only had she graduated from the UA but that she was buried in a cemetery just south of campus. I knew which cemetery he must mean and offered to take him there. He took me up on the offer. On our way, Bill asked if we could stop at a florist. A few minutes later we were driving into the graveyard in question, Bill clutching a dozen roses. He didn't know where her headstone was and we walked around for quite a while before we found it. I left him alone for a while as he laid the roses on her grave and said a prayer.
As I said, these are my most cherished memories of Bill. Anyone who was his student has similar tales to tell. Bill was truly the rare accomplished scholar who held both humility and what he gave to his students to be as important as the contributions he made with his research.
When I received the sad news about Bill's passing, I happened to be at a conference in Oxford. Bill credited a religious experience he had at the Christ Church Cathedral in Christ Church College of Oxford University in the mid-70s with bringing him back to the Christian community, and providing the impetus behind his work in the epistemology of religious experience. So when the conference concluded, I spent some time in Christ Church Cathedral, thinking about Bill and thanking God for his life, legacy, and the wholly undeserved blessing I had to have known him. I told the rector about Bill's experience there and the amazing fruit that the experience had brought about. The priest then led me to the prayer board and suggested I light a candle for Bill and write a prayer that could be said for him and his family at Sunday's service. It was, of course, my pleasure and deep honor to do as the priest suggested.
Here's to a life well lived along a host of dimensions. Please keep Valerie in your prayers during this difficult time.
September 17, 2009