Dr. David Shevin photograph

MOVING OUT, FINDING HOME

April 1, 2005

I wound up talking with so many writers in the days following Bob Fox's passing about the singular effect he had in treating everyone so personally, and so trustingly. He seemed so much like the treasure we each have within the family, the very model of love that is unconditional. Then, two days before the memorial service in Columbus, Bob's book of essays from Wind Publications MOVING OUT, FINDING HOME arrived in the mailbox, and one of the many revelations in the book was that there was little I could say about this man which he had not already recorded about himself.

Here are a few observations from his "Song of an Adopted, Displaced Appalachian": "Despite a public job promoting and helping integrate artists into the life of communities. I am not a public person. Without a guitar, I do not become the focus of a room when I enter … some urbanites categorize me as a hillbilly and some Appalachians think I'm a rude New Yorker. I live in a community dominated by a university, where writers who don't teach are generally ignored. I don't mind the anonymity. I prefer listening to speaking. Years ago, at a party, a friend pointed me out: 'Be careful what you say around Fox. He's a writer - he remembers everything.'"

Bob's friend was exactly right. Some folks have a terrific ability for self-awareness, and here was one. Too, he did remember everything - probably eight or ten years after I plunked out a funny old song on the guitar for Bob (Hank Snow's overblown World War Two morale tune "Won't You Send My Dog Home, Uncle Sam?"), Bob would chuckle recollecting that song at that moment. He had a mind that never stopped playing, and that never let things go. Sometimes I thought that everything constituted an ongoing song for him, and he was the only one who had track of all of the endless lyrics.

Artists and writers around the region not only knew his accomplishment well in a huge array of roles: poet, singer, guitarist, novelist, essayist, advocate and activist, anthologist and publisher, and one of the most astute political thinkers around. What comes from these essays and their topics is how acutely sharp he was about the subtle ways we influence and imprint one another. I read some paragraphs from the essay "Coming of Age with the Blues" to my first year students at Central State University.

I didn't know just how the students at this black campus would react to a white writer's presenting his family issues concerning race. There are some wonderful stories about art, aesthetics, and influence in this piece, all leading to what the personal drama was like for mom when young Bob, not taking the route of his brothers to become doctors, set off to pursue a future in playing the blues that moved him so much. He recognizes that mom, a "victim of discrimination" herself, "tried to conceal her pride when I performed on the radio" and "it troubled her that I associated with black people." Bob would not walk from any easy rejections. He follows through two touching stories about his mother's awakening on race issues, concluding: "If I taught her anything, I hope it was to let her judgment be governed by her instinctive compassion rather than preconceived biases."

Bob underplayed his skill as a teacher, but I saw that ability at work as I finished reading those paragraphs to my students. They could not ask enough questions about the author, and what he liked in the music, and what was cool about the family open to one another. He had touched all of their "instinctive compassion" as well.

This is the very quality that informs all of the topics in this lovely book, subtitled "Essays on Identity, Place, Community and Class". The topics range from the family's immigrant experiences and tragedies, the inroads into different geographies and careers, loving portraits of marriage and fatherhood, sharp and celebratory thoughts on literature, to a meditation on the symbolism of a fallen tree.

One of the most striking features of the grace in these essays is Bob's capacity to keep his eye on the small and large issues at once. The most sweeping social-political analysis in the book is "Glass Houses: Notes on a Classless Society in the Global Economy", a meditation which begins in highly local and personal reflection, moving outward toward comprehensive observations. The Bob begins by comparing his upbringing with the eastern Ohio childhood Larry Smith describes; Smith describes the journey from blue collar to professional life in terms of family sacrifices and cultural challenges. The essay moves into reflections on class definitions and the limitations of a "melting pot" promise in a culture that eventually finds its common denominators in consumerism. The big and the little. Bob insisted on stating the most global of issues in the most individual and personal of terms: "Bargain hunters that we are, we don't care that the cheap Mickey and Minnie and Pocahantas T-shirts in K-Mart come from Caribbean sweatshops. Not many consumers blinked when a twelve year-old Pakistani boy, who advocated against child labor in his country, was murdered after he returned home after speaking out in the U.S." It is that compassion which goes to the heart of the issue. Within our labor movement, that very visit was controversial in that recognizing a union of child laborers might seem to legitimize child labor activities in the first place.

The book does just what Bob always did. It assumes your intelligence, your engagement, your humor and your humanity. Poet Diane Kendig reported in a note that she read the book right away, then lamented losing the author, stating that "the Midwest landscape has a big hole in it, as though a meteor dug one and disappeared." Blessed be. We have this record.

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