How to remember a fallen professor (through Young Thug)

An open letter on the passing of UW-Madison journalism professor James Baughman.
 

James Baughman's office door in Vilas Hall.

James Baughman's office door in Vilas Hall.

When I think of my undergrad years at UW-Madison, I think of an incubator: a designated space and time to try and find what works. Unfortunately, a sizable portion of my space and time—much like many of my friends on the same trip at the same time—was spent practicing the art of eulogizing the dead. Which is to say, I’ve lost a lot of family and peers in four years; some to natural causes, some instances of pure tragedy. The process is more similar for each person than I’d like to admit: access the reserves of my tear ducts, refine the same bits on my soundboard to illustrate my sorrow, and spend a lot of idle time theorizing why someone dies and when I’ll be next.

But the idea that I’d have to try and eulogize a 64-year-old conservative Presbyterian Ohioan in a sport coat is something that same Ohioan would have outright chortled at—likely while thumbing through a New Yorker issue, right before offering me a bite-sized chocolate or a piece from a Pez dispenser, which I didn’t know still existed and whose contents I questioned.

In good faith—and the spirit of Professor James L. Baughman—I will try my damndest.

Prof. Baugh, I expected you to be around at least another decade. In that type of time, I think I’d have a picture of an infant I helped create, to mail to Vilas Hall since I can’t tag you on any social media. I mean, you still owned a typewriter, you deserve something physical. Anyway, I’ve envisioned sending a paper clipping for the first big article I landed somewhere, no matter how much I stare at a screen every day, because you stood dead center in the midst of our millennial yell about how print is dead. I wouldn’t drink with you—I don’t intend to drink with anyone ever—but I’d find whatever pub you stroll through years from now and sip my water right beside you, while we comb through memories of James Agee pieces I didn’t read all the way, if at all.

To imagine you didn’t know that is foolish… you were bulletproof.

Before I knew you, I never know what I’d say to you. No matter how many times we passed each other prior to meeting, I saw your blazer and your pipe and thought of how you came out of the '50s. You were one of the only people on this campus I’d ever seen with a briefcase. I knew not of the prestige you carried, of the flair you gifted the bodies that passed through those wooden desks for decades.

I was intimidated, to say the least.

But that soon washed away once I began taking your classes on investigative reporting and literary aspects. I met the Prof. Baugh that never let his dinners with the Governor take precedence over the potential of his pupils. Despite my budding liberalism, growing exponentially as I exited the cradle of adolescence, I would literally forget that one of my favorite professors definitely voted for the same party as many of the white kids who try to tell people with my skin that we’re only here to fill the space.

That contradiction never resolved within me. You mean to tell me this old Republican white guy, one of maybe five in the entire university, not only rocks with the writings of brown kids who live in direct conflict with his ideals, but goes out of his way to encourage them? Where do they make these old Republican white guys, and can we keep some on layaway? We shared an affinity for the racist-named teams of our hometowns. You’d slide me newspaper clippings about Hamilton and you even slid me one about Bobby Shmurda once. That shit blew my mind—to not only be informed of the Shmoney Dance, but to do your own research on it? Your character is difficult to reconcile because I rarely see it exemplified; someone who can embrace human beings no matter their differences, be it the ballot they cast or the records they play.

It’s a true Baughman trait: He may not agree with what the hell you’d say, but he’d forever defend your right to say it. His place was to donate the tools for you to sharpen your sword, and never to tell you where to aim it.

I grew to know one of the only men who could genuinely convince me that the longstanding principles of journalism—truth, integrity, honesty—would forever win out, would forever have a place in the world. Even if half the room would go on to get ad jobs when working up the newspaper food chain grew less appealing by every kilobyte we scrolled through. You still wrote your notes in pen, you never let shit slide if we weren’t on point, and you praised us when we prevailed.

In the past month, I’ve thought a lot of the last moment I saw you in Vilas. I was weathering one of many shitstorms in the past year of my life, trying to focus on my freelancing (i.e. my unemployment) and write to save the world or some tired cliche you’d despise. You passed the door in the Daily Cardinal office, with more slow of a creep than usual. I leaned into a tattered sofa, then sprung up to make sure I flagged you down. You backtracked to say hello, and I apologized for not catching up like I should since your meetings were always a necessary component to figuring out what the hell to do with my life.

“It’s been a rough week for me…” I said, a little exasperated.

“It’s been a rough month for me…” You replied, implying something I had yet to decipher.

I told you I’d send an e-mail to catch up since it was just after lunch hour and probably time for you to lecture. You smiled, and paced away. I plunged back into my own head. I never set the time. I never peered into your office again like I would on any random day I cruised through the fifth floor, sometimes unannounced. I didn’t even know what you meant. Perhaps a rough cold, since the weather was trying to break?

A few weeks later, you were gone.

Photo courtesy of UW-Madison

Photo courtesy of UW-Madison

Prof. Baugh, you believed in me and that’s all I needed. Even when our politics didn’t align, even when our pop cultures weren’t the same, even when I wedged myself into lackadaisical slumps like the one I was in before I wrote this to you. I’ve spoken with my peers, and you’ll soon be needing count of how many of us will go on to become professors because of how flawlessly you mastered the craft. I even wore a hoodie and jeans to your funeral when I know you hated that, I remember the monologue about you going to youth service once. You leaving here is still something that doesn’t feel real, and probably won’t for weeks to come at least. don’t know how many times I’ll poke my head around the corner in Vilas after this, and I hope no one has a single intention to change that office.

You had the nerve to die on your own day in the city. That’s the last legendary thing I could ask for.

I’ll remember you through an odd medium. In fact, it will seem stranger than fiction to many of the folks I saw at your funeral who may come across this. But I promise it’s the furthest from a non-sequitur: I listen to a Young Thug song and think of old Ohioan Republican you.

A little background, since he never came up in our conversations: Young Thug, a popular rapper from Atlanta, made a song called “F Cancer” to commemorate Lil Boosie, a legend from Baton Rouge, and his fight with kidney cancer. The visual for the song is as oddball as the sonics themselves: Thug is dressed in all pink, coming to Boosie’s aid as he hops up out of bed and jubilantly celebrates his new lease on life in a display of extravagance that only comes to some who dedicate their lives to the rap game. The vulgarity may be commonplace - and strange to your ears - but I know it’s far from unfamiliar, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t fitting to place the joy in your memory.

You knew how rap is the shit I love and the shit I’ll die for. You knew the power of how strange moments in art bear the transcendent weight of symbolizing times of your life you never dreamt of. Using Thugger to remember you is the only sensible course of action for me right now, but I wish you weren’t the body for me to find resonance in. The way Boosie paved his own prosperous lane for southern rap—for Thugger and so many of his contemporaries - you paved your way over three decades of thumbing through the books and keeping everything in check.

You recited this phrase like scripture: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” I assure you, for me and so many like me, no further background inquiries will be necessary.

As memory is the only thing to serve me now, I’ll picture your quizzical smirk as I try to talk you through why this is popular and why you should care, though the image of you googling Young Thug is something I’m laughing internally over as I write this. I don’t doubt that you’d get where I’m trying to go with it, either… you knew how to do the research.

Thank you for everything. We can’t replace you.