Wm writes: David M. Clark, who you may know as the author of The Death of a Disco Dancer, emailed me the following tribute to Richard Cracroft. I’m pleased to be able to bring it to you.
With great sadness, I learned of the passing of Richard Cracroft, the great BYU English professor and the beating heart and soul of Mormon literary criticism.
Dr. Cracroft was intelligent, jovial, irrepressibly optimistic and exceedingly generous. Not all great scholars are great teachers, but he was known and beloved as both. He was, in my mind, the consummate BYU professor – scholarly, accomplished, unpretentious, open-minded yet fully committed, fully believing, an unapologetic disciple.
I was one of the lucky students that got to know him reasonably well. Not only was I fortunate to take a few of his classes but I was also fortunate enough to be an American Studies major when he was running our fledgling little program. His love of literature, particularly literature of the American West (Twain, Cather, Stegner et al.) was infectious. He loved the humanism of Stegner and Cather and the humor of Mark Twain (summed up he said by the incongruity inherent by the collision of Eastern values with the hard realities of the Frontier — akin to a “belch in the parlor”). He always (always) accentuated the positive. I learned from him that the Mormon experience, even the experience of a middle-class, suburban, know-nothing Mormon punk like me was relevant and maybe even compelling.
He was generous enough to provide me with a letter of recommendation for my law school applications. I still remember stopping by his office to pick it up. After I thanked him for taking the time to write it, he brushed me off and said, with a smile on his face and a hearty chuckle — “I wonder if you’ll recognize yourself?” It is one of the greatest treasures of my academic career. The letter was written with his unique wit and flair — addressed to those nameless, faceless admissions officers — by one, he declared, writing “with authority and not as one of the scribes” (his words). He was right to raise that question. Truthfully, I didn’t really recognize myself in that letter — I was too good to be true. But, he wrote that letter of recommendation with an eye on the potential David Clark, not the actual David Clark. It would not be his last act of generosity on my behalf.
A few years later, bored with law school, I wrote a couple of short stories (bad ones at that), which I presumptuously sent to him and asked him if he wouldn’t mind reading. Not only did he read them, he edited them, he mined the tiny flecks of potential from them and, most critically, he encouraged me to keep at it. He made me believe that I could have something important to say if I kept trying. And, more than a decade later, I presumptuously sent him a manuscript of a novel. Not long after, I received a reply that started off as follows:
I have been in hospital for 10 days for a number of “all these shall be for thy good and shall give thee experience” sorts of things. While I whiled away my days and nights, I also got to finish reading your The Death of a Disco Dancer...”
He continued in an apologetic tone for not reading more quickly the first novel of an unpublished, unheralded student from nearly two decades earlier. I was touched and humbled. After reading his kind and thoughtful review, I truly didn’t care if it ever got published. Richard Cracroft, the Dean of Mormon Letters had liked it, even said it was important. His thoughtful consideration, understanding and approval was plenty enough for me.
The first novel I remember reading in the first of the few classes I took from Dr. Cracroft was Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, the epic story of Father Jean Marie Latour and his rise from humble priest in the earliest days of New Mexico to the Archbishop of Santa Fe decades later. In the closing chapters of the novel, Father Latour passes on and, as foreshadowed by the preposition selected to be used in the title (“for” rather than “to”), Cather writes that Latour died from having lived (“I shall not die of a cold, my son. I shall die of having lived.”) . Death came “for” the Archbishop, not “to” him. In other words, his life of dedicated service to a higher purpose had been full and rich. His death was not random, inexplicable or tragic. His death was a natural new beginning to a life of love and learning lived fully.
Death came for a great professor, husband, father, Stake President, Mission President and man, not to him. Although I’m saddened by his departure from this life (I feel like his deacons in the mid-‘60s who stood in a sacrament meeting and raised their arms to the square in opposition of his release as deacon’s quorum adviser), I rejoice that I was one of the lucky beneficiaries of his faith, optimism and encouragement.