Dr. David Ede (1935-2008)

20 September 2008

May your spirit find its way, whichever way that might be

My advisor and friend David Ede, Chair of the Department of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University, passed away a week ago today. He was 73 years old and died as the result of an allergic reaction to nuts, something that he had known about and was always prepared for with an epi-pen on hand. I am not sure as to the specifics, really.

I was shocked to learn this when a good friend called me last Sunday to let me know. I was thankful because I might not have known as soon otherwise, being that I just returned to Cairo a few weeks ago. Dr. Ede’s death is an untimely one: for me it seems especially untimely because we were still working on my thesis project. He will unfortunately not be able to see the results.

There was a very nice write-up in the Kalamazoo Gazette yesterday which can be found here. However, as with all such articles and obituaries, I felt that it left something to be desired. So, I will use this forum to express a few of my more fond memories of David.

I hadn’t really realized, having studied under him for almost 4 years, how much I had come to consider Dr. Ede a friend as well as mentor. I, of course, had my gripes with him, but that is par for the course in any grad-student/advisor relationship. Grad school wouldn’t be very interesting if our advisors didn’t occasionally piss us off. However, those gripes were typically assuaged by even the shortest conversation with him. He had a way of setting my mind at ease whenever I was freaking out about my project or anything else. This would typically involve his telling of anecdotes from grad school or living and traveling abroad. One thing that I regret that I will never be able to do now is to help him compile these stories into a memoir of sorts, something that we spoke about briefly this spring after I suggested that he do this. In that same meeting, having not met in months as I was living in Egypt last year, we spent about 15 minutes talking about my thesis and a good three hours talking about our recent travels. He had just returned from a trip to Japan with his wife, Yumi, and his eyes lit up like a kid in a candy store while talking about food, trains, and other little phenomena of which he had taken note.

That is how he was: his attention to detail was remarkable. One of the most valuable things that he taught me as his student was how to compile an exhaustive bibliography. If you were writing a paper for him, he wasn’t happy until you had found every source in existence with even a mere mention of your topic. It is for this reason that I have been able to find as much primary source data as I have to work with for my thesis. He told me once that you could start out compiling sources by excluding some of them from the beginning. You have to wait until the end to decide what is redundant and what is irrelevant to your work.

I think that it was in that same spirit of being thorough that he conducted his own education. Having been initially trained at a Lutheran seminary, he used to say that he didn’t go into the clergy not because he didn’t believe, but because there were so many other things out there to believe in. He didn’t feel like he could choose just one path. This led him to study religion in a comparative/pluralist academic environment, a field of study which he remarked only recently is “still very new, and still theoretically wide-open.”

This was the same thing that he said to me the day that I, having just come back from Egypt for the first time, went to his office to inquire about the MA in Comparative Religion. He was dressed in a such a way that he looked like he might be off to the beach as soon as he left the university with his flip-flops and Acapulco shirt. I left his office that day having been accepted into the department and with a teaching assistantship for his course on Islamic Traditions. He wore sandals, shorts and Acapulco shirts to class too. I remember him once saying, “when you get to a certain age, if you want to wear flip-flops to teach, you just can.”

A number of the students in that class would come to my office hours with endless questions. They thought that the material was a little obtuse, that Ede was a little boring. I, sitting in the same class so that I could help with the undergrads and grade exams, thought that he was giving the most in-depth survey he could given the time-constraints, and that he was as thorough and as knowledgeable as you could get. His answers to students’ questions were not patronizing, pedantic, or overly simplified, they were complete. When they weren’t complete, he would give students the information they needed to find a more complete answer on their own. He was a big fan of teaching students the joys of utilizing the library for research. On one occasion, we took the entire class to the library to show them where the Islamic Studies references were and how to use the Encyclopedia of Islam (2nd Ed, Brill) and the Index Islamicus (Brill), among others.

David was also very thorough in his other interests. One of the most fascinating conversations that I had with him happened as we were listening to some recordings of Qur’anic recitation by Iranian women reciters that I had found for him. I brought them in on a USB stick and he put them on his Mac so we could listen. He commented that it was amazing how much audio you could fit in such a small space these days, and how it all sounded terrible.

It turned out that he was a HUGE audiophile, actually constructing his own multi-track audio systems from parts: ceramic drivers, hand-wrapped coils, hours of soldering and fitting boards into amplifiers. He had constructed a system which in which he had striven to make the playback sound as much like being live as possible. He said that the secret wasn’t this trend toward very low-frequency sub-woofers balanced with tweeters for dispersal, but those combined with lots and lots of mid-range stacks. “Mid-range is where all of the sound really is,” he remarked, “Without it, all you have is booming bass and screechy treble.” We sat and listened to the rest of the recordings and he made some suggestions for my living-room system, which I immediately went home and implemented. Dvorak had never sounded so good, neither had Zeppelin.

I know that Dr. Ede felt bad that in the past year he had been very distracted with having been tapped as the department chair and not as focused on his students’ research projects. He said as much to a colleague/friend of mine who recently graduated from the department when she spoke to him about my project. While it is true that he may have been distracted sometimes, the advice that he did have was always spot-on, and is still applicable. It will be with this in mind that I finish this project, my interest in which would have never come to the surface if not for him. He was always excited that I had found something so original and new to work with and his eyes would light up whenever we talked about it. He never doubted my ability to conduct scholarly work, sometimes—I felt—over-estimating me. Because of this, I worked ever harder to live up to his expectations, and he was never disappointed. At one point he even asked me to collaborate on a translation of Hasan al-Basri’s letter to ‘Abd al-Malik on the problem of free-will, and some other unpublished things that he had been kicking about for years. We just never really got around to doing anything about it. Had we but world enough, and time, I suppose…1

There is a visitation and memorial service being held today in Kalamazoo. Details are listed in the link above.

Dr. Ede, you’ll be sorely missed. I hope your spirit finds its way now the same way you did in life, whatever way that might be. Rest in peace, dear friend.


1 “Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, Lady, were no crime” – from “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell, 17th-century English poet.