Saying goodbye to Blaine Hudson

By now, most of you know Dr. J. Blaine Hudson passed away earlier this month. Along with multitudes of others, his death has saddened me beyond measure. He was a gem, and what we lose with his transition is incalculable.

Growing up fatherless as I did presents both challenges and opportunities. Children like me who are able to overcome the psychological damage that parental abandonment inevitably brings usually have certain characteristics in common. Many of us are very disciplined over-achievers. Deep down, this is probably because we have a subconscious desire to constantly prove our worth in that we feel our parents regarded us as unworthy of loving and raising. We are also fiercely self-reliant. Perhaps we’re like this because we function with an ever-present fear of failure and don’t trust most folks (which, unfortunately, is warranted). We believe that, more often than not, when the chips are down, the majority of people will abandon us. As a consequence, at our lowest moments, we will be alone and have to take care of ourselves. We stay prepared for this inevitability.

Many boys like me are also collectors — not of stamps, books or anything else so normal. We collect fathers. Because we have no real fathers, we are free to find men we “wish” were our fathers and attach ourselves to them. Blaine Hudson was the prize of my collection. If I could have built a father from the ground up, it would have been him. I’m jealous of his real children because they got to grow up with him. How they must have bathed in his love.

Blaine and I were both sci-fi buffs. We often joked about characters and lessons from otherworldly adventures. We debated trivial things like “Who was the greatest ‘Star Trek’ captain?” Not surprisingly, he preferred the cerebral Jean-Luc Picard. Equally expected, I’ve always loved the wild space-cowboy James T. Kirk. We both loved “Star Wars” and the Jedi Knights. As Yoda would say, “By two they always come — a Master and an Apprentice.” Blaine was the closest thing to a Master Jedi one could ever hope to meet. I’m grateful he was kind enough to allow me to serve as an apprentice, and I bowed to him without question or regret.

Before he became dean, I was a daily fixture in his Pan-African Studies office. Afterward, we would often go to lunch, share emails, or stop and chat during chance meetings on campus. I probably got on his nerves more often than not when I was younger and dumber, but Blaine patiently taught me a host of invaluable lessons — strategy, focus, discipline, foresight, selflessness, calm, humility and forgiveness. I’m still trying to master most of them in my efforts to become half the man he was.

As those close to us know, I called Blaine “The Velvet Hammer” because of his relaxed demeanor. He was also a nail. All his life he was the nail that stood up. And of course, the nail that stands up always gets hammered. Encouragingly, “Hammer” always hammered back. As a student at Louisville in the late 1960s, he was dismissed from school after participating in an administration-building takeover. His actions directly led to the formation of the Pan-African Studies Department — a unit he later chaired.

Though persecuted, like Caesar, he returned triumphant and became one of the greatest leaders the campus has ever known. Make no mistake, his path was not smooth. He had to fight every step of the way — all the while maintaining his integrity, manhood and sense of purpose. In an era of mediocrity defined by empty celebrity and people who simply go along to get along, Blaine was a shining example of righteous humanity. He was intellectual, innovative, strong and guided by an unwavering moral compass until the end.

When I succeeded Hammer as chair, I planned a celebration of his career in October 2005. I wrote in LEO at the time that, “Some people might posit that such a celebration is premature. After all, the Velvet Hammer is not close to the grave.” I was wrong, but I’m so glad we celebrated him before his death. My only regret is that I didn’t get the chance to see him in his last days just to hold his hand and tell him I loved him. God knows I loved that man so very much … and I always will.