This week I was very sorry to hear that one of my college professors died. Kristen K. Stauffer Todd was Professor of Music History at Oklahoma Baptist University. Dr. Todd had been battling cancer but died September 1 of a heart attack. She was 48. She is survived by her husband, Phil, and their two daughters.
As I have mourned her untimely death, I have reflected on Dr. Todd specifically. I have also been thinking about what she and professors liker her mean to OBU and to small liberal arts colleges generally. I trust these remembrances and reflections will honor the memory of a lovely person who had an outsized impact on my life.
OBU has a small but excellent music department. I did not relate to Dr. Todd as OBU music majors did. Fifteen years worth of fine arts students are mourning the loss of someone they knew very well. I did not know her very well. If OBU students outside the music department knew Dr. Todd at all – and many did – it was because she frequently taught a humanities course that fulfilled a core curriculum requirement. This is how I knew Dr. Todd (then Dr. Stauffer).
I did not grow up in a musical or artistic family. I showed interest in music, however, and was fortunate to have people nurture and refine my nascent appreciation for great music and great art. I have written previously ("My Ecumenical Life") about how much I value having been exposed to music from a variety of Christian traditions. By the time I arrived at OBU, however, it was not clear to me that I should invest any intellectual or emotional energy (or time) in developing a lifelong appreciation for music and art.
After one class with Prof. Kristen Stauffer, there was no doubt.
In many ways, I am sure Dr. Todd's humanities class was like many others -- a healthy dose of music and art with some architecture thrown in. But this experience was so much more. Dr. Todd was a masterful teacher. Significantly, she was approachable and down-to-earth in a course in which a snobbish professor would have been especially off-putting. She made me see the greatness and beauty that she saw. She taught me to see it with my own eyes and hear it with my own ears.
Though I was not an accomplished musician, I grew in my love of music -- especially sacred music -- during my time at OBU. Dr. Todd often gave brief talks before campus concerts to enhance audiences' appreciation for the work about to be performed. I specifically recall Puccini's Messa di Gloria and Bernstein's Chinchester Psalms, but there were many others over the years. Dr. Todd was with me when I heard those concerts.
But she stayed with me long after I graduated in 2002. She was with me the very next year in Boston's Symphony Hall as I listened to Brahms's German Requiem. She was with me in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum in 2005, helping me see color and darkness, social class and national history in the Rembrandts and Vermeers. She was with me in the Washington National Cathedral in 2009 as I read through the program notes to Handel's Messiah. She was with me at the Kennedy Center in 2011 when, during a performance of Mozart's Great Mass in C minor, I placed my hand on my wife's pregnant belly and felt my unborn child kick for the first time.
Few people know that before I moved to Washington in 2009 to begin a Ph.D. program in political science, I taught English in the public school system. At night and in the summer, I taught Humanities at the local community college, where I felt Dr. Todd's influence most vividly. (I even showed Sister Wendy videos.)
A professor from whom I took only one class launched me on a lifelong journey to honor and delight in the greatest things the Western humanistic tradition has produced. I never have and never will be an expert about such things. But I am proud to have an informed lay appreciation for the humanities and I am determined to transmit that tradition to my students and to my own children.
Of course, there is nothing unique about having fond memories of college professors. Many people had a special professor for whom they would weep upon learning that they died as I have wept over Dr. Todd's death. What is different about OBU professors is that I feel such strong affection for all of them. The faculty at my college is unique because professors are chosen not for their devotion to research, the prestige of their academic pedigree, or (I hope) their adherence to creedal statements. They are selected for their commitment to excellence in teaching and learning. Some of them were prodigious researchers. Some had attended great universities. But all of them desired first and foremost to model and transmit fides quaerens intellectum. This was Dr. Todd's noble vocation.
As many of you know, I have an unusual relationship with my alma mater. I was never an evangelical, but I accepted that OBU effectively and faithfully exemplified evangelical higher education. Years later, when the goalposts began shifting and institutional norms were disregarded, I led a public protest. I did so in honor of professors like Dr. Todd. I am eternally grateful that OBU remained a hospitable (or at least acceptable) environment for her. But make no mistake: If Dr. Todd -- a first-rate Christian scholar who taught children's Sunday school at First Baptist Church -- would not be hired at OBU today, that would be a shame. If that were the case, it would reflect badly on OBU, not on Dr. Todd.
I stopped "saving" OBU when I thought my efforts were no longer helpful. Happily, I began to see anew all the great things about my alma mater. OBU's wonderful and unique character has been on vivid display this week as a community grieves the loss of one of its most beloved members. My heart breaks for Dr. Todd's students and colleagues, and especially for her dear husband and children.
Kristen Stauffer Todd was an absolute treasure, and I shall never forget her.