Good-bye, dear friend

My friend Cole Campbell died. From AP reports I gather he was speeding down icy roads on his way to his Reno, Nevada campus. His Honda SUV slid on to an embankment, then flipped over. The paramedics had to pull him out of the car, unconscious I gather, I hope, then take him to the hospital, and there he died. Reportedly two witnesses said he was driving too fast for icy conditions. I’ve done that.

I’m so mad at you, Cole Campbell, so mad at you for being in a hurry. What was the hurry? Late at home tending to breakfast dishes? Late getting to work for a meeting? What meeting could cost that much?

I have been there, done that, though not been caught under a ton of metal. The last time we talked, we were both in a hurry. Or really it was me in a hurry. I don’t remember what for. You had just brilliantly moderated a panel at the National Archives. We went out for coffee afterwards. Ollsen’s. Downtown Washington. You got a call. I thumbed through magazines looking for the architectural magazine I hoped was about to feature my house. After the call, we commiserated about professional commiserations. We talked about possibilities. I said, I’m sorry but I’ve got to run. I drove you to your hotel. We said good-bye, see you soon.

But I’ll never see you again.

I think about your wife, your “bride” as you called her. You and she, newly married, newly parents of a boy called Clarke. Your bride is now in Reno, wondering what for. I don’t know her, but I think about her. I imagine that she is as mad at you as I am.

This thing called weather, blanketing those western states, while we on the east coast live through unseasonable warmness. This thing called weather, it takes lives. I know this abstractly.

But none of this is abstract. At six a.m. today I sat down with a cup of coffee and the New York Times, I read on the first page about I don’t remember what. Iraqi surges, the body mass index of six-year-olds, the archbishop of somewhere or other, and then it was time to flip through the front section until I got to the op-ed page. But there, on the way, on the obituary page, which I scanned obligatorily, was a face that did not belong there. Your face. What was it doing there?

“Cole Campbell, one of the first newspaper editors to embrace the idea that journalism should help readers be engaged citizens, died Friday in Reno, Nev., when his vehicle flipped on an icy road.”

Cole Campbell did indeed embrace an idea. He embraced many ideas. He was a philosopher who happened to be a journalist. One of the first times I met him, when I was not too long out of graduate school, was at a meeting somewhere unremarkable, where the place that caught his fancy was the nearby bookstore. On the bus back to the hotel he pulled books out of the plastic bag to show me his finds. All manner of intellectual fodder about postmodernism, public philosophy, John Dewey, literary criticism. Frankly I don’t remember. I just recall that it was the sort of reading that my fellow graduate students and I would read, not what the former editor of the St. Louis Dispatch would read.

Because of the kind of ideas he embraced, and the kind of wild, that is, experimental, practice he engaged, the St. Louis Dispatch dispatched with Cole Campbell. And so he found himself a philosopher without a newspaper; so he did the respectable thing that philosophers do, he tried to get a Ph.D. He got himself to the Union Institute with Elizabeth Minnich as his dissertation director. But somewhere on the path Minnich parted from the Union and left Cole without an anchor. The president of Union wouldn’t return his calls, Cole told me. So Cole was permanently A.B.D. Even so, he had gotten himself into academe, skipping to the head of the class, the Dean of the J school at the University of Nevada Reno. He set out to reform journalism by way of education, exemplifying the ideal that journalism could be more than reportage, showing how it might be engagement with a public, helping a public identify problems, possibilities, and avenues for public life.

The Associated Press reports people saying he was a “futurist,” but that’s just bunk. There was nothing science fictiony about Cole Campbell’s aspirations. I loved him so much because we shared a very old-fashioned hope about democratic life, a memory of what a country can be before it even has any apparatus of government, a people with a self-governing practice of problem solving. Neither Cole nor I have ever been Reaganesque government bashers, but we both shared the hope that the institutions of public life could be arms of a public, not institutions that hold a public in perpetual tutelage.

For you, Cole Campbell, I will never drive fast again down treacherous roads. I will savor my coffee and my friendships. For you, Cole Campbell, I will shower strangers with unexpected good will, the kind of good will that I found whenever in your company.

Categorized as friendship

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. Many thanks for this eloquent and passionate tribute, Noelle. Cole was a remarkable and rare person, a philosopher, a journalist of the people in that great tradition, and also simply an ebullient, warm-hearted man. This is sad, hard news.

    Harry Boyte

  2. Noelle,
    Thanks for your beautiful and heart-felt comments. I think you’re right: we’re all mad at a certain level. Such madness comes only from a deep sense of attachment and longing. I’ll miss Cole. And I’ll remember your words.

    Rich Harwood

  3. Dear Noelle,

    What an eloquent tribute to a warm, fun and also,brilliant man. I always looked forward to seeing him at Kettering. My heart breaks when I think of his wife and child.

    I just wrote a poem about Robert Sumser, my husband’s closest friend at Wright State, for his memorial service this afternoon, and I talked about the half lives we all live with each other. I am glad you wrote not only about the dangers of hurrying through life but also about not having enough time for all the people we care about.

    1. Dear Julie,
      I was a student of Dr. Sumser and tried to go back just recently to see and say hello when I was completely taken aback to hear of his death. I was wondering if you could email me and tell me what may have happened as I am in complete shock, and extremely saddened at the news. He was amazing and I don’t understand what could have happened. Please email me and tell me what happened to him. I am just at a loss for words.

  4. Dear Noelle,

    What a beautifully written tribute to an amazing man. Cole was so creative and energetic, bubbling over with the lifeforce, overflowing with ideas, forever with a stack of books that he’d just finished or was reading and wanted to talk about. He was so unpretentious and what a sense of humor. He was a delight to be with.

    He had so much work left to do, so much more to be accomplished. I join you in grieving. We will all miss him, especially the Kettering Foundation and his university. But far, far more importantly, so shall our country.

  5. NOelle,

    I marvel at your honest and heartfelt thoughts about Cole. You made your last moments with him come alive — he was brilliant at that event at the National Archives, wasn’t he? I remember thinking at the time, “This guy really does his homework.” I also remember he was extremely quick witted and had some great impromptu comebacks based on the comments of other panelists — the sign of a great moderator.

    I probably will think of you and Cole both the next time I’m tempted to rush to anything. You’ve indelibly imprinted that warning in my mind–it’s odd what stays with you, but your anger and regret about how we all rush around sometimes is worth remembering.

    I’m just sorry Cole couldn’t have heard the warmth in your note about him first hand. I think he would have been so touched.


  6. Noelle,

    When I read the eyewitness accounts that the 1999 Honda SUV was driving at speeds too fast for the icy Nevada roads, I reacted much like my niece when her older brother began to question Santa Claus. I put my fingers in my ears and sang, “La, la, la, la, la, la” at the top of my lungs. “Who are those people? What is the basis for their observation? How fast is too fast? What difference does it make!?!”

    Like you, I was angry. Unlike you, I didn’t have the courage or the language to express my anger.

    Cole’s influence spanned this country and those who loved him are scattered from NY to California and probably beyond. It’s a tribute to him and the life that he lived, but it also means that many of us who loved him are far away from each other. Blogs, Friday Letters, e-mails, and late night phone calls are our way of collectively remembering Cole. We can’t sit together over coffee, stroke each other’s hand, laugh uncontrollably over a shared memory, or see the pain in each other’s eyes. We can only pour out our anguish through clicks, keyboards, computers, and cables. When words fail us we either remain silent, respond to each other’s electronic comments, or do as I did…rely heavily on the eloquent words of Cole’s fellow journalists, hyperlink to the NY Times Obituary page, and add a simple, “Amen.” A few, like you, do what we can’t do for ourselves…spew out our anger, reflect our regrets, remind us of why we love, and help us resolve ourselves to love more deeply.

    Thank you, Noelle.

    On our next visit, let’s linger over coffee and share amusing Cole stories. A hug and tear or two might be in order too.

  7. Dear Noelle,
    Thank you so much for sharing so eloquently your personal reflections on the loss of Cole Campbell. My heart goes out to his family in their loss of two loved ones (father and son) in just two months. What a tragedy!

  8. Noelle,

    I am with you in wishing to linger a little longer with this dear man, and wondering how I can honor him in my own life. I want to say that tomorrow I will not drive to work like a madwoman, but I know I will. I want to say that I will never again drink alcohol, because Cole didn’t. But that’s not likely. No… I’ll muddy on as usual, but will feel the loss of a friend, a gallant defender, our class cut-up: the man who sang an impromptu, but perfectly worded ditty during Dayton Days. I will remember the kindness of an intimidating intellectual who made me feel worthy of his attention. Despite his seemingly haphazard, barely attentive presence, he always managed to offer the precise summation, insight or comic relief needed. Asked about Clarke, he reveled in being a new father, saying “I just like hanging out with him.” This pleased me, because a man of the mind can make a distant father.

    I liked hanging out with Cole. Just watching him eat! He took in food, beverage, ideas with abandon. That ready laugh. I plan to honor Cole by being less troubled by criticism, by trying to optimistically view every adversary as my potential ally.

    Goodbye to a good soul; goodbye to our dear friend Cole. My condolences to all who loved him.

  9. Noelle:
    Thank you for your heartfelt words about Cole Campbell. His family and friends are in my thoughts.

  10. Thank you, Noelle, for expressing the unexpressable almost: how could one meaningfully , metaphorically, symbolically put in words all the amazement, bewilderment, unimaginable about the sudden disapperance of a good man, a beautiful soul, a witty mind, a permanently curious spirit?
    Cole will be missed by many.
    The lesson for the rest of us still left around here by mere chance: let’s slow down to celebrate every moment of what we so easily take for granted; let’s smile when we start the day and be thankful for having lived yet another day, no matter how meaningless or unproductive or sad or empty that day might have seemed to us, too many times on the critical side, always pushing for something else, always trying to reach higher, too many times forgetting that there will always be plenty of time, yet so very little…

  11. Noelle and Friends,

    Cole helped make space for all of us and our work, and showed us where there was space we did ont see — helping us see new possibilities. He helped make the world larger for us, even as his death leaves that world smaller.

    Thank you for your thoughts and feeelings, so beautifully expressed, which help us connect across those spaces.


  12. Dear Noelle and friends —

    Thank you, Noelle, for your beautiful words and for creating a space where we can remember Cole and share our sadness. Like many of you, I heard this news last week as I was reading through the Times, and came full stop on his photo on the obit page, of all places. Full stop. I still haven’t quite taken it in that Cole will not be joining us again.

    Cole was indeed a rare and remarkable person, a philosopher and free spirit, a generous human being. I don’t know what I will miss most: his genial smile, his good humor, or the stack of books Cole carried around like an itinerant preacher, ready at any moment to talk about, brilliantly and enthusiastically.

    How best to honor Cole? Certainly with hugs and tears. And also, jolted by this reminder of how precarious things are, by appreciating our friendships and the pleasure of working together in our little community of kindred spirits. I think we honor Cole best by carrying on enthusiastically, creatively, and with good humor, with the work in which we joined Cole, and he joined with us.


  13. cole was such a brilliant person, a real rarity among newspaper editors, which is probably a big reason that he encountered so much resistance at the pilot, where i worked. the same thing apparently also happened at the st. louis paper. funny thihg is that most editors are resisted. the only thing that saves any of them is the backing they get from the powers that be. cole deserved much better from his employers. i found him to be the best editor — by far — that the pilot had during my time there.

  14. Thanks very much for your writing.You have real shown the sense of good friendship.It is so sad when we say goodbye to the ones we real love and care but each and everything do happen for a good reason in God’s veiwing.What we need is to have faith and to continue and practice all the good things which our lovely friends have left us.In that way they will be happy wherever they will be.THANKS

  15. I learn belatedly of Cole’s tragic death. I knew him but briefly when I joined the Virginian-Pilot staff just before he departed for St. Louis, but first he pointed me in the direction of an important story. No one mentions his remarkable book “Breaking the News.” Yes, the newspapers unload anyone who really seeks truth.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: