In Memoriam

As a student, it was easy to forget that my professors were also human beings; naturally, they all had faults, quirks, and idiosyncrasies like anyone else I knew. For the most part, I never knew those individuals beyond the classroom. And that’s a regret, because I had many fine teachers. Luckily, one of the few I did get to know was Kit Wesler. Kit was an archaeology professor at Murray State University and the former Director of Wickliffe Mounds, before it was transferred into the State Park System. He was also an excellent researcher and scientist and universally respected among the archaeology community for his methods, which were nearly always beyond reproach. He was not a grandstander; he didn’t trumpet himself.

 

But Kit was also a friend, and when I think about my own life’s meanders, it’s not Kit’s research or methods that have contributed to my journey, but his friendship and guidance. Since Kit passed away in early 2016, many have spoken on his notable scientific contributions. But, 25 years from now, I won’t remember much about what Kit said regarding Wickliffe Mounds. What I will be able to tell you, however, in perfect detail, is this:

 

Our conversations were punctuated by long silence as often as they were with words. You see, neither of us was particularly socially adept. We never said the right thing; we weren’t casual in our speech. So, we’d think together, more often than not. In spring, as our minds wandered, you could hear the birds chirping and feel the breeze from Kit’s cracked window. And every once in a while, one of us would speak. The conversation would drift in the breeze, then fade, slowly. A few minutes later—another point of conversation, and then that too would taper as the wind died down. I was never rushed. Kit always had time, and Kit liked to take time. His office was a reprieve from the normal hustle and bustle of college. It smelled of dirt and books. It was a truly lovely place.

 

When most were pushing me toward further postgraduate specialization of some sort or other, Kit was one of the very few who saw my diverse background and scattered interests as a positive, not a liability. He never pushed me to become an archaeologist, he never prodded me to focus. I think now that he was looking at that spider web connecting the sciences and humanities and saw potential for me somewhere within that web, neither here nor there. I was studying watershed ecology, archaeology, and creative writing, simultaneously, at the time. Most probably considered me a lost cause. But somehow, I’ve ended up right where I need to be: between archaeologists, environmental scientists, federal policy-makers, and ecologists, trying to provide the structures and narratives for positive change, however modestly incremental. In retrospect, Kit was probably one of the few who saw that place for me 15 years ago.

 

The last time I talked to Kit, it was in his new lab within the sciences building at Murray State. The archaeology program there had received attention and subsequently been afforded an upgrade. Funny—Kit always despised campus politics. My reason for visiting, officially, was to discuss archaeological artifact databases. I was developing a new one for use on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response at the time, and he had an excellent model to build from. In truth, though, I wanted to catch up more than anything. You couldn’t catch the breeze or hear the birds from Kit’s new offices, but he was happy, and he was excited about upcoming opportunities. We talked for hours. It was the last time I saw him.

 

Kit’s passing took me by surprise, and I regret that I never got to say goodbye. Nor did I ever properly say thank you. Two words which I mean wholeheartedly. Maybe these words, however clumsy, can serve that purpose. Kit was a true teacher, a mentor, and a friend. He was also a damned fine archaeologist. But when I think of him now—it’s not his research or field methods that come to mind. It’s those long, meandering conversations. It’s the breeze from the window. It’s the birds outside. It’s the smell of dirt and books. And, God, what a lovely smell that is.

 

Zachary Konkol works under contract with the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council and is a 2003 graduate of Murray State University.