January 29, 2008
Steve Nock: Scholar and Friend
Before beginning a dissertation, you have to put together a committee to review your work. Three of the members come from your own department; one must be from an outside department. There’s not a whole lot of benefit to faculty members in serving on dissertation committees. It mostly represents extra work. This is quadruply true for the outside reader. Why take on the reading, reviewing, advising for a student who isn’t even in your department?
With this knowledge that the benefit would be entirely on my side of the equation in mind, I approached the door of Steve Nock a few years ago to ask him to serve as my outside reader. I remember the apprehension I felt: while universally acknowledged to be a friendly, nice person, Steve was also a highly-regarded scholar with a national reputation for his writing on family issues from a sociological perspective. He had also managed to champion marriage and family in his research and writing — even defending “covenant marriage” — while maintaining his reputation within the liberal academic establishment. A not inconsiderable feat.
Exactly the person I would most like to have on my committee as the outside reader. Hence the butterflies in my stomach as I knocked on his door.
I still remember the warmth and friendliness he greeted me with, instantly setting me at ease. He expressed interest in my research project and, much to my relief, agreed to serve on the committee.
An outside reader isn’t really obligated to do much on a committee — as long as they show up at the defense and ask a few cogent questions to demonstrate having actually read the dissertation. Steve, however, gave me the benefit of real input and advice as the project went forward. He read early drafts and critiqued my research methodology very thoroughly.
At his memorial service this past Saturday, all these thoughts were going through my mind. Of the great contribution he made to my professional development. Of his great graciousness to me, going above and beyond what he was obligated to offer.
But most of all, what drew us to drive to Charlottesville on such a sad trek was to pay tribute to Steve Nock, the man.
He died suddenly last week of complications from diabetes — he was only 57. Long-term he had struggled with his health in ways I was only marginally aware. Several people mentioned this quality about him at the service: he lived a life of such joy and enthusiasm that very few people outside his family knew of his health challenges.
What a wonderful way to be remembered — as a person who spread joy and made others around him happy. Certainly Steve’s many articles and books create an important intellectual legacy. But what those of us who were fortunate enough to have known Steve Nock will really remember about him was his wonderful smile. . . and that he shared it so readily.