I met the Dude, Jim, or Dr. McAlexander depending on your relationship, about 10 years ago, in 2011, when his lovely wife, Kim, sat on an interview panel at Oregon State University, which recommended hiring me for my current position.
I picked her out immediately. She smiled, made eye contact and helped me feel that I had a friend and ally at the table even though we had never met. Soon after I was hired, she invited my family to join hers for Thanksgiving since we were spending it far from home. A year later, she planned a trip to Napa for my 40th birthday.
She was the college’s head advisor. Jim, at the time, was a tenured marketing professor in the College of Business. He had a dry wit, the requisite condescension for someone with tenure, brains, drive and lots and lots of talent.
He was a guy equally comfortable in a dive bar or a 5-star restaurant. A lectern or a surfboard.
Sometimes, I thought, “This guy is a real asshole.” And if I told him that, and I’m pretty sure I did, he would laugh and say, “Duh!”
Fun fact: We once spent a drunken half hour discussing, through bouts of laughter, the etymology of the word “ass-hat.”
At first, I couldn’t reconcile this guy with one of the nicest people I’d ever met, so I assumed he was mostly harmless. And I was right. Except that he was THE marketing expert on campus, and I respected him and somewhat feared him. He consulted with Harley Davidson. My favorite TV show at the time, “Mad Men,” once called him about a marketing question.
I really, really wanted him to like me. Also, I “get” assholes. Some, and you know who you are, are my closest friends.
I learned Jim was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2018. He wasn’t yet 60.
At the time, my office was near a graduate student who studied aging and organized support for the Alzheimer’s Association. I checked out the materials he gave me and read “What Alice Forgot,” noting that Alice, too, was a college professor. Her story shook me. It did, and did not, prepare me.
At first, how Alzheimer’s affected Jim wasn’t so obvious. And then it was.
Kim and I started a bowling team in 2021, the year my son graduated from high school. As another neurodivergent, with I/DD, autism and epilepsy, my son loved bowling — as did Jim, who spent many happy years drinking beer and bowling on his college team. Kim and I both were looking for ways to get our guys actively engaged in activities they enjoy. If we could spend time together, too, then all the better.
“I like you,” he said one night at the bowling alley.
“Has he ever said that? Did I know that?” I wondered. I think I did know it, but unfortunately we humans don’t tell each other that as often as we should. But when we hear it, a light comes on.
“I like you, too, Jim,” I replied. “You’ve done some cool stuff.”
“You know, you might have been a bit of a legend.”
“Yeah. I don’t do things any more.”
“Well,” I said, “You make me laugh, and you make other people feel good by being around you, so there’s that.”
“Thank you,” he said, looking straight through me. “Really. Thank you.”
For nearly three months, we bowled, ate greasy pizza and drank a couple of pitchers of beer each Thursday night. He wasn’t bowling as well as he once did, but I’m pretty sure he experienced much the same joy.
“Do you know these people?” he asked at our last league game, gesturing at bowlers in the lane next to us.
“Nope. New to me,” I said.
“You know, I didn’t think I would like being on a league,” I continued. “I don’t really ‘people.’ But it’s been really cool. It’s fun!”
“Yeah, we’re a lot alike,” he said.
“You know, marketers.”
“Yeah, I do know. You know?!”
“This is fun,” he continued.” You know why I like bowling? It’s because nothing else matters. It’s all … .”
“Yeah, I get that,” I said, flipping through the stressors of working full time and raising two teenagers, one with disability.
“You know, I learned an important lesson,” he said
“Really? What’s that?”
“We need to love each other. You helped teach me that.”
“Really?” I thought, a bit shocked at his directness and that I could ever teach him, well, anything. “Well,” I said, “I think you’re absolutely right.”
A few months later, we met to bowl again. I wasn’t sure if he would remember me.
“Hey, Jim. It’s me, Kathryn,” I said, not wanting to insult him if he knew who I was, nor embarrass him if he didn’t.
“Oh, I remember you,” he replied. “I have a chapter on you.”
I never learned what he would write. But what I wouldn’t give to find out.
Here’s my toast to the Dude … May 15, 2022.
Before his diagnosis, Jim had a poem accepted into a magazine, and I thought, “Seriously?!” Being published is my lifelong dream, and here is this guy who just submits a poem on a whim and gets it accepted. What can’t he do?!
So of course I wrote a poem about it.