Where have all the years gone? I have been digging through 8 file cabinet drawers of old files, trying to discard as many as possible. It is a crazy job. Logically, I should have dumped them all in the garbage (Yanks say ‘trash’), without a second look. But I have never been famous for being logical, especially when it comes to my precious, undeservedly cherished writings. Instead, I went through each folder — literally hundreds of them — page by page, scanning but too often reading carefully. Then I discarded some but kept too many others.
While engaged in this exercise, I also discovered that I had written well over 200 letters of recommendation. Most of these were for students, colleagues, or friends. But some were for former chairpersons and mentors. Most of the letters were thorough, thoughtful and supportive. It was only late in the game that I began refusing requests where I had some reservations about the candidate. There is no consistent pattern governing how institutions choose referees. Only a few are initiated by the applicants themselves. I think that those that come from chairs, deans or search committees were sent to me because the applicant had included me in a list of those who knew them well. In those instances, I guess the applicant assumed I would write a strong letter of support.
I could not resist sending a copy of some of these letters to stellar students and colleagues. A few were pleased enough to thank me. But in the first instance, only a handful of the 200+ sent a note of thanks, in spite of the fact that most seemed to have been successful. I don’t rush to conclude that their success rested on what I wrote. Of course, they succeeded on their merits. And, to be fair, it is possible — indeed likely — that the applicants did not know which of the referees was asked to write and actually did so.
Before I conclude, as I looked over the letters I was relieved to discover that I did not often copy phrases or paragraphs from one letter to another. That said, there are a limited number of ways you can praise someone’s great accomplishments. As well, I underscore my astonishment at being asked to support colleagues who were far more senior and far more distinguished than I. Four or five were current or past chairs of departments in which I served; one was an internationally recognized leader in my field; and one became the Chancellor of a University!
As well as these ‘official’ letters, I discovered a trove of other letters mostly personal excluding, of course, those between family members, or my wife and I. These ranged over every part of my life even when I could not remember how I knew those with whom I was corresponding. Of course, being who I am, far too many were letters of complaint to editors, airlines, hotels, and such.
I was pleased that many of these letters were clever, even funny, and most were well-written. However, another aspect that was much less pleasing was how often they revived memories of friends now long-forgotten. I wondered how it was possible that even over a span of 40 years, give or take a decade or two, those relationships could effectively disappear. I asked myself if I had failed to keep contact or if the recipients chose to let our contact lapse. I worried that some were abandoned because the correspondent was angry or had died. I understood, of course, that it is in the nature of things that most old friendships diminish over time. Somehow that seems a facile explanation but until a better one comes along I accept that it is how life is meant to be. Still, I struggle to accept it.