On the morning of July 14, 2014 Dr. Charles (Chuck) Pazdernik was involved in a very serious accident while cycling to work, damaging his spinal cord at the neck. After a speedy surgery, Chuck was fitted with a "halo" to keep his head immobile while his spine healed; he lacked any sensory or motor function below his chest. Chuck began a very long recovery, which at first aimed to strengthen his upper body and to prepare him for life in a wheelchair. While Chuck and his family worked hard to understand and adapt to a radically changed life together, Chuck's good humor, his single-minded determination and his kindness made him as beloved by the staff at the rehabilitation hospital as he is by his students. During recovery in hospital, under an exhausting physical regimen, he continued to work as a productive scholar and teacher. Although a wheelchair user and still encased in his halo, he led students who visited him in the hospital to read Greek as part of a summer reading group and he made revisions to an article recently published in GRBS.
Chuck’s recovery was meteoric: by late August he could feel and move toes, in September he was de-haloed and began to take his first steps, by mid-October he was discharged (walking out with a walker but under his own steam), and in November he returned to campus and gave what would surely NOT be his “Last Lecture” to a record crowd of GVSU students, family, and friends.
We, Chuck’s colleagues, were very pleased to have him back where he belonged, on campus and in front of his students. Thinner even than usual, and somewhat bowed from the rigors of recovery, Chuck was nevertheless fully there that night, eyes alight and greeting friends, rehab staff and former students with joy. We cannot properly express what his physical presence back on campus in that role meant for anyone in that room who knows him. Chuck’s message and lecture acted out for us as we listened not just the desperate horror of the accident and the changed lives the accident has forced upon his family, nor even the extraordinary love and hope he and Miriam share with each other and with their beautiful girls. The lecture grounded that entire, very human, experience – sudden change, irreversible reversals, love, perseverance and hope – in the powerful and rich tradition of the Classics in which Chuck has found deep meaning and to which he has devoted his life. The fragility, challenge and inevitability of human hope in the face of constant uncertainty became as real for us while he talked as it must surely have been for Athenian audiences of tragedies in the 5th century. Normally we call his teaching, 'excellent' or 'exemplary,' him a 'master teacher' – and it and he are. But in that moment he truly stepped back into his place as 'the teacher.' We knew then that he would be back teaching, and needed to be back teaching, with his colleagues and friends.
Throughout his long recovery, Chuck has been supported by friends and family, and especially by Miriam Aukerman, his wife. Miriam was assisted in that difficult time by a large network of caring friends and co-workers, who prepared meals for the family and arranged activities for Thea and Cara. This tremendous outpouring of care testifies to the deep gratitude felt by so many of Chuck and Miriam's friends for the ways Chuck, Miriam, Thea and Cara have enriched their lives.
At the time of the "Last Lecture" in November 2014, Chuck’s future was still very much in doubt. “I take refuge,” he said at the time, “in my hopes, blind or otherwise.” Some hopes for his recovery, perhaps, still remain to be realized; Chuck and his loving family still face many challenges; but the Department of Classics at GVSU is very pleased indeed that Chuck is back among us this fall, 2/3 FTE but fully engaged in the life of our students and the department.