I’m Danny Adams, Roanoke College Class of 1998, English major with a concentration in K-12 education, and presently a college librarian and a freelance author. Denis Lape was both my adviser and my mentor at Roanoke, and then my friend in the years since I graduated.
Jane, I don’t know if this is something that you and Denis planned, or this was something the universe lined up him, but today – this exact day, Saturday, April 23rd, 2016 – is the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. I can’t imagine any better day to have a memorial for Denis Lape.
For those of you who were at Denis’ memorial during Alumni Weekend, I hope you liked what I said then, because you’re going to be hearing most of it again. It was the best way I could think to compress twenty years into five minutes.
Also, though it’s been nearly ten years since Denis asked me to call him Denis, he still made such an impact on me from early on that to this day, I still have to think a little bit before I call him Denis instead of Dr. Lape. If I bounce back and forth between the two, that’s why. He told me to call him Denis because he now considered us peers and equals—which I still have trouble believing, that I could be Denis Lape’s peer and equal, but he was never anything but honest with me, so I’ll try to take his word for it.
I started at Roanoke College late, transferring in just a few weeks before I turned twenty-five. I’d wanted to go to Roanoke for a long time, and in the meantime I’d been through quite a lot, so I was determined that nothing and no one was going to stand in my way. I decided to become an English major mainly because I’d been a writer since I was twelve, but knew I could be a much better one, and so I was hoping the major would improve my skills. Upon starting school I was given Dr. Denis Lape as my adviser, and my first class was one of his.
Other students met the news of this with what seemed like awe and trepidation, if not a little fear. “Dr. Lape!” It wasn’t exactly said like a whisper, but it might have been. There were stories about Dr. Lape. Stories and…legends. But I was determined. As much as I’d been through to get to Roanoke, I wasn’t going to be intimidated by a professor.
Then I got back my first paper from Dr. Lape – with a D. I think the class was American history, the paper about Thomas Jefferson or something like that, and I was convinced that it was a good paper. I knew it was! It was, I thought, well-written…concise…and all of my arguments were backed up by well-cited expert opinions. So I marched to his office barely containing my righteous fury, and demanded—well, politely, because this was Dr. Lape, and despite my resolve he was a little intimidating—why he gave me a D. I gave him my reasons, but when I got to the part about the well-cited expert opinions he stopped me short.
“I don’t care what they have to say!” he declared. “They’re not my students! You are my student. I want to know what you think about this. And I want to know why you think it.”
Whoa. He didn’t slam his fist down on his desk, but he might as well have for all the impact this on me. I think I stared at him for a moment, completely dumbfounded. My entire academic career up until that point had discouraged any notion that what I thought was relevant. If it wasn’t backed up by expert opinions, it didn’t matter.
But more than that, even after writing for a dozen years, I had never really developed a voice or a style of my own in my personal writing. I had a lot of literary heroes, people who had led me to writing, and my efforts were aimed at imitating the best of what they had to offer. Because—though I hadn’t realized it until that point—it never truly and deeply occurred to me that my own writing, as my own writing, might be important.
To use a phrase I first heard at Roanoke College from Dr. Deborah Selby, this shifted my paradigm.
And this wasn’t a one-shot occurrence from him, either. This was Denis Lape. He quickly became not just my adviser but also my mentor, but that encouragement was always there: to be a better student, a better writer, a better person. And I did need a lot of reinforcement, especially those first few months. He saw the potential people had and was willing to make a mighty effort to bring that out. Nor did it stop after I graduated, either, but continued in the years afterward when Denis and Jaine invited me into their home.
(It should surprise nobody in this chapel, by the way, that Denis never had a problem with the fact that most of my writing has been science fiction and fantasy.)
I’ve done pretty well at writing since then, and I’m indebted to Denis a great deal for that. He’s always been in the back of my mind as I’ve continued writing. When I finished what became my first published solo-authored novel, he was the first person—after my wife Laurie—to see it. When I published a science fiction sequel to Moby Dick—a book I own primarily thanks to him—again, after Laurie, he was the first person who saw a copy. When I made my first trip to the Globe Theater in London last summer, he and Jaine were the first people I sent a Globe postcard to.
As for the future . . .
I’m reminded of an interview that NPR did a few years ago with the former Poet Laureate, Donald Hall. Hall was in his early eighties, a widower, and confined to a wheelchair, but insisted that he wasn’t miserable at all. He could still wheel his wheelchair up to his table, he said, and write, and as long as he could do that, he would be happy.
That’s what I’m hoping for. If I’m lucky enough to still be writing in my eighties or beyond, if I can still wheel my wheelchair to the table and write, I’ll be happy.
And I’ll still be thanking Dr. Lape then, too.
Thank you, Denis. And thank you, Jaine, for asking me to speak today.