Spencer Case

Spencer Case

The first thing you’d notice about Bill McCurdy was his cowboy hat (at least, that’s how I’d describe it). Get closer and you’d notice the white mustache, the friendly smile and the glasses. Under his arm would be two or three books, at least: the latest scholarship on Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced “purse”), the American philosopher he adored, along with volumes in arcane subdisciplines of mathematics: topology, group theory, category theory, lattice theory. He’d dilate upon those subjects with enthusiasm if anyone inquired about them; I think not many did. But it was the hat that you’d notice first, as he ambled between the Eli M. Oboler Library and the liberal arts building or to College Market to get a cup of coffee.

Looking at things through the lens of Peircean semiotics (the study of signs and signification), the hat is a sign of Bill, specifically, an index, a sign that signifies in virtue of its contingent connection to some object. A sign can also signify by resembling its object — this would be an icon — or through some established norm of reference; these latter signs are symbols. A picture of Bill’s hat would be an icon of an index, and it, too, would be a sign of Bill McCurdy according to the principle of nota notae: “The sign of a sign of a thing is a sign of that very thing.” In other words, “is a sign of” is a transitive relation. Bill taught me that this principle unlocks the universe of meaning and makes higher thought possible. It’s what allows humans to transcend mere sensory input and to acquire mathematical, scientific, philosophical and — Bill thought — spiritual knowledge.

Bill’s friendship unlocked a world of significance for me, as it must have for others who knew him. My only hesitation about calling him my friend is that, as Aristotle said, friendship is a relationship between equals, and I could never stop seeing him as my mentor and superior. That’s true even though I only had one class with him — an independent study on Peirce — and I eventually acquired a Ph.D. Bill never completed his philosophy doctorate. So what? Degrees aren’t wisdom. (Not to put too fine a point on it: experience in academia makes this clear enough.) Bill admonished me, “Never call yourself a philosopher — let others do that.” When I first overheard him describing me as a philosopher, that gave me as much pride as when the members of my dissertation committee present for my defense each shook my hand and called me “Dr. Case” for the first time (and I think the last, actually). Well, Bill was a philosopher. He never would have said that himself. But I can say it. That’s the rule.

The first thing I remember hearing Bill say was, “Oh, some jazz is marvelously complex.” He said this to another student as I passed them going down the stairs of the physical sciences building between classes. I think that this was during my first semester at college, fall 2003. I guess I remember that passing remark because I was already interested in jazz at the time, and we would later bond over this common interest. In June of 2019, he visited me in Colorado. We’d been planning this trip for years. Over the course of a week, we visited jazz clubs in Denver and attended the World War II Ball in Boulder, which featured a flyover of planes from the era, swing dance performances and a live concert by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. We also took in the spectacular vistas of Rocky Mountain National Park and had philosophical conversations. I’m glad we finally got to do that trip. As it sadly turned out, there would be no later opportunity.

We bonded over politics first, however, followed of course by philosophy. His colleague in the philosophy program Melissa Norton introduced us in the philosophy alcove in the spring 2004 semester, when I was enrolled in her ethics class. She said something to the effect that here is someone who shares some of your views. Bill was another conservative rebel in academia, and I felt inspired by his willingness to defend unpopular views. It gave me the courage to stick to my guns when I did my graduate work at the University of Colorado Boulder and felt like a bit of an outsider. We didn’t agree on everything — he had a more positive view of the populist turn of the Republican Party than I do — but he had the increasingly rare virtue of being able to disagree agreeably.

His commentary was unsparing. I remember a conversation we had either before or after a major election — I think 2004, but it might have been 2006. I asked Bill why he was supporting the Republicans given that they’d made such a mess of things in Iraq. Bill said something to the effect that the Democrats have a way of stirring every turd the Republicans produce to make it stink even more. I think we’re likely to witness more turd-stirring from both parties, and I’m going to wish I had Bill around to commiserate with. I have the small consolation of being able to imagine how some of these conversations would go. I’d say, “Bill, you won’t believe what mischief the Republicans and Democrats are up to now.” And he’d say, “Of course I believe it. I told you they were going to get up to that mischief in 2007 and you didn’t believe me.” And then I’d remember that he was right.

Once Bill got settled at College Market — after greeting the barista and anyone else he knew there — he’d take off his hat, sip his coffee and unassumingly probe the semiotic foundations of the universe. He often did this writing on yellow or green colored paper with red ink pens, which he said was easier on his eyes. Soon these pieces of paper were covered with intricate diagrams of interlocking Y-shaped symbols that represented triadic, i.e., three-place, relationships, with some formal logic or algebra on the side. One of Peirce’s insights, which Bill stressed, is that there are three-place relationships that can’t be reduced to any combination of two-place or one-place relationships. Take, to use one of Bill’s favorite examples, the relation of giving. This is a three-place relationship between the giver, the receiver, and the gift; remove any one of these elements and no giving occurs.

Among the things that Bill gave the world was laughter. He was fond of corny “dad” jokes, and he had other lighthearted quirks. When Bill needed to take a bathroom break, he’d often say, “I’m off to forge a link in the great water cycle” or “I’m going to see a man about a horse.” He had folksy ways of saying goodbye: “It’s time for me to slap leather” and “Happy trails.” But it wasn’t time for Bill to slap leather when he died on Oct. 4, 2021 — his 74th birthday — after contracting COVID-19 and pneumonia. There was daylight left, and work to be done. There was a book to be written, jokes to be delivered, trips to be taken and politicians to be deservedly lambasted. Above all, I wanted him to meet my wife, May, in person. You’re gone too soon, Bill.

Jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus wrote a song called “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat” as a tribute to saxophonist Lester Young, who was known for wearing the wide-brimmed hats. When I heard the news about Bill, I thought: “Goodbye, cowboy hat.” I’ll never again spot that hat as Bill approaches College Market or Portneuf Valley Brewing for a coffee or beer date. I’ll never run into him at the checkout line at Albertsons. Those thoughts make the finality of death hit home brutally for me. As an Orthodox Christian, though, Bill would say that death isn’t final. I’d like to think that Bill is awaiting the resurrection with Charlie Peirce. As I imagine it, the two are drinking three rounds together and talking about how the riddles of existence appear from their new vantage point. I’d sure like to see the diagrams he’s drawing now.

There’s so much more that could be said about Bill, but none of it would be adequate. All my words, all of the signs in this mysterious universe, all of the icons, indexes and symbols that Peirce ever dreamt up couldn’t convey how much your friendship has meant to me, Bill, or how profoundly you will be missed. What more can I say? Only this: Thank you from the bottom of my heart. And happy trails, my friend.

Spencer Case is a freelance writer and an international research fellow at the Wuhan University school of philosophy in China. He is a Pocatello native and a graduate of Idaho State University.