Well-known local figure William “Bill” McCurdy passed last week. Bill went out on the same day he came in 74 years later. That’s Bill all the way. He had an appreciation for symmetry in nature. If he could have called his shot, I think he might have called it just that way. In a way, he kind of did call his own shot. More on that later.
I didn’t really get to know Bill until after I retired from ISU. Bill, like me, was a regular at College Market. I don’t remember the exact circumstances of our first conversation, but I’m sure that it had something to do with a column. That’s because Bill impressed me from the get go as one of the least patronizing people in the world.
I’m pretty sure that he called me to task, albeit politely and in conversational fashion, about something I wrote. I liked him immediately.
As has been noted by others this week, Bill was a renaissance kind of guy. The breadth of his knowledge was impressive, and the depth in a few areas even more so. He could converse intelligently in a variety of topics. Ten minutes had a way of turning into an hour and a half with Bill. He was an interesting person who was great to converse with.
One of the things I liked best about Bill was his high regard for students. Early on he asked me if there was anything I missed about higher ed. I told him that there was exactly one thing: the students. I remember how his eyes lit up. He went on at length about the accomplishments of current and former students. After that I don’t recall a single conversation among dozens over the past few years that did not involve students. He was extremely proud of them.
Along those lines, Bill really helped me with something. Although he shared my disdain for the general direction that higher education took over the course of our careers, he was more optimistic than me about what good anyone who spent a generation in such a system might have accomplished.
He was right about that, too. As easy as it is to become despondent over your participation in a system that evolved into a scheme for transferring wealth from young people to college administrators, with government backing, on your watch, Bill was quick to point out that many students went on to fabulous careers and happy lives. There were some happy endings.
Another thing that I liked about Bill was that although he was very interested in physics and astronomy, and liked to discuss both, he never tried to impress me with his knowledge of either subject — though he was actually knowledgeable about both. If we were discussing quantum mechanics (a favorite conversation) or stellar nucleosynthesis, or anything else along those lines, he asked a lot of really good questions. That’s not generally the way those conversations go. But with Bill, it was always a pleasure.
I know bupkis about philosophy or Asian studies — two of Bill’s areas of genuine expertise. What I do know I mostly learned from him in just the past few years. He must have been a fantastic lecturer, because if you can get me to willingly sit still for an hour early in the morning when I’m jonesing to go dirt bike riding, you have some serious conversational chops. Bill did.
The thing that I liked best about Bill was that he was a fiercely independent thinker — a surprising rarity among academics. I really enjoyed his takes on current events, politics and the media. He was, for instance, one of the few ISU folks I knew who could carry out a rational conversation about Donald Trump when Trump was president. He struck me as a guy who looked at issues one by one, not as an all-or-nothing bundle.
Because Bill passed due to complications of COVID-19, a few have commented on how foolish it was of him to not have gotten vaccinated. I personally don’t know, for sure anyway, Bill’s vaccination status. But from what I know both about Bill, and the general odds of dying from COVID among the vaccinated population, my guess is that he eschewed the jab. If that’s true, it’s too bad. But it does not change my opinion of him one bit. Except, perhaps, to elevate it.
If you believe in freedom, you must acknowledge that everyone has a right to choose their own destiny — whether you agree with their choices or not. Bill and I occasionally discussed the novel “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess, which explores this very concept — i.e., if one is actually free in a society that limits the selection of choices only to those deemed “proper.”
In Bill’s view, not very.
So, Bill, I’ll miss you. I wish you’d made a different choice about the vaccination — not because I want to win that argument, but because I’ll miss our conversations. You and the three other friends I’ve lost to COVID. But you were true to your ideals, and I can’t think of a better epitaph.
Associated Press and Idaho Press Club award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist, writer, consultant and retired Idaho State University faculty member who now spends his time with family, riding mountain bikes and motorcycles and playing guitars. His video blog, “Howlin’ at the Moon in ii-V-I,” may be found at facebook.com/HowlinattheMoonin251 and on YouTube at bit.ly/2SN745k.