James Rachels, Ph.D.


James Rachels, Ph.D.   1941-2003



Eulogy for Jimbo

Karl Popper writes, "One hundred and fifty years ago Immanuel Kant died, having spent the eighty years of his life in the Prussian provincial town of Konigsberg.   For years his retirement had been complete, and his friends intended a quiet burial.   But this son of an artisan was buried like a king.   When the rumour of his death spread through the town the people flocked to his house demanding to see him.   On the day of his funeral the life of the town was at a standstill.   The coffin was followed by thousands, while the bells of all the churches tolled.   Nothing like this had ever before happened in Konigsberg, say the chroniclers."

[walking out into the audience]   [looking right at Jim's parents]   We are honored to have with us today Jim's parents, James and Velma.   If it weren't for you, we never would have had this awesome man.   I know how proud you must be.

[walking over to where Cully, Torin and Elizabeth sit]   Our family, especially Jim and Carol, want to thank Cully Clark, and Torin and Elizabeth Alter for all they've done.   Welcome to our family.

It's a big family.   Less than a week ago-his voice weak and raspy-Jim told me that the philosophy department was, to him, like a family.   He selected the pallbearers himself.   He will be laid to rest by his UAB family.   The last time Jim was conscious and alert, he was smiling.   This was Thursday.   Here's what he was looking at-Dave Roberts made him this.   [walking down the aisle, holding up Dave Roberts' creation]   [DISPLAY AND EXPLAIN:   On one side is a collage of pictures of people in the UAB philosophy department.   On the back are inscriptions from each member of the department.]   Jim had his glasses on, he could see.   I want you to know that Jennifer and I stood there and held this in front of him, and together we read each and every inscription.   And he smiled and smiled.

Everyone has been great.   Jennifer, Angie, Lynn, Cindy, Bill, Bill Ruddick, what would Jim have done without you.   Cindy, I want to tell you what Jimmy once wrote about you:   [Cindy, where's Cindy?   There you are.]   "For as long as I can remember, I have thought Cindy was perfect.   This belief took hold when she was very small and I have never found any reason to abandon it.   This is probably wrong, but I know of no actual evidence that it is wrong."   [p. 9]

Jim's friends wrote him hundreds of letters and emails in the last two months.   Last week Jim said to me, "What's happened has really been incredible."   I said "What?"   He said, "I expected a lot of 'Get Well Soon' cards, and what I got was all this love."

The last words Jim said to me:   thank you.   The last words he wrote to me [DISPLAY AND GIVE BACKGROUND:   Jim's last book, just completed, is Problems From Philosophy.   At the time, the TV was on, a football game was on.]:   "No. of words in Problems From Philosophy:   85,500.   No. of people at Auburn game:   85,500."

Jim's courage was inspiring.   His dignity, unparalleled.   But not surprising.   To me, the following story illustrates his dignity.

A few years ago two students of Jim's cheated.  They turned in identical essays.   Jim met with them and confronted them.   They swore they didn't cheat, they made up all sorts of excuses.   Finally Jim told them, "Okay, here's what's going to happen.   I'm not going to penalize either of you in any way for this, but I want you to know one thing:   you haven't fooled me."   They said, YES SIR and walked away.

Some people live 80, 90 years, but not much happens.   Not Jim.   Here are a few things he did (I'll bet you don't know about some of them):

he performed stand-up comedy;
he blew up a vending machine with a cherry bomb;
he drove a Chevrolet Vega [it lasted several thousand miles];
he was on American Bandstand;
while he was Chair of the US Chess Federation's Ethics Committee, he was offered a bribe by a Russian Grandmaster;
he stood on a streetcorner in Columbus, Georgia, with a stack of newspapers, calling out "Martial Law declared in Phenix City!"
he participated in a sit-in protest at a white-only lunch counter at Woolworth's in Macon, Georgia; [p. 36]
he met John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Rick Nielsen (that's the guitarist for Cheap Trick);
he was run over by a truck (the tires didn't hit him) (his mother didn't believe it when she heard; it was April 1st, April Fools' Day);
he wrote trashy detective stories (for reasons I still can't fathom, these remain unpublished);
he went to Flannery O'Connor's house;
in 1974, as his last act as a meat-eater, he ate a Krystal's hamburger.

[Most of the interesting things Jim did I never found out about.   I'm his son, you know.]

As long as Carol, David and I have known Jim, we have been loved.   We always knew he loved us, he always knew we loved him.   Here's something he mentioned a thousand times.   It made him happy just to think about it.   When we lived in New York, and Jim came home from work, David would get excited just by the sound of Jim's key rattling in the doorknob.   Our love for him began at a young age, and still grows today.

And why not.   Jim was unlike other parents that I knew.   When Dave and I were young, we played a lot of baseball with the neighborhood kids, in Miami, later in Birmingham.   One neighbor told us to stop playing in his yard, because we were tearing up the grass.   And we were.   I was 7 years old.   I wondered why my parents didn't mind us tearing up their yard.   I asked my dad about this, and he said, "Where other adults see a torn up yard, I see a pitcher's mound."   This story says a lot about James Rachels.

You already know how kind Jim was.   When you went to his house, he never picked out the movie.   He'd watch whatever you wanted to see.   He helped so many people with their day-to-day problems.   How many people did he help with their computer problems?

Jim was modest.   Maybe sometimes too modest.   He told me recently, he said, "Ted and I used to play Bridge two or three times a month.   Other people played 5 times a week, and we could never understand that.   You know why?   Cuz we were lousy players.   We didn't know how much there was to the game.   We thought we were good, but we had no idea."

But the main thing to say about Jim, is that he was happy.   He had a wonderful, happy life.   About 5 years ago he told me that his life must be better than 99% of the people in the world.   Let's think of why.

-He once told me that he had the best marriage of anyone he's ever known. Not only did Jim love Carol, he felt very lucky that he'd married such a beautiful woman.   I once asked him how beautiful he thought she was.   He said, "I used to think she was a 10, but now I'm more realistic.   Now I'd say an 8."   When asked him about himself, he gave himself a "2."   (We don't agree with that.   Especially David and I, we look just like him.)

Do you know how he met Carol?   They got fixed up by a girl who wanted to date Carol's boyfriend.   She told Jimmy, Carol thinks you're cute; she told Carol, Jimmy thinks you're cute.   They were married 41 years.   41 great years.   Carol, the care and devotion you've shown Jim over that time has been rare and fabulous.

-Carol once said of Jim, "He's the only person I've ever known who likes his job."   And he didn't just like it; he loved it.   He found great purpose in what he did.   He was a fine teacher.   He loved philosophy, he loved writing.   He was a beautiful stylist.   He once told me that his Aristotelian telos was:   editor.

And don't you think this disease stopped him.   Lying in that hospital bed, he finished his work. Nothing remains uncompleted.

-And he didn't just do these things, he was successful.   People say success doesn't matter, it's too superficial, but everyone loves it.   Hume admitted it.   So did Jim.   Most philosophers are read by dozens of people, hundreds if they're lucky.   Jim's work has been read by hundreds of thousands.   His article on Active and Passive Euthanasia has been reprinted 300 times.   Moral Problems sold 100,000 copies.   The Elements of Moral Philosophy has sold even more than that.   Today its sale are the highest they've ever been.   I'm not even mentioning all the other stuff.   Jim's editor at McGraw-Hill estimates that one-third of introductory ethics classes in the United States use Elements.

How many people became vegetarians because of Jim?   How much money has been given to famine relief?   We don't know exactly, but we know it's a lot.

-Jim got great pleasure in life, from so many things.   Boy did he enjoy his Peach Ice Cream.

-He played the guitar, poker, tennis, bowling, chess, Bridge, he liked all kinds of music, he built things [like this great poker table in Miami], he sang in quartets, he performed magic, he drew mazes, he gardened, he built websites, he painted, he read all sorts of books, he and Carol saw a million movies:   Hollywood movies, Japanese movies, independent movies, good movies, lousy movies.

All these things kept him young.   Young people have always liked him.

Not only did Jim do all these things, he was good at everything he did.   And often for the same reason: he had a rare common sense.

Why did he consistently win at poker?   Cuz when he had bad cards, he folded.
Why did he teach so well?   He understood what people know, and what they needed to be told.
Why did he write so well?   He listened to his ear.
Why did he run meetings so well?   Because he tried to end them as soon as possible.

On Thursday, the day before he died, his voice was very weak.   He looked at me and said, "If you have a problem, fix it."   I said, "What's your problem?"   He said, "My voice."   I said, "How do we fix it?"   He said, "Find me a microphone."   Isn't that brilliant?   Why didn't we think of that?   We're all healthy, intelligent adults, trying to take care of him.   But we got no sense.

Everyone liked me dad, and everyone recognized his competence.   So, everything Jim got involved in, people wanted to put him in charge.

He joins the chess club, they make him president.
He joins the US Chess Federation, they put him on the board of directors.
He gets put on the APA program committee, they make him Chair.
He joins UAB, they make him dean, they make him Vice President, til finally he quits, the first administrator resigning to become a professor, not in disgrace.

Each person here owes Jim owes him some special thanks.   For myself, I might observe:

he was my first and favorite philosophy teacher;
he taught me what I was capable of learning about the craft of writing;
he taught me the game of chess [when I was 9; when I was 10, I taught him];
he taught me how to play Bridge.

These last two years, playing Bridge around the kitchen table with Jim, Carol and Jennifer is the most fun I ever had.   Jim once gestured around his house and said, "All these expensive things, and what gives us the most pleasure?   A three dollar pack of cards."

There will be times when we feel Jim's absence:   when we read his books; when we see his office or his picture; when we go to the movies; when we hear someone call the remote control "the switcher"; when we recall that sound he made when he cleared his throat.

All this will make us sad.   But each and every time we think of him, we won't just be sad.   We'll think:   he was happy.   He had a wonderful happy life.   And that thought will make us happy.

Back when David and I were in college, Jim made a little book for us-his autobiography.   It was just for us; you can't read it.   Darwin did this for his children, Jim did the same.   I'll now read you the last two paragraphs of Jim's autobiography.

"I am 46 now-not old, but no longer young either.   Most of the things recorded here happened before David and Stuart were born, or at least longer ago than they can remember.   But I am impressed by the shortness-or, what comes to the same thing-the unity of life.   None of this seems long ago to me; it is one life, lived partly in different places, with all of its parts equally real and none of them distant.

"As I reflect on all this, one thing stands out in my mind, and that is that nothing bad has ever happened to me.   On the contrary.   I've had a great marriage-while so many of our friends were having troubles and ending up in divorce court, Carol and I have had a happy life-and I've got two extraordinary sons who have given me nothing but joy.   We've never been rich,

[in response to laughter:   Elements sold very well]

but on the other hand we've never really been hard up.   I've had good jobs and liked everybody I've ever worked for.   My writing has gone as well as I could expect (I have no illusions that it is great, but it is good enough), and I've always found publishers for my stuff, usually fairly easily.   We've lived lots of places and have good memories of all of them and have good friends everywhere.   I've painted pictures and sang in choirs and quartets; I've seen lots of movies, heard lots of music, played chess and bridge and poker with lots of friends; read some good books, seen some baseball games, and learned some Gilbert and Sullivan.   If it were all to end now, I couldn't complain one bit."

Jim wrote that sixteen years ago.