Syracuse University Magazine

My Brother’s Epic Head

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By Brian Doyle

My late brother Kevin G’72, G’76 had a whopper of a head, so big you could plant crops on it, or lease sections for grazing; it started out as a really long head when he was a teenager, seemingly several inches longer than wide, but over the years somehow it lost some long and gained some wide, so that volume of his head stayed the same, but the shape changed, probably from all the things he crammed in there. By the time he died, on the first day of summer this year, his head was still longer than wide, but not by all that much.

There were a lot of things crammed in there: philatelic matters, German colonial history in Africa, mathematics, basketball trivia, ornithological amazements, Australian detective fiction, Polish science fiction, computer theory, Benedictine literature, a vast and amused memory of adventures with his wife and children, and a great deal of detail about their former dog, which was such an excellent dog that when she died the family never got another dog, not wishing to subject a second dog to inevitable adverse comparisons to the first dog, which could, among other feats, leap 60 inches from a standing start. One of my brother’s enduring regrets, as regards this first dog, was that he and the children had not devoted as much time as they might have to teaching the dog to dunk a basketball, which would have been cool.

Though Kevin’s head was enormous, his ego was not, and one of the interesting and admirable aspects of his character was that when you asked him a question about anything whatsoever, you promptly received either an erudite answer or a terse admission of ignorance, which is not the usual dichotomy of response when you ask someone a question. Often when you ask someone a question, he or she hazards a response that quite often has nothing whatsoever to do with the matter at hand and everything to do with the respondent’s political or religious mania, or the weather, or too much whiskey in the breakfast coffee. My brother Kevin, however, had the lovely habit of bluntly admitting that he hadn’t the slightest idea as to the answers for a lot of questions, although he also had the unnerving habit of immediately finding out the answers and sending you a brief note in his tight scrawl a day or two later. It is amazing to me that a man with such a large head would have such small precise handwriting, but this was indeed the case.

Until very near the end of his life his head was covered with a mat and jumble and sprawl of hair as thick in his sixties as it had been when he was 6, which is also not always the case with men, although it is the case, apparently, with our family. Our dad has said of our clan that we die young but never lose our hair, which is an awkward calculus, I feel, and which was true and untrue in Kevin’s case. He did die young but did lose his hair, although he maintained that his loss of hair didn’t count, as it was caused by outside influences, as he said, rather than by the tide of time—which is an excellent point.

I remember his head looming over me as a child, mostly gently, although he did have a laser stare and stern mask and gruff tone that he used more as a fence than as a weapon, I suspect, although certainly many students over his career as a teacher quailed under his withering glare. And in recent years, as in the way of brothers growing older, we grew to be the same age, and grew closer as friends, and grew closer as colleagues in wonder and laughter, I began to think that what had been stern and gruff and intimidating in him was perhaps a disguise for shy. He was a tall scrawny pencil of a guy in his opening chapters, the first living child of parents who had already lost a son, and the price of his intellectual brilliance, perhaps, was tension and tumult in other arenas; as a teenager he both joined and quit a navy at war, at enormous cost to courage and conscience; and he was that sort of man who warms as he ages, and year by year lowers another wall, fills in another moat, lays aside another lance, so that by the end he was publicly as gentle and funny and generous and open as he had always been inside his castle, in the years when he was a lonely king known only to a few.

A year before he died I went for a walk with him, across the campus of Benedictine University in Chicago, the university he loved, the university he had graced as professor and counselor for 10 years. By then he tottered a little, his castle frail and the dense thicket of his hair utterly gone; but every 50 steps, I tell you, a man or a woman or a lanky child would stop him, and hold his hand, or embrace him gently, and tell him how much they loved and admired and missed him and wished him well. He grinned, and didn’t say much, but I walked behind him smiling that so many there knew him so well, knew him like I finally knew him, saw the wonder and laughter in his epic head. Walking behind him that day was like walking through the ruins of a castle that had once been frightening, but was now just rubble from which something lovely had been freed.

Brian Doyle is an award-winning author, essayist, and editor of Portland, the University of Portland’s magazine. His brother earned master’s and doctoral degrees in mathematics from the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as a master’s degree in computer and information science from the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science.