Beth Garrett, President of Cornell University, died last week.
Being President of Cornell, a great university with a passionate sense of curiosity as boundless as hers, was the latest in the string of amazing things that she did in her professional life.
I met Beth when I started my clerkship for Justice Thurgood Marshall. She was ending hers, and for a couple of weeks of overlap she helped me to try to make sense of what the job would entail.
For sure she imparted some useful "how to's."
But the most important thing she conveyed was her attitude: her happy determination to figure out whatever novel, complex thing had to be understood to do the job right; her unself-conscious confidence that she could; and her excitement over the opportunity to do so.
The lesson continued when we were "baby professors" starting out at the University of Chicago Law School. Those same virtues -- the resolve to figure out whatever it was she didn't already know but needed to in order to make sense of something that perplexed her; the same confidence that she could learn whatever she had to to do that; and the same pleasure at the prospect of undertaking such a task -- characterized her style as a scholar.
These same atttributes contributed, of course, to her success in mastering the new challenges she took on thereafter in her career as a university administrator, first as Provost at the University of Southern California and then as President of Cornell.
But those opportunities also came her way because of all the other excellent qualities of character she possessed. Among these was her incisive apprehension of how scholarly communities could become the very best versions of themselves, and her capacity to inspire their members to reciprocate the efforts she tirelessly (but always happily, cheerfully!) made to helping them realize that aspiration.
Every person who was fortunate enough to have had some connection to Beth must now endure a disorienting sense of sadness and shock, bewilderment and resentment, at her premature death.
But after the grief retires to its proper place in the registry of their emotional-life experiences, every one of those persons will enjoy for the rest of their lives the benefit of being able to summon the inspiring and joyful example of Beth Garrett and using their memories of her to help guide and motivate them to be the best versions of themselves.