Remarks of Sam Brylawski, UNiversity of California Santa Barbara

It's an honor to be able to add a variation on a theme by Mr. and Mrs. Levine, to celebrate Larry, and more so, to contemplate what he meant to me, and to honor some of the things he meant to all of us. The speakers preceding me and the range of their perspectives on his life begin to address the richness of Larry's life and work. But for Larry, more than anyone I know, we can only scratch the surface. We're honoring a big man. Big in physical stature; intellectual accomplishments; big in voice; in the best and sometimes the less-than-best ways, a domineering figure.

I met Larry in the late 1970s, but didn't really know him until early 1983 when he began doing research on the 1930s in the reading room at the Library of Congress where I was a reference librarian, the Recorded Sound Reference Center. I have met many good friends in that reading room, but none as great a friend as Larry. Larry was a special collections librarian's dream. He appreciated the collections as much as their curators did, and more so than most the library managers. He was interested in radio, a love of mine, and was disappointed to learn how few of the radio collections at the Library of Congress were cataloged. In response, he orchestrated a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to the Library of Congress to catalog radio programs. That money provided the foundation upon which a processing section for unpublished sound recordings was built, and I must add, was an enormous boost to my career. Had it not been for that grant, I would not have become head of the Recorded Sound Section at the Library. In fact, it led to the creation of the Recorded Sound Section. This is one influence he had of which I'm sure he was unaware--being the catalyst to a government office reorganization. His work at the Library was also the beginning of a marvelous friendship among Larry, his family, my wife Gail, and my family, and our extended sets of friends.

Through his work as a Smithsonian Fellow, Larry came to love Washington, DC. He appreciated the resources of the research institutions, and his friends and colleagues at George Mason, the University of Maryland, and other universities. Before he came to George Mason, he purchased a condominium studio apartment, a pied-à-terre near the Library of Congress, to live in while here doing research.

2    Our friendship, as was yours, no doubt, was one of humor and laughter, but also of ideas, intellectual exchanges, and challenges. We shared many good times, lots of meals, concerts, movies, and plays, and several trips together with Cornelia and Gail. His role in my life was not as an academic, but of course I learned a great deal from him. I knew him not as a professor, but I saw many, many times what a wonderful teacher he was. In some ways we are all his students. We learned from him and more significantly, I saw that he tried to learn from us. I have never known anyone as capable in connecting with people as was Larry. I saw Larry in intense conversations with recent graduates, underclassmen, even my teenage children. With his head thrust toward them, he was eager to hear what they had studied, or what interested them. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, who was the head of the Wilson Center at the Smithsonian when Larry was there, once noted to me with evident envy, this connection which Larry had to students. Billington said that he had never seen such ability to communicate with students, intense desire to do so, and devotion in return. Larry knew that there was something to learn from everyone. On dozens of occasions I saw him learning what he could from everyone he encountered.

I was recently speaking about Larry to a colleague here at George Mason. In discussing how much we missed him and remembering our interactions with him, we noted that despite his true love of people and respect for them, he wasn't always “warm and fuzzy.” Larry could be pretty intense. If he disagreed with you, or anyone, there was no reticence to call you on it. He could challenge you personally and even be insulting. I imagined this as a vestige of the ethos of a Washington Heights ruffian, or wanna be, translated to academia. A Talmudic street fighter.

However he might tear your ideas apart, you usually knew that there was love and respect in his heart. As Mary Odem just observed, his “belief in a person.” He was listening, and keeping us on our toes. Even in friendship, imposing an intellectual rigor upon us. Often, his retorts themselves were expressions of friendship. He and I played the dozens often. I once commented to him that a friend called me “no day at the beach.” A split-second passed and he snapped, “You're no hour at the beach.” I miss such moments a lot, especially when they were directed at someone else. Larry told us how he once attended a talk by Jim Billington about de-acidification of brittle books. The Library of Congress had developed a chamber to mass-de-acidify brittle books. Billington bragged with gusto how the books were placed into the room and then gassed. Larry shouted out from the audience, “Do you deliver them in boxcars?” I wonder how very many of you must have comparable memories.

 

3     In a discussion about ideas or opinions, it could be difficult to “win” an argument with Larry. Facts could be hard to discuss, too. I remember well one really stupid argument we had at a dinner party about 14 years ago. I said that gospel music great Thomas A. Dorsey, was still alive, though very old. Larry would have none of it and told me so. He insisted that Dorsey had died. This went back and forth for awhile, but it's hard to prove that someone not heard from recently is alive and the argument ended. About six months later Dorsey died. A few days after that I got a clipping of his obituary in the mail from Larry. He wrote on it, “I told you he was dead.”

Larry's intellectual engagement with people extended to all aspects of his life. It's a bit not surprising that this included his family. My times with Larry and Cornelia, their three boys, and their families are among the best memories I have of Larry. First, just to be included in family events was a pleasure and privilege. These were lively, wonderful times, full of exchanges of ideas, discussion of the days events and sad complaints about them, and lots of laughter. All families should enjoy such rich banter and intense talk which always extended far beyond weather and someone's day at school. Again, I observed Larry's interest in the ideas of everyone at the dinner table, and the opportunities to learn from them.


I feel strongly that Larry’s strength and physical endurance at the end were fed by his desire to continue his investigations as a historian, and more so, by his love for his friends and his family. It's a bit pat to say that his family meant a great deal to him. But those of you who knew Larry well, and know the boys and Cornelia, know that despite having to leave us so prematurely, Larry must have considered himself lucky in many ways. That's hard to fathom that right now, but Larry was especially lucky for having Cornelia in his life. I can't talk about Larry without expressing my love and thanks to Cornelia, for being Larry's intellectual partner and passion, for her devotion to him and the family, her patience, strength and care these past two years, and for just being. Cornelia is keeping their apartment here. I'm so glad and look forward to many visits from her and the Levines.