Just days ago, I received the latest edition of Western Kentucky University’s SPIRIT magazine. There, on one of the final pages, I received a shock: that Dr. Pat Taylor, English professor, had passed away in her 43rd year of full-time teaching on the Hill at WKU after a heart attack.
I’d only had Pat Taylor for one class at WKU, but she made an indelible mark on me as an English major. She didn’t become my mentor. We didn’t develop a close “outside the classroom” friendship that continued on past my years at WKU. But I have frequently thought back to Dr. Taylor and her classroom in the past several years.
And, almost immediately, my mind drifted to the recent news that another Kentucky icon from my past, pro wrestler Randy Savage, passed away last month after having a heart attack behind the wheel. Like many of my friends, I watched old videos and did some public mourning on Facebook and on Twitter, sharing memories with a generation who grew up with that incomparable, intense voice ending every interview with, “OOOH YEAAHH!”
I’ve long been an ardent pro wrestling fan. You might have gathered that from some of my prior writing here at Fast Company. In my early days of watching wrestling, no one caught my eye quite like Randy Savage.
Randy was quite an athlete: a former minor league baseball player who, as the son of pro wrestler Angelo Poffo, probably was destined from the start to end up in the ‘rasslin’ business. He lit my home state, Kentucky, on fire as part of his father’s Lexington-based wrestling organization, moved to the bigger Memphis territory to instantly become a top performer and, later, became one of the most well known wrestlers of the past few decades with Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation.
But why did news of my former English professor’s death immediately evoke memories of “The Macho Man”? Simply put: passion and flamboyance.
Randy Savage was a pop culture staple of a generation’s youth with his larger-than-life voice; his flamboyant, colorful outfits; and his provocative, over-the-top interviews. Beneath all that, though, Randy Poffo was a real athlete. In an 80s era of muscled-up wrestlers who could sometimes scarcely move, Randy Savage would entertain fans before and after the bell and put on an athletic exhibition like no other in the wrestling ring.
I can only guess the vast number of WKU students who were influenced by Dr. Taylor. Her fiery red hair was matched by her cutting wit, her saucy sense of humor, and an array of outfits that matched “The Macho Man” in its grandeur. My friends and I lined up outside the class door and waited for Dr. Taylor’s arrival, speculating on what colorful and outlandish ensemble she’d breeze in with for the day. Once class began, she would aim to shock us at least once every 10 minutes with her views on sex, on religion, or on any other number of what some young undergraduates might have thought would be a “taboo” topic, especially for a woman many decades their senior.
But, like Randy Savage, Pat Taylor couldn’t be seen as “all sizzle and no steak.” Her colorful antics were matched by a deep, unyielding passion for literature. Whether it was the Ancient Greeks, the Book of Job, or Candide, she brought the literature to life. And, with the combination of her unforgettable performances and her deep knowledge of literature, those pieces of work from centuries past remain as vibrant in my mind as Randy Savage’s masterpiece classic match with Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat at Wrestlemania III or the vengeance of “The Macho Man” after Jake “The Snake” Roberts had a cobra attack and bite Savage in the middle of the wrestling ring. As one former student said of Dr. Taylor, “The line between eccentricities and educational excellence is Pat.”
Whether writing or consulting, heading to new business meetings or teaching in a college classroom, I hope I learned those lessons from Dr. Taylor and “The Macho Man.” I learned to strive to create a memorable moment for my audience while maintaining an honest and real passion for the subject at hand. One without the other can lead to provocative but hollow experiences, on the one hand, or useful but forgettable experiences, on the other.
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communciations, a research affiliate with MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies program. Ford was previously the MIT Consortium’s project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.