Wednesday, August 20, 2008

James D. Kriley--A Very Personal Appreciation

When Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure, 'tis like the morn in Spring.
In the lilt of Irish laughter
You can hear the angels sing.
When Irish hearts are happy,
All the world seems bright and gay.
And when Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure, they steal your heart away.

--Chauncey Olcott & George Graff

Dr. James D. Kriley
Wildhorse Island, Flathead Lake, Montana
Taken Summer 1995

The first call came yesterday at 9:45 am, the last at 10:04 p.m. In between several calls came from friends and former colleagues all wanting to make sure I had heard the news. Dr. James D. Kriley had died, doing one of the things he loved the best, in one of his favorite spots. We should all be so lucky.

My first memory of Dr. Kriley, or Jim as everyone knew him, was a conversation he had with my boss, Sr. Kathryn Martin, as the three of us walked across the University of Montana campus. Kathy was Dean of Fine Arts, Jim was Chair of the Department of Drama/Dance, and I was the new Administrative Assistant in the Dean’s Office. UM had just hired a new president, one of the seemingly endless series of presidents before George Dennison arrived, and Jim had one simple question. “Does he drink?” He then added the statement that would color my view of him for several years. “I don’t trust someone who doesn’t drink.” As my parents were strict teetotalers, Jim’s expressed opinion was enough to make him suspect in my eyes.

In 1986, Sr. Kathy accepted the position of Dean of Fine Arts at Wayne State University in Detroit. UM began the process of conducting a national search to replace her. The University’s administration appointed Jim as Interim Dean. Remembering both that earlier conversation and the numerous battles that had been fought between our office and the Drama Department, I prepared myself for the worst. Our office secretary quit because she knew she couldn’t work with “that man.”

My situation was complicated by the fact that just a few weeks earlier, my partner, Richard Donovan, became the first person in Missoula County to be diagnosed with AIDS. AIDS was an unknown quantity in western Montana—a disease that “those people” got in the big cities. Richard and I knew our home would be fire-bombed if the word got out. Our doctor, a family friend, urged us to move to Seattle where Richard could get better care. Knowing that Kathy was leaving, and fearing the reaction of the community, I had not told her of the diagnosis. Now I had a new boss, albeit an “interim” one I didn’t completely trust, and a decision to make. How honest could I be with this man?

The situation was taken out of my hands when Richard was hospitalized for the first time at the end of August. For years I had written all the grant proposals submitted out of the Dean’s Office, and a major submission deadline was September first. Jim let me know that my place was at the hospital and that I was not to worry about the grants. Throughout the course of Richard’s illness, Jim continued to remind me that my first priority was to home and family. I assume the office work got done. All my memories of that period center on Richard.

The next Spring, the University offered Jim the Dean’s position. In the same way he had convinced the search committee that he was the right person for the job, he had won my support as well. When Richard died in July, our local newspaper interviewed me for a front page spread. A few people phoned the University demanding that I be fired—“a person like that has no business working on campus.” Jim told them that they didn’t know what they were talking about.

For the next twelve years, Jim and I worked closely. Under his leadership, the School of Fine Arts moved from being the ugly step-child of the University to one of the central units of the school. Our budget, always insecure in the past, firmed and grew, and with increased financial security, the School’s faculty grew in number as well.

To be sure there were battles that Jim did not win. We don’t need to revisit them. The battles he won, in my opinion formed on the inside, saved the School of Fine Arts. Prior to Jim’s tenure as Dean, the School’s history, for at least fifteen years, had been one of attrition and loss. Both the Art and Music Departments had lost a quarter of their faculty. Art lost their colleagues in a single budget cut. Music lost theirs one by one, with the Full Time Equivalent (FTE) faculty being reduced year after year until by the late 1980s, the Department members were shell-shocked, always wondering what head would be axed next. There were even calls for eliminating the Department altogether. With Jim as Dean, the faculty losses stopped.

In an academic field where doctoral degrees are the exception, Jim held an earned doctorate, a PhD, from the University of Washington. While I am not sure of the exact nature of his doctoral work, my memory leads me to believe it had to do with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

What I do know is that his own education led Jim to propose a new undertaking for the School of Fine Arts. Traditionally the School saw its mission as training artists, arts educators, and, to a lesser extent, future audiences for those artists. Jim’s proposal, which grew into The Creative Pulse, expanded the School’s teacher education programs to bring back established K-12 teachers and further their education in the arts and education during their summer breaks. In this, Jim usurped the prerogative of Schools of Education. With the Creative Pulse, the School of Fine Arts took on the mission of re-educating the educators.

Dr. James Kriley
Flathead Lake, Montana
Taken Summer, 1995

I could write at length of the successes of this program, of the untold number of grade-school and high school students whose education has been enriched because Jim conceived the Creative Pulse. To be sure, Jim would be the first to admit that the program was a collaborative effort involving faculty from across the School. I am equally sure, however, that had it not been Jim pushing the Pulse, the program would not have happened. In the ten years I was involved in the Pulse, I came to see it as the most important work we were doing in the School.

Often have I said that the one saleable skill I got in grad school was the ability to type. Jim did not learn typing in school. As computers became more and more common on desk tops across campus, Jim kept looking for voice recognition software so that he wouldn’t have to use the keyboard. We tried a variety of unsatisfying programs to no avail. That doesn’t mean that Jim was a Luddite. Far from it. His embrace of new technology led to the development of the Media Arts program at UM. This program grew out of Jim’s conviction that we were failing our students if we trained them only for the traditional performance stage and ignored the reality of a market place increasingly dominated by the likes of George Lucas.

Jim was a story teller and he saw the potential of new media technology in sharing our stories. I remember a conversation he had while giving UM Alumnus Carroll O’Connor a tour of the Media Arts facilities. Carroll was most impressed watching our students in the editing lab. He regretted that he had not had the technology available for All in the Family. Thanks to Jim Kriley’s vision and dedication, future UM alumni won’t share that regret.

Prior to being named Dean of Fine Arts, Jim served as Chair of the Department of Drama and Dance. During his tenure in that position, he took a sabbatical leave and studied in Los Angeles. While in southern California, he also studied sailing. After returning to Missoula, he bought a small sailboat which he kept moored at Flathead Lake. Eventually his skills and desires outgrew the first boat, and he found a 27’ Erickson for sale in Portland, Oregon. Using my pickup, he brought the boat back across the mountains. (I got to tow the empty trailer back to Portland on my next run to California.) The new boat replaced the old at Flathead. For those of you who don’t know Montana topography, Flathead Lake is the largest alpine lake in the US and the largest freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes. It stretches approximately thirty miles north to south and fifteen miles east to west. If you have a sailboat in Flathead Lake, you don’t really need to sail anywhere else.

Jim loved sailing and he loved the Lake. He always had a cabin on the west shore of the Lake, and we had many faculty and administrative retreats at Jim’s cabin. The highlight of any lakeside retreat was a day spent sailing. Usually we’d sail from Big Arm where the boat was moored to Wild Horse Island and back. We’d snack on board, then have a big dinner on shore. Jim was a fine cook as well, and the only person who could fix salmon in a way that I would enjoy eating the fish. We always ate well on our retreats.

Drs. Randy Bolton and James Kriley
Flathead Lake, Montana
Taken Summer, 1995

If Randy Bolton accompanied us, as he usually did, Randy would make gin and tonics in the boat’s cabin as we tacked across the lake. It was on Jim’s boat that I learned to drink g&ts.

Dr. James Kriley was the best boss I have ever had. He was my friend, my colleague, my mentor, my confessor. I’d like to think I served some of those roles for him as well. After my father and John Wesley, he was the most influential male in my life. I will miss him terribly. In Maslow’s hierarchy, the top level is “Self Actualization.” This is represented by morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts. This is the level where Jim Kriley lived. This afternoon, in my own private Irish wake, I intend to lift a large gin and tonic in remembrance. Henceforth every g&t will be a toast to Jim.

My heart goes out to his wife Mary Kay, his daughters Megan, Casey and Colleen, and to all of our mutual friends and colleagues who I know are as bereft at this point as am I.

According to the news report, Jim’s unoccupied boat drifted ashore at 4 pm, Monday, August 18th, 2008. An aerial search of Big Arm Bay enabled searchers to locate his body. As Jim was an excellent swimmer, I have to assume that he had a heart attack and died instantly. He was in a place he loved, doing something he loved. We should all be so lucky.

For the local reaction to this loss, read today’s Missoulian .

There's a tear in your eye,
And I'm wondering why,
For it never should be there at all.
With such pow'r in your smile,
Sure a stone you'd beguile,
So there's never a teardrop should fall.
When your sweet lilting laughter's
Like some fairy song,
And your eyes twinkle bright as can be;
You should laugh all the while
And all other times smile,
And now, smile a smile for me.

When Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure, 'tis like the morn in Spring.
In the lilt of Irish laughter
You can hear the angels sing.
When Irish hearts are happy,
All the world seems bright and gay.
And when Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure, they steal your heart away.

For your smile is a part
Of the love in your heart,
And it makes even sunshine more bright.
Like the linnet's sweet song,
Crooning all the day long,
Comes your laughter and light.
For the springtime of life
Is the sweetest of all
There is ne'er a real care or regret;
And while springtime is ours
Throughout all of youth's hours,
Let us smile each chance we get.

When Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure, 'tis like the morn in Spring.
In the lilt of Irish laughter
You can hear the angels sing.
When Irish hearts are happy,
All the world seems bright and gay.
And when Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure, they steal your heart away.


Gaare said...

Thank you for your great insight into Kriley. I was a Pulse student the past two years, and you hit the nail on the head with all of what you said. Kriley was one of the few people in my adult life who I truly consider a mentor. I'm sorry for your loss, and I too will be toasting Gin and Tonics to Kriley very soon.

npagniano said...


Dr. Kriley was a huge mentor for me, and my years working with the both of you were some of the best for me. Thank you for a moving tribute.

redwinecarl said...

Dear Bryan:
My condolences on your tragic loss, and thank you for sharing this wonderful man's life us.

Jen said...

What a beautiful tribute. Thank you for your helpful and encouraging comments on my blog.

Mrs. Mort said...

Thank you for sharing your personal appreciation of Kriley. Over the past week, I have thought on the way that Kriley knew each of us for us. That each of us was special. That each of us was important. That we each had a unique and special relationship with a genuine giant of a man.
So, a toast, a G & T, maybe sneak a smoke later...

Jim said...

Thanks for your thoughtful and sincere reflections. Somehow it is right that Kriley is the means by which we reconnect after all these years.