One of the sad effects of the Pandemic disruptions, especially as complicated by the distractions and challenges of age, is that it becomes ever harder to remain in frequent communication with old friends. Thus it was that I did not learn of the death in Knoxville of a very old and dear friend, Professor Joseph B. Trahern, until about two weeks after it had occurred. The father of one of my excellent daughters-in-law, a prominent retired physician in Murphreesboro, saw the big obituary in the Nashville Tennesseean, and drew it to my attention. I had known that Joe was seriously ill, but I had not been in touch with him by telephone for about two months.
I must have first met Joe in the Princeton Ph. D. program in the fall of 1961, but without knowing it we already had a good deal in common. He was from a prominent family in Clarksville TN, an old town about fifty miles northwest of Nashville, near the Kentucky line. While I had been at Sewanee, he had been at Vanderbilt. We both graduated in 1958. Of course we did not know each other then. I am not sure when he spent a year at Worcester College, Oxford, as a Fulbright Scholar; but it must have been during my last year at Jesus College. But we would meet only as fellow aspiring medievalists at Princeton.
Joe was married to a southern belle named Marjorie, and both were destined to become our lifelong friends. Marjorie died in 2009. Joe had a few more years in a happy second marriage to a fine woman named Peggy, whom I have known but slightly from correspondence and telephone conversations. The graduate program Joe and I shared was quite intense in our day, and friendships developed in it were deep. Joe was the unofficial photographer at our wedding in 1962, and was probaby among the last living persons to have been in attendance. Our careers continued in parallel lines. In 1963 I began teaching at the University of Wisconsin and Joe at the University of Illinois.
Joe’s most important contribution to his graduate alma mater, and to me personally during the years when I was chairman of its English Department, was his long service heading our departmental Advisory Committee. He did this with flair and, I think, real gusto. Yet because Joe spent so much of his long and productive career in the higher administrative echelons of two large state-university systems, grappling with large strategic plans and battling budgets, his earlier work as a teacher-scholar has been given too short shrift in the notices I have so far seen. I want to make a small gesture of reparation.
Joe was deeply learned in a somewhat arcane field of our literature—Old English Studies, that is, the literary cultures of Britain before the Norman Conquest. His doctoral dissertation was a learned edition of the “Phoenix,” one of the Old English poems in the Exeter Book, a precious anthology of our earliest literature preserved over the centuries in Exeter Cathedral. Like the great majority of Old English religious texts, the “Phoenix” is the product of the monastic milieu that dominated the surviving literature of pre-Conquest Britain. It is a learned English poem one of the Latin sources for which is probably the “De ave phoenice” written by Lactantius, an early Church father (third and fourth centuries), and an advisor to the first Christian Emperor of Rome, Constantine. The poem assumes, rather than explicates, the Christian interpretation that often became explicit in the later bestiary tradition. The fabulous Arabian bird, the phoenix, dies in flames only to be reborn from its own ashes. This ready-made ornithological type of the Resurrection of Christ enjoyed many centuries of popularity as an image of hope in Christian art. I find it particularly appropriate to this occasion.
Joe worked under the supervision of Prof. J. J. Campbell, an expert in Old English philology. His learned commentary on the poem’s contents, extended in subsequent scholarly articles, reveals an impressive knowledge of early works of patristic exegesis. Joe had also done extensive work with my own supervisor, the great Chaucerian D. W. Robertson, Jr. Joe’s work on the “Phoenix” is of permanent value.
That, I think, covers most of the material that will be remembered in the notices in the journals of the several professional scholarly and academic organizations in which Joe played a role, but of course it tells you little about what made him such an admirable human being and unforgettable friend. I don’t know if there is a category of virtue in the medieval hagiographies denominated “heroic decency,” but Joe Trahern had it to a remarkable degree. One’s first impression upon meeting him was not of philological erudition or administrative expertise. The first impression was of a rather large, deep-voiced but soft-spoken Good Ole Boy from the South. I cannot rule out the possibility that there is, somewhere, another person equally expert in the compositions of the Venerable Bede and those of Doc Watson; but somehow I doubt it. His first wife Marjorie, who was a serious viola player, joined with him in taking the lead in fostering the advancement of opera in Tennessee and the South generally. The musical gene shows up prominently in the next generation. You can easily find on the Internet the biography of their daughter Sarah, alias “The Business Queen of Country Music:” i.e., CEO of the Country Music Association.
Joe’s helpfulness and kindness to colleagues and students was the stuff of legend. There are some people who by nature or grace are destined to leave our needy world a better place than they found it, and Joe was of their number. The personal charity of some of the American super-rich cannot be too lavishly praised, though it is less extraordinary in my view than the modest and often self-effacing community-minded generosity of a significant cohort of our middle class, whose gifts are so much more than a tax deduction. Only by accident did I discover that Joe and Marjorie were what can only be called life-long philanthropists, with a special focus on local cultural and educational institutions.
The joys of private friendships are by nature private. In our retirement years our friendship took on a particularly mellow character. For many years the Traherns lived in a large and beautiful house right on the Tennessee River in Knoxville. I used to fly down to Knoxville to spend a day two with them before Joe and I drove, sometimes with another medievalist, a hundred and fifty miles southwest to the Sewanee Medieval Conference. Often I made the return trip as well. There is a certain kind of conversation old friends have, and a certain kind of conversation encouraged by the moving isolation of a car interior. At a moment of inevitable stock-taking in my own life, I find myself remembering my delightful friend and our talks with vivacity, great pleasure, and much laughter.
Joseph Baxter Trahern (1937-2023). Requiescat in pace